Fear: Fight, Flight, or Opossum?

Fear. It’s our internal response to a stressor – really just an excess of cortisol in our bodies. But it’s uncomfortable enough that we want to eliminate form their lives as soon as possible.

Most people rely on the oft-discussed fight or flight response to address stress and fear.  These are comforting ideas because they are nearly instinctual responses – before processing precisely what is happening in a situation on an intellectual level, our bodies are already responding to the fear.

Fight/Flight Examples:

Fight response triggered by attack from domestic house cat. Result, swat Kitty PoP away with greater strength and mass belonging to a human.

Kitty PoP loves to hunt and will even pounce... on us.

Kitty PoP loves to hunt and will even pounce… on us.

Flight response triggered by attack from a lion. Result, run like hell. Unless you’re this guy, I suppose. Then you try and fight the lions for a while before eventually running away…


But There’s a Third Option…

Which you might have guessed by reading the title of this post. Mr PoP has jokingly named it my “opossum response” (alternate spelling “possum”, I think), but all it means is that when that cortisol starts running through your veins instead of fight or flight, you fall over and play dead, passing out like an opossum.

Sound funny? It is. Kindof. Maybe. But sometimes not. Okay, mostly not when it happens, but sometimes it can be kind of hilarious afterwards.

What Is the Opossum Response?

(Always with the disclaimer that – I am not a medical professional, but this is what actually happens to me so I’ve done some reading up on it over the years.)

We’ve all got a large nerve in our bodies called the vagus nerve that runs from brain to stomach. This vagus nerve is apparently pretty important and has been described to me as working to help regulate blood flow through your body. Over activation of the vagus nerve leads to a reduction in your blood pressure and heart rate, which causes fainting.

So basically it goes something like this for me:

  • stressful event
  • foggy thoughts
  • sounds are muffled
  • field of vision darkens, but there are bright star-like spots
  • pass out
  • wake up after head has lowered enough to resume adequate blood flow to the brain
  • thank whoever had the courtesy to catch you on the way down, or rub and ice whatever body part landed hardest when you fell
  • move on with life

The fancy word for it is vasovagal syncope.


What Causes Vasovagal Syncope?

It’s really a reaction to sudden stress and can be aggravated if your body has been under long term stress as well (not eating right or resting enough adds to it for me). Some situations that have caused vasovagal syncope for me or friends that I know include:

  • Stress of wife going into premature labor (the ambulance picked up BOTH of them!)
  • Intense and sudden fear of losing job
  • Sudden pain
  • Needles, even if they’re not puncturing your own skin (the husband from above also passed out when his wife got an epidural!)


Is This Faulty Evolution?

Am I broken? Is this some sort of evolutionary misstep that will eventually fade out? Mr PoP tends to laughingly say so sometimes. He’s convinced I’d never survive in the wild. But opossums do!

And here’s the thing, opossum-like animals first appeared about 65 million years ago, as compared with the homininae family (great apes) which evolved about 8 million years ago, leading to the genus homo (of homo erectus, neanderthals, and us!) as recently as just 2.5 million years ago.

Considering how much longer opossums have been around in comparison to humans, opossum-ing can’t be all bad, right? Right??


In Fact, Opossum-ing Can Work In Our Favor

Even if you’re more prone to fight or flight than “opossum”, I think there are still lessons that we can all apply from the “opossum response” in our everyday lives, and in particular with our finances.
When you get stressed out:

  1. Let a few moments pass so you’re not in the heat of the moment
  2. Slow your heart rate
  3. Allow the situation get foggy in your head for a few moments, blurring together possible scenarios


What Does Opossum-ing Do in Our (Financial) Lives?

1 – Lets a few moments pass. In our modern lives there are very few decisions that require such quick action that we can’t take a little bit of time. I’m not saying postpone making decisions and ignoring potential problems for months (which even we’re not immune to), but letting hours or days pass before committing to an important life change probably isn’t going to have a long term impact on your future.

2 – As we’ve said before, life’s more of a marathon than a sprint – and a large part of running a successful marathon is keeping your heart rate from climbing sky high. If you don’t manage that, and you start out your marathon running sprints, then you’re probably going to crash. And your post-crash speed is going to decrease so significantly that your race time will be much slower than it would have been if you had gone a bit slower at the beginning.

3 – Emerge with a little more perspective. Life isn’t black and white. In most situations, there’s a wide range of outcomes that you have some degree of control over.  While you might not get the absolute optimal solution every time, is that really the worst thing? Once you’ve got the perspective to help you mitigate some of the risks that you might be facing, is the risk-mitigated range of results really that bad? Probably not. Life isn’t the picture of optimum perfection all the time, yet we still manage to survive and thrive and even find happiness.

So when life gets a little crazy and fear starts to set in. Remember that you don’t have to immediately start swinging or running. You have another option. You can opossum.


What’s your response to fear? Fight? Flight? Opossum?

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