Padre’s Corner

St. Brendan’s Chapel at Stadacona.
Photo: CFB Halifax

Lessons from the wolves and the caribou

By Capt Robin Major,
CD, Clinical Chaplain, CF H Svcs C (A)

Farley Mowat in Never Cry Wolf tells the story of observing wolves hunting caribou. He noticed the caribou ignore wolves outside of a close distance and with good reason: the wolves were not that effective at catching them. Short of injury or very old age, caribou are mostly faster runners than wolves. The biological system governing this is the fight or flight response. When not under threat from the wolves, the caribou is relaxed. When a wolf comes too close, the fight or flight response turns on and the caribou’s body fires up to fight or run for its life. Once the threat passes, the caribou’s flight or flight response turns off, the caribou’s body relaxes and grazing on moss resumes.

As with caribou, humans go through the same flight or flight response when we feel threatened. We have survived by relaxing when possible while being ready to fight or take flight for our lives as required. Like the caribou, turning off the fight or flight and relaxing again has been critical to our survival. The reason is simple: the flight or flight response is high energy and high output and we need recovery from it.

We run into problems when the fight or flight gets stuck on. It is that state of always feeling stressed, never being able to relax, the mind always racing, always worrying about something, or being always afraid or angry about something. The stronger the inability to turn off the response, the deeper the destruction. The research is clear on the bad effects of extended stress on our physical health. Likewise, there is a direct link to the inability to relax and feel safe with our ability to form lasting, loving meaningful relationships. Love requires trust and vulnerability, which are impossible if you are full of fear and always defensive against everything and everyone.

If what I just described matches your personal experience, here is some good news. You are biologically built just like the caribou that naturally fell back into peaceful bliss after nearly getting eaten alive by a wolf. You were made to respond to threats and then return to a state free from continual fear and worry. The key to this recovery is first realizing the state of the problem, a fight or flight that is not turning off as it should. With this knowledge in hand, you can proceed to learn to turn it off. Reading about the issue can help. Talking to a friend, a chaplain or seeking the help of a mental health provider trained in helping with this kind of issue can be a real benefit.

I myself find help in managing this tendency through mediation and prayer. There are many kinds of meditation which are well suited for different dispositions. In my case, meditation tends to involve the practice of mindfulness of the five senses as well as self-compassion practice. In terms of prayer, for me this involves talking with a being that I call God who I believe loves me unconditionally and never condemns me but is always loving and supportive. I have never found a safer more relaxing place than this. This is what works for me but maybe something can be more helpful for you.

Whatever it may be, may you find celebration in what helps you to relax and enjoy life and if you suffer from the inability to find relaxation, peace and love, may you find help along this path.