Fight or Flight: Dealing With Stress

There’s a furry little bundle of fury occupying my attic right now. And no, that’s not a euphemism for anything.

Team McKnapp recently welcomed a rescue kitty into our home. Capone is a 12-month old Siamese whose “fight or flight” instincts are firmly stuck on “fight”. He was taken into a rescue foster home at 8 months, and just transferred to our loving home early this week.

At some point, he’ll calm down and chill out, but for the moment, he’s all hiss and spit and sharp fangs. Picture an irritated wolverine hopped up on caffeine and trapped in your living room – though Capone is decidedly a bit cuter than a wolverine – and you’ve got an accurate snapshot of this handsome devil.

I feel for Capone, whose cat brain and instincts are limited in regards to both his comprehension of and response to stress. But it’s also making me think about human responses to stress.

Go to a school exam hall, the transition zone at any race, or the locker room in any arena/sports complex, and you’ll see clear differences between competitors under stress. There are the chatty ones, who deal with nervousness by talking louder, or more frequently; and there are the quiet ones, who turn inward and become reflective and introspective under the pre-game or pre-race stress. [And of course, there are the cool cats who don’t get nervous. Those are the rare few, but I know they’re there.]

I know this isn’t what “fight or flight” actually refers to, but I think it translates fairly well.

Clearly Capone the cat would be a stress talker, with his “fight” button stuck on as it is. Myself, I veer towards the quieter end of the spectrum under stress.

Sometimes I wish race transition zones were categorized not only by age grouping (bike racks, the competitor’s home base in a transition zone, are generally categorized by discipline and/or age group to distribute competitors evenly) but also perhaps by introvert/extrovert classification, or more importantly, by whether one has a talk/quiet response to stress.

At a recent race, I watched as the transition racks near a particularly talkative guy cleared out well before start time. This fellow was talking loudly to everyone and anyone nearby, more than just catching up with old friends, which is of course to be expected. The amount of space he was taking up with his verbal outpouring was immense. I found myself rushing to get my gear set up so I could escape the range of fire.

There’s a moment before each race – well after competitors have shown up, registered, set up in transition, and warmed up – where everyone is milling about at the start line, awaiting the final minutes of countdown and the starter’s horn. The talkers take this time to chat everyone up, while us quiet ones stand, well, quietly. Personally, I use this time to stretch out any trouble spots, run through my strategy one more time, tell myself something positive, and do one last check of my heartrate monitor & watch. To me, these are valuable moments to focus. I don’t want to chat.

When I’m nervous, I want to be quiet and be alone. I want to deal with my shaky hands and a churning gut in solitude, to bring my head into the moment, get my gear ready and put my game face on without an audience or without feeling I have to engage in banter. I’m the same way at hockey. After some initial greetings upon arrival in the locker room, I generally want to get my gear on and head out rinkside take a bit of time to stretch quietly by the boards without chatting everyone up.

Once the race is on, or the hockey game starts, I’m back to being an outgoing and friendly guy – cracking jokes with others, thanking the traffic cops as I pass them, and encouraging other competitors as they pass me or I them. On the bench at hockey, I’ll crack jokes, compliment other players, banter with opponents and make friendly chitchat – to the point that my wife once told me I looked like I was “networking” on the bench when she watched me play a game.

To me, the game or the race is the fun part, as agonizing as it can feel as a workout.

Here’s hoping young Capone can relax soon and get into the groove of the game. ‘Til then, he’s living as a badger-like feline full of nervous aggression. Poor dude just wants to be left alone. And who am I to argue? Come Sunday, at about 7:15am when Team McKnapp arrives to the Orillia race site, I’ll be feeling exactly the same way.


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