The sun has risen above the horizon with a blaze of orange; it pierces the low hanging clouds in the valley. I am high above the warm houses, where many sleep off their Saturday night, but not me. I’m on my first hour of running the Mishe Mokwa trail in the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu, California.

Descending a switchback trail at a nice pace, I pass a bush I had passed hundreds of times before, and I see a flash of brown fur. Joy bubbles inside me, as I stop and turn, thinking I will see a cute deer, but I didn’t.

The joy is quickly replaced by an overwhelming stress response, as I recognize the brown fur belongs to a very large, and very close Mountain Lion. Ears back, it creeps onto the trail within a range of 10 feet of me. Paws the size of pie plates, large head, at least 6 feet long with another 6 feet of tail behind it, a perfect predator.

They look so much bigger with no bars or glass between us.

The rush of adrenaline and cortisol is palpable; it feels like an electrical shock traveling from my brain to my organs. My breathing shallows, and increases, as my heart rate races, my blood pressure rises, my stomach turns to bubble guts as digestion shuts down, and my eyes are laser focused on this lion in front of me.

A pressing and immediate threat to life and limb is directly in front of me and is giving me a massive rush of energy, and I want to run with that energy, but I am able to recall everything I had read on signs around the trailheads. I throw my hands in the air and tried to look as big as possible. I yell at the top of my lungs “ARRRRRRRRRRRRHHHHHHHH!!!!! Get the F*CK out of HERE!!!”

The cat is less than impressed and continues to creep out onto the trail with ears back. I take a couple steps back to open some distance, and decide on an action.

I look down to find rocks about the size of baseballs at my feet. I pick one up. The lion has turned sideways to me at this point. A wide-open target was the ribs. As I consider throwing the rock, I think “this is either going to work or go terribly wrong, quickly”. I make a decision.

The rock leaves my hand heading straight toward the broadside of the cat, I know at this point there is no going back. I brace for impact.

It hits just behind the shoulders on the ribs, a startle response activates and the cat jumps, ears go from back to up, and I swear the cat gives me a look like “What the f*ck?” and then…it runs away.

I want to run as well but throw more rocks and yell more until I can’t see or hear it anymore.

Then, I run. I run faster than I may have ever run before. I take a peek at the heart rate monitor on my wrist and it says 189! I keep up the outrageous pace for about half a mile, and then slow down to milder pace, but still with an urgency to get out of the forest. I briefly consider finishing my planned training run of 20 miles, but I can’t keep my eyes off the brush around me.

The forest doesn’t feel like a safe place to me anymore. I have to get done, and revisit another day.

“If you’re stressed like a normal mammal in an acute physical crisis, the stress response is lifesaving. But if instead you chronically activate the stress response for reasons of psychological stress, your health suffers.” ― Robert M. Sapolsky

In this instance, the stress response of the autonomic nervous system, particularly the sympathetic nervous system side did its job marvelously, and helped me get through the situation, but what happens with humans when this stress response is triggered day after day after day with “high class” luxury problems like traffic, e-mails, deadlines, socialization, board meetings, public speaking, as we can’t differentiate between the lion and the 30 year mortgage payment.

“We live well enough to have the luxury to get ourselves sick with purely social, psychological stress.” 
― Robert M. Sapolsky

Namely, stress can release lots of cortisol into your system, and this can lead to shrinking of the prefrontal cortex, as it enlarges the amygdala over time. This makes the brain much more reactive to stress and compounds the problem of normal functioning. In the body, chronic stress can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. It can also affect other parts of the body such as the digestion system, excretory (elimination of waste), reproductive, and immune systems.

How can we mitigate this chronic stress?

Change our relationship to it– Perhaps think of stress as something to be harnessed as energy for the taskings ahead. Some evidence from research states this change in thinking could be helpful in dampening the stress reactions on mind and body.

Develop social support– Social support networks have been studied for their mitigation of stress and decreases in mortality rates. Creating strong relationships in life, with emotional support, informational support, and tangible social networks has proven helpful in combating chronic stress.

Practice self-care– There are numerous practices out there from walking, time in nature, saunas, cold showers, but perhaps no other self-care, wellness practice has had as much success in changing the brain for resilience and reversing the effects of trauma, and stress as meditation. It is readily accessible, easy to learn, and proven effective.

To sum it all up, there are times when the stress reaction serves us very well, but they are few and far between. The majority of our stress responses come from everyday life, and they are not all bad, but over time, high levels of chronic stress will have very detrimental effect on our overall health. We need to learn how to keep the levels down, and mitigate what does come up.

Be Well- Chris