danger, finely attuned brains, and some tree sap...or maybe a bug.

Starting when I was about 11 my family began going on these epic canoe trips into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Hundreds of miles of lakes, woods, and trails between the lakes line the area between northern Minnesota and Canada. We would load up the car, drive for hours to get to the edge of BWCA.

Then my parents would load our gear into a tiny motorboat, and we would all hop in, taken further to the point at which only paddled vessels were allowed. The driver would drop us off, in the midst of all of this wilderness, surrounded by trees, water, fish, bears, and bugs, and promise to pick us up in a week. No phones, no facilities, no other people. Just my family, our stuff (we were not minimalist campers), bears, and bugs.

Being a pre-teen I had some strong feelings about watching the driver speed away, leaving us out here with no way for me to contact (this was pre-cell phone era, and even satellite phones) my middle-school friends and get the latest update on who was doing what. Not to mention being stuck with "these people" for the next week, I looked down the shore where my brother and sister were playing on an old dock, shoving each other back and forth. The next several hours were spent tossing pebbles into the lake while my parents arrange and re-arranging gear and people in canoes (because canoes are not the most stable vessle); having to find my brother a change of clothes (because shoving), then having to unpack the food (because lunch); then repacking everything, someone yelling about "getting into the damn canoe" (because family vacation) and paddling off to find our first campsite. We pulled into camp later that evening, sopping wet (because canoes), exhausted and starving (because paddling).

As an adult, I can look back and really appreciate the super hard work my parents put into these trips. Camping is so much work to start with, then add in three kids ages 7-11. While I maintained a solid pre-teen sulk (primary reason there are no photos of me in BWCA) in the bushes right outside of camp, someone found the latrine (a freaking hole in the woods to poop in), someone set up the tent, someone started a fire, someone fell in the lake again, someone started crying, someone made hot dogs and rice, and someone got everyone plates full of our delicious first meal, and everyone sitting around camp beneath the tall pines at dusk, and starting to eat.


Image: I don't even know. something about bears

not getting our food



What happened next can be told from 5 different perspectives. No single perspective is completely accurate, but I like to think that mine is the closest to what actually happened.

11 year old me: As we sat quietly wolfing down hotdogs and rice, out of no where, my sister screamed. Now, this lil' lady doesn't just let out a modest "eep!" it is a bone-chilling shriek which comunicates EVERYONE'S IMMINENT DEATH if we don't run...which is exactly what we all did. She SCREAMED, simultaneously standing up and throwing her food behind her over the top of her head, then continued to jump around, while we ran for our lives.


It wasn't until my parents were able to wrangle everyone from screaming and running around, and get us all sitting back down until we could understand that a bug the size of a squirrel had chosen the precipitating moment to land on my sister's plate. Like I said, we don't do bugs. Resupplied with another dose of hotdogs and rice, we all shakily sat on a log, cautiously eating.

Knowing what I know now about brains and bodies and terror, I know exactly what occurred during those next several minutes. Our heart rates began to reduce, muscles began to relax, and the bloodflow to our brains began to cycle back into the prefrontal coretex (the area of the brain where one could theoretically evaluate a situation). For most people, the process of physiological de-escalation takes anywhere from 20-30 non-triggering minutes. Non-triggering is an important concept when it comes to de-esclation...if I sit there thinking "bugs bugs bugs", its likely that I won't return to my normal state, but rather stay hyped, primed, ready to run and scream at the slightest hint of an additional threat. Our system isn't that complicated, you see, it wants to survive, and introducing threats puts it automatically into a position to maintain survival by our automatic reactions.


What is fascinating about this state of hypervigilance, is that it lowers the threshold at which our automatic reactions are triggered.

"No need to perseverate" says his brain, as a drop of tree sap lands squarely onto my brother's head as he sits there cautiously eating hot dogs. The brain evaluates according to the most recent and relevant information which is essentially [shoves glasses up bridge of nose] "according to everything that just happened, this is an incredibly dangerous situation...RUN." His finely attuned brain smashes its panic button, and my brother jumps up (suddenly to the rest of us) and SCREAMS, throwing his food over his head behind him and runs; starting the cycle of terror all over for my sister and I, who proceed to run for our lives.


Image: my brother in a

non-escalated state

The thing is that our brains are awesome. And sometimes they have a...well...mind of their own. The fun part comes in where we get to figure out how to manage and work with the reacting brain; identifying triggers to our automatic reactions, as well as the actual reactions themselves. To this day I have a strong aversion to and dislike of bugs. I have the ability at times to manage my fear, keep myself from going into auto-"lose my shit" mode, sucessfully shoeing a bee out the window of my office. Sometimes it appears that I have less choice in the matter-I am caught off guard by a landing on my arm, and slip back into my adolescent reaction of screaming and running. I also get to choose (most of the time) what I expose myself to. You can ask anyone who knows me-I don't do bugs. Nope. Something inside of me literally crawls as I recall every instance of disgusting bug incident in the historical fact stacks of my brain.

The point being is that there are a number of ways to manage these reactive states, from maintaining them by avoidance and repetition of pattern, to actually facing the originating trauma head-on and sorting out the details of the story that plays in your head. Bottom line is that our brains are designed to protect us, and keep us safe; to which we can say, thanks brain!





Image: an actual conversation

regarding this post with my sister

that occurred yesterday

If you find that your brain's protective reactions are also limiting your life in some way (like you can never smash a bug when you need to, or get into a car, or spend time with people you love, etc), that response is something that can get better, and it may be really worth it to get some extra support in re-processing the undigested memory of the original incident. In the end, we all have to choose what we want to live with and what we want to change...for now I choose to not be the exterminator of bugs in my household, but I know that if I ever change my mind on that there are tools and techniques that can make that transition easier.


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