Feeling Threatened?

Back in the day, before the advent of the Homeland Security Advisory System [as in “A day without Orange is like a day without sunshine.”], there were other semiotics for indicating that it was time to “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” There were the DefCon levels, whereby [counter-intuitively], DefConOne betokened Doomsday, whereas DefConFive was the Peaceable Kingdom. Since most non-combatants thought it was the other way round, it wasn’t all that useful as a civil defense advisory. In my Naval family of origin, we used the traditional “Go to General Quarters” to signify that we were in crisis mode.

But, whatever you call it, your limbic system usually gets there way ahead of your pre-frontal cortex; and you are already engaging in a [possibly ill-advised] Fight, Flight, or Freeze response, “before you can say knife” [as the English measure it, as compared to the American “say Jack Robinson” unit of time]. Absent an airport Tannoy announcement, what cues the threat response? For most of us warmblooded creatures [including, as usual, Lili the dog], it’s the fur on the back of our neck standing on end. This is most amusingly obvious with cats’ tails puffing out, of course. Yeah, yeah. That’s what I’m saying. In the dualistic parlance of the Mind/Body dance of anxiety, it’s usually the body that leads. [You can search-engine iconic studies from the 60s involving the IV administration of adrenaline, the physical effects of which “undergraduate volunteers” (an oxymoron) were “contextually manipulated” to interpret as either fear or excitement.]

Other physical changes include pulse and respiration rate, as well as increased muscle tension. Those of us in the business of devising ways to “smooth ruffled feathers” often resort to reverse-engineering tactics. Big Pharma, and brewers before them, recommend skeletal muscle relaxants: “How dire can things be, if I’m feeling this loosey-goosey?” Despite the risk of inconvenient side-effects [DUIs, addiction, or respiratory collapse], ya gotta admit, the euphoria that comes with chemically-induced muscle relaxation really beats being told, “Oh, relax!” by an unsympathetic companion. We Mental Health providers try to suggest alternative routes to tranquility: yoga, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation exercises, hypnotic trance induction… “Too New Age-y” complain the uptight. “I can never remember my mantra in a crisis.” So, I try to reverse-engineer the shallow breathing: “Sing!” I command. “Whistle, if you know how!” [Remember my post on Bridge on the River Kwai? The ditty the POWs whistled in the face of their implacable captors, “Colonel Bogey’s March”?] Besides sublimating fear with an inside joke against the enemy, whistling (like singing and humming) normalizes breathing. It is what Behaviorists call an Incompatible Behavior (with the panting that accompanies anxiety).

Recently I have found that singing to Lili is as effective for “standing her down from General Quarters” as the Freeze commands to “Lie down” and “Stay down” are. She just can’t resist coming over and singing along. [It may have to do with the overtones I produce.] Another explanation is that my carefree singing lowers her level of perceived threat: “How dire can things be, if my Pack Leader is so loosey-goosey?”

So, in this picture, is Lili a threat, or threatened? [Well, in the event, neither, since the shadow is cast by her trusted Pack Leader.] But if she were confronting a stranger, the correct answer would be “both.” Next time you encounter a dog who’s “going to General Quarters” [or find that the Wolf in Your Head is howling], you might try a little musical reverse-engineering, yourself.

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Filed under aggression happens, limbic system, semiotics

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