Picture a herd of horses grazing together in a beautiful meadow. They are eating grass, tails gently swishing as they take occasional steps to reach the next bite. Lurking on the perimeter, a mountain lion is stalking a colt that has strayed from its mother. The lion moves closer.
Suddenly, the herd is on high alert. Heads snap up, muscles tense. As the horses pick up the scent, their wide eyes scan for the intruder. For any member of this herd, the next few seconds could be a matter of life or death. Each horse is instinctively prepared to run and primed to fight. Not only is there danger from a lethal attack but any injury sustained might leave them unable to escape the next intruder. Due to the mere presence of the lion, the survival of each member of the herd is on the line.
To understand behavior, we must begin on the most basic level - survival. Millions of years of evolution have endowed every living creature with a set of automatic responses that take over in the event of an emergency. This instinct keeps us alive and helps us to recognize and respond to danger. Without it, a gazelle might not flee from a lion and a person might not fend off an attacker. Survival depends on the fact that each one of us has this internal mechanism guiding and directing every, single decision we make. To put it bluntly, no living creature would live long without it.
The survival instinct runs in the background of life all day, every day, in every single situation. It runs just below the surface constantly ready to activate. Because survival is such an important goal, the system is highly sensitive and set to register at minute levels of potential danger. The trigger is a hair trigger.
As such, the fight or flight response not only warns of real danger but also of the mere perception of danger. It's better to error on the side of being overly safe rather than sorry when it comes to life and death. Because of this fact, the survival instinct is not always reliable and sometimes we over react, misinterpret, and respond to a situation that wasn't life threatening at all.
Every horse person knows that a plastic bag caught in the wind can pose as much, if not more, threat to a rider's safety as any predator. A predator will rarely attack a horse while a human is present but a blowing piece of plastic follows no such rules. The danger is not in the bag itself but in the horse's response to the bag. Until a horse learns to distinguish between what is real danger versus perceived danger, a horse will tend to respond to a bag blowing straight for it as if the bag were among the most lethal of predators.
Strong, sudden emotions such as fear, pain, or rage can trigger the survival instinct. When this happens emotionally, the nervous system activates physically. Adrenaline shoots up, heart beat increases, breathing becomes rapid, and muscles tense. If there is real danger, we are physically ready to respond. If there is only perceived danger, we are still physically ready to respond. The nervous system can't distinguish between real danger and perceived danger. The body reacts to whatever information it is provided through our mind and our emotions.
Panic attacks, fear of crowds, anger problems, anxiety, depression, and fights all have their root in the survival instinct. These days, our world tends to be more filled with psychological and emotional danger than physical danger but our response to fear or anticipated pain triggers the same response. Once triggered, the nervous system responds to each circumstance with the same biochemistry as if we could die.
How many people have experienced a fear of being alone? How about a fear of abandonment? Have you ever come to the end of a relationship that you didn't want to end and felt like you might die? Have you ever felt completely irrational or witnessed another person having irrational behavior? Take any stressful life event that causes discomfort but is not related to physical safety and try the following experiment. Ask the follow up question - then what would happen? Let's try the example of being caught in heavy traffic on your way to work.
I can't be late for work. Then what would happen? I'll get fired. Then what would happen? I won't have money to pay my bills. Then what would happen? I'll lose my house and have no place to live. Then what would happen? I'd end up homeless on the street. Then what would happen? I'd be hungry. Then what would happen? I'd starve. Then what would happen? I'd die. While these thoughts do not normally go through our rational mind, the fight or flight mechanism is hard wired into our subconscious and is ready to activate at the mere perception of not only what is happening but what could happen.
Do you see now why people sometimes have such large reactions to inconsequential circumstances like getting caught in traffic? The first circumstance might trigger a second circumstance and like a pile of dominoes this circumstance might continue to cascade until a person comes to the subconscious conclusion that their life may be in danger.
In most cases within today's modern times, once our survival response is activated it is not socially acceptable to fight nor is it acceptable to flee. We sit in the office and control ourselves. We sit in traffic and deal with it. We might like to punch our boss in the nose, but we don't. In short, our stresses today trigger the full physical and psychological activation of our survival instinct but we rarely use the natural means of fighting or running to handle it.
Our systems are made to discharge a short, powerful burst of adrenaline in order to fortify us with the heroism, strength and courage required to do super human feats. Then we are made to rest. We are meant to fight the saber tooth tiger or to run from it and then drag our weary and exhausted bodies back to our cave to restore and renew ourselves. The natural ending of the survival response is rest and relaxation but how often in today's world do we take time for that?
Additionally, when we experience never-ending states of arousal such as stress, anxiety, resentment, worry, tension, or sadness, our immune systems mobilize to prepare for a fight or flight response. If we experience these emotions for days, weeks, or years at a time not only does the body never metabolize the constant release of stress hormones, but our immune systems turn on without turning off and run down. This explains why we can feel completely exhausted without doing anything at all. Immune suppression is also believed to be a contributing factor to the rising incidence of cancer, lupus, MS, and other disorders that are on the rise across our nation and our world.
It can be easy to get annoyed at yourself when your behavior doesn't make sense to you. It can be easy to get annoyed with others when their behavior doesn't make sense either. It may seem like there could be an anger management or anxiety problem as adrenaline is pulsing through the veins but it could be as simple as the survival instinct triggering.
How angry would you be at the young horse spooking at a plastic bag if you truly understood that the horse was sincerely afraid for its life? Would you add to his panic with harsh punishment or might you take it as a sign that this horse needs help to learn? Are you overly harsh with people when they disappoint you? Are you overly harsh with yourself?
With a clearer understanding of the survival instinct, we can have a clearer understanding of why we do what we do. This instinct triggers to protect our physical wellbeing, our emotional wellbeing and the dignity of our spirit. It doesn't matter if you are Canadian or Indian, Chinese or American, young or old, male or female, tall or short; we are all wired the same. The survival instinct is an inborn and non-detachable part of every living creature.
If we learn to recognize a human being's response to pressure in terms of the same survival response we recognize in horses and other animals, we will be less likely to misread the situation, assign culpability that was never there and we will be less inclined to respond in a way that makes matters worse. This understanding can actually point in the direction of what to do next.
Every time you feel stress this week or notice someone else experiencing stress, consider whether or not the survival instinct may be at work.