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April 2019 Issue
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The fight or flight response in tramping

When the danger is sustained, you want to be relaxed but not inattentive. Photo: Tony Gazely

How to control your nerves when your body and mind is in full flight mode

When we encounter a threat or danger, our body kicks off the fight or flight response in preparation to take action.
The reaction is automatic and instant, and results in increased blood pressure and breathing, and the release of blood sugar and fats to give the body energy. Once the threat passes, the body returns to normal.
In tramping, the fight or flight response could happen when you trip and take a big fall or cross an exposed narrow ridge. Here’s how to deal with it.

You trip and start to tumble down a hillside:

Your body will instantly react to help regain balance or try to stop a serious fall. Once you’ve stopped moving, the threat disappears and your body should return to normal after a few minutes. But sometimes you might need to give your body cues that the threat is gone. You can do this by taking a break for a few minutes – take your pack off, sit down, eat a snack, stretch or massage your muscles, and slow down your breathing.

Walking along an exposed narrow ridge:

When the danger is sustained, your body might react with the full intensity of the fight or flight response and undermine your ability to get across the ridge. You might find that your legs shake, you hyperventilate and dwell on the worst possible outcome. The challenge is staying relaxed enough to prevent the intense response, but not too relaxed that you become inattentive to the danger.

You can give your body cues to not over-react by taking micro-pauses in which you could try the following:

  • Let your muscles relax and change the position of your body – for example, straighten your legs
  • Let your breathing slow down – breath through your nose and try not to take deep inhales
  • Change your visual focus – look up rather than at your feet.