Fight or Flight: How to Reduce Anxiety with Outdoor Sports
Fight or Flight
When I was in High School, I first discovered what a panic attack was. Sitting in class an irrational fear came over me. My heart raced, my palms became sweaty, I felt dizzy, and worst of all my mind was convincing me that I was dying and I felt a deep sense of doom with no escape. After about two minutes of paralyzing panic, the feeling went away leaving me shaking and wondering what had just happened. As time passed my panic attacks, became more and more frequent to the point where I was going to the nurse everyday trying to find a way to get sent home from school.
I didn’t understand panic attacks or anxiety until my father finally explained it to me in a way I could understand. He started out by explaining “Fight or Flight.” That’s the theory that through evolution we developed a mental and body reaction, from when early humans lives were put in danger and adrenaline would kick in to help push their bodies the extra limit to either “fight” their way out of trouble or “flight” and run away.
Nowadays the average person does not regularly face life threatening situations, but our instinct to react to situations with a rush of adrenaline still remains. While getting chased by a bear was the most stressful situation our distant ancestors faced, our most stressful situation could be a college exam or a job interview.
While you can convince yourself in your own head that your life isn’t in danger and that you shouldn’t stress out so much, your genetics may still kick in forcing a panic attack. Thus lies the dilemma of being a modern human in a primeval body. We can wish that evolution would catch up and get rid of our fight or flight reaction, but we still need it and use it even if we don’t realize it. Although panic attacks for non life threatening situations are obsolete and many times cause more problems than they fix, we still need the fight or flight reaction in emergency situations, sports, and little parts of our daily lives to stay alive.
But, what do you do when panic attacks and fight or flight start interfering with your daily life? For me panic attacks, for no obvious reason, became daily and almost too much to bear. Like many people in our modern society, I tried taking the easy way out and was prescribed Ativan, a medication to help decrease panic attacks and anxiety. The pills helped somewhat, but I was soon caught in the vicious circle of having panic attacks, because I was paranoid about having panic attacks. The medicine helped decrease the frequency, but never fixed the root problem.
How Outdoor Sports Helped Bring An End to My Panic Attacks
I was always an outdoorsy type kid. I grew up playing in the woods behind my house and as a teen I got hooked on hunting, fishing, camping, hiking and whatever else I could find to occupy my time in the outdoors. When I started reading up on why I was having constant anxiety and panic attacks exercise always popped up as a possible treatment. I was active in wrestling, where the grueling training definitely helped release the tension of anxiety, but the paranoia and fear of getting in front of hundreds of people to compete brought my anxiety right back.
The fight or flight conversation I had with my father kept sticking in my head. I began to realize that if I wanted the panic attacks and anxiety to go away I needed to take this fight or flight theory head on. Where else to test your primeval body and mind than in the nature that formed these instincts to begin with. I soon became more active in doing outdoor sports alone. Whether it was hunting for deer or trail running at full speed through the forest, I was testing and using my fight or flight instincts while I was doing these activities. Also, to contrast wrestling where I was developing anxiety from the fear of competing in front of an audience, nature gave me solitude where there was no audience and I was completely reliant upon myself.
The wild was my happy place. It gave me an environment where I could heighten my senses and awareness to the point that when I returned to civilization the situations that had previously caused me to have anxiety or panic attacks, became less and less. Somehow that exam didn’t seem like such a big deal anymore when a day earlier I was climbing up the side of a cliff where one wrong move could have resulted in a broken leg or cracked skull.
In addition, I wasn’t having less panic attacks just because I was raising the bar for what could stress me out, but the wild offered me a place to also practice meditation. I know meditation is sometimes seen as a new-age yuppy type practice to the rough and tough country people where I come from, but it really does help to relieve long term anxiety.
To explain it in simple terms, anxiety is like a ball of tension that just gets tighter and tighter the more you think about it, until it explodes in a panic attack or emotional outbursts. Many times you do not feel the anxiety building up until it is too late. Meditation helps to loosen this ball of tension to avoid an explosion. The outdoors are a great way to expedite this stress release process.
Meditation doesn’t necessarily mean sitting crossed legged and saying your oms. It can come in many forms. For me it could be anything from laying under a tree after a tough trail run or casting into the lake for fish as a the sky glows red during a sunset. Its a pretty cool feeling when you can literally feel the ball of tension, that has built up for months inside you, just release in seconds. You can breathe easier, think more clearly, and sleep better.
Today, many years after high school I still get anxiety, but rarely ever have panic attacks. There were many factors that contributed to moving beyond my past, but one of the biggest was the escape the outdoors offers. In today’s modern society it seems that stress is becoming more and more of a requirement to live in our civilization. Longer work hours, lower pay, and professional careers that demand the majority of our life until we die, can literally drive any person to the brink of insanity.
I don’t want to permanently leave society at this time, because quite frankly I like people too much, but I am always going to need my escapes into the wild to find myself again. When I feel lost or just need to release tension before I explode, I drop everything and head into nature for as long as I need to. When I return it’s like my mind and body feels rebooted and I’m ready to start where I left off.
I don’t know if nature affects us in this way, because we were never supposed to leave it and live the fast paced city/suburb lifestyles we do now or it is just naturally calming, but as long as I am alive I will be forever grateful that our mother earth is always there for me to seek shelter in.
-Evan McCaffrey is the owner of South American Outdoors. His love and passion for the outdoors drives him to inspire and share with others his experiences and beliefs about our natural world.