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SMITH: Fight, flight or freeze? It’s all OK

We mow a half-mile trail on our property.

The turkeys love the first few days after the trail has been mowed, and will shuffle about in their favorite spot near the tree line, pecking around for clover and grubs. They’ll pause sometimes and rubber-neck, extending their neck to curiously stare us down. Generally, they decide we are of no threat and return to foraging.

But that’s only if Barkley isn’t with us.

Our dog is never happier than when he’s pursuing a turkey. As soon as the dog gives chase, the herd yelps and clucks, then either flaps off into the tall grass or flies awkwardly to the nearest tree to roost.

As soon as we’re out of sight, they return to scavenging and the whole charade resets, repeating on loop every 10 minutes or so when we circle back around.

Last week, the flock was in their usual spot. Barkley raced toward the birds, and they predictably squawked and scattered, flaring their fantails. Except for one guy we’ve since named Geoff.

Geoff did not run for the hills, nor did he soar to safety. He just stood there and stared at us.

Barkley stopped, too, wary and confused.

Then Geoff clucked and, in slow motion, laid down on his belly in what yoga calls the child’s pose.

He tucked his head down and folded his wings in, playing possum. Geoff gave a smaller, quieter little cluck, as if to say, “Nothing to see here folks. Just go on about your way.”

So we did. Even Barkley was spooked by this weird behavior.

I have been witness to anxious turkeys a lot. Their go-to stress response is flight, either rushing off or flying off.

I’ve also seen turkeys fight when threatened.

Another turkey – we call him Dwayne – hangs out behind the yoga studio. In the mornings, the sun hits the windows in such a way that Dwayne sees his reflection. He then screeches and pecks at the window aggressively, fighting that “other” turkey. While he’s not that bright, Dwayne isn’t scared to mix things up.

But Geoff was the first bird I’ve ever seen freeze.

Nature is such a reflection of the human experience. When people are stressed, our default stress responses are also to fight or flee.

Our brains perceive a threat and sound a hormonal alarm, diverting blood from the brain to the muscles, preparing us to either go to battle or run like hell.

How do we decide to fight or flee? Most of that split-second decision-making is happening in our unconscious animal brain; it’s an automatic response and not a conscious choice.

But every now and then, that oxygen-deprived brain just can’t figure out what to do, so we freeze, a deer caught in the headlights. This is our most primal, desperate attempt to escape danger and is associated with experiencing trauma. Maybe it’ll just go away, we hope.

My go-to when stressed is definitely flight.

I will run headfirst into busyness, hike all the trails and run all the miles.

But I’ve noticed lately a tendency to freeze, to fold in on myself and take a mental child’s pose.

My brain is under the long-term stress of what I call The 2020 Trauma Triumvirate: pandemic, protest and the pain of sweeping change.

I’m trying hard to stay present, to not shut down. But more and more, I understand Geoff’s inclination to freeze. 

Doesn’t this make sense? Trauma just means that our perceived resources are insufficient for the experience at hand. The magic word is perceived; if our brain feels overwhelmed and unable to cope, playing possum actually blocks out what feels too scary to take in. 

How do we flee from an invisible virus?

How do we fight the right way for the rights of our black friends?

And the pain of change? Forget about it. Right now, change is so relentless that we can’t absorb one tragic news story before another equally horrific one replaces it in our feed. 

We can be forgiven for desperately not wanting to experience the harrowing enormity of reality right now. 

So we numb out with carbohydrates, check out with Netflix, tune out and just stare slack-jawed into the void. Nothing to see here folks. Just go on about your way. 

What I’m saying is that this reactive immobility is just our brains trying to protect us. We deserve some grace for trying our best to navigate a scary world. 

Maybe you’re angry and short-tempered these days, pecking at the windows of your life.

Maybe you’re squawking and running in circles, desperate to be anywhere but here.

And maybe you’re playing dead.

It’s OK. You’re OK.

And, in case you’re wondering, I saw Geoff today. He’s OK too.

Erin Smith is the owner of the OM place in Winchester, the author of “Sensible Wellness” and the online host of the OM channel.