There is a common story in our culture, and from my standpoint a misconceived one, about what it is to be a prey animal. We define these animals, in their very categorization as “prey,” by the fact that they experience danger and threat from outside, that everyone wants to eat them, and as a result we tend to think of them as hypervigilant, always on alert, never able to relax or rest for fear of threat. From living with a rabbit, observing his wild cousins regularly, and many experiences slowing- and quieting-down and watching deer, I must say that what I have seen of these animals leads me to believe their nature is in fact quite the opposite – one that is by and large defined by calm, quiet awareness, and an easy ability to return swiftly to this state – something we as humans, especially stressed humans1, can stand to learn from enormously.
Rabbits and deer are browsers, foragers, and the grasses and forbes that they respectively eat are generally abundant, and interactions with predators few and far between in the grand scheme of things.2 Most of the time, these creatures are calm, and relaxed, enjoying themselves even. They are alert, yes, but it would seem to be akin to the sort of easy alertness of a zen master or martial art practitioner. Humans who have trained in this relaxed sort of awareness know that they can respond much more effectively to a situation if they are relaxed and easy rather than tense and wary, and so have trained their minds and bodies in this calm, relaxed, and aware state.3
When a deer or rabbit senses potential danger or threat, their nervous systems are able to up-regulate, or mobilize to a state of high alertness or hypervigilance. As soon as that danger passes or is understood to be benign, they are able to down-regulate immediately, finding relaxed calm once more. It still astounds me when I watch our rabbit do this, quite naturally. A loud noise, bang! And he is alert, stopped in place, ready to run if need be. Within seconds of the initial noise, and if it is not followed by anything more, he calms, relaxes, and returns to lounging, eating, or his joyful acrobatic binkies.
From my observations, it would seem that group life gives rabbits and deer another layer of buffer from prolonged up-regulation. By being able to rely on their other group members as a network of sources of sensory input, all working together, each individual can share in the load of nervous system activation, and receive respite as well. When a smell, noise or other creature is sensed, sometimes all heads raise, and one-by-one, or by twos or threes, they return to browsing. Other times, only one individal or two of seven will raise their heads. In a group, each member can be relaxed more of the time, as there are others who are calmly alert and responsive as well. These animals know that they don’t have to do it all alone, and they live in a state of calm much of the time thanks in part to being a member of a group.
Back to the weird ones, us humans. Thinking about this natural ability to come back to a calm state, I must admit that I know few people who can down-regulate as quickly or as well as my rabbit. Many people, perhaps even most people, exist in a state of near constant tension and up-regulation of one degree or another, what we colloquially call “being stressed.” This is a state that requires huge amounts of energy for the nervous system and the rest of the body and mind to maintain, at a huge cost over time on our health and well being4, and this is culturally viewed as normal.
The time and context in which we are living – with mass information, the ability to travel around the world in a number of hours, and a high reliance on tech devices that seriously challenge our ability to stay in our organic, mammalian bodies and with our present needs – is an odd time and environment, if ever there was one, and one that is makes us prone to and even rewards us for remaining in this up-regulated, stressed state. This is much stranger than any way we’ve lived over the last 200,000 years as a species.
It is very important to understand that being able to effectively down-regulate and find calm is a skill, one that is practicable and that we are able to develop.5 Learning to find calm, and knowing when that is needed takes practice and intention. It has taken me months and years of dedicated practice to learn what it feels like to be calm, to live from that as a ground. And still it takes practice, awareness, intention. And still I go through periods when I find that I am anxious, keyed-up, unable to calm easily, and I must reaffirm my need to practice these skills. It is different and strange to let go of reactivity, constant tension and anxiety. And it is a blessing, perhaps one of the deepest blessings of my life, and perhaps one of the most profound gifts we can each give ourselves and those around us.6
Engage: The next time you see a rabbit or deer, sit yourself down, get quiet and wait. And wait some more. Watch what they do. See if you can find that same state in yourself. Does slowing down to their pace alone help you to find this state within yourself? Is it not indeed close to a state that one finds through meditation or prayer? What does it mean to be not a “prey” animal, but a “pray” animal? What would it mean in your life to set down the perception of constant stress, and learn to be calm, to learn to pray they way a rabbit prays, the way a deer prays? And further, what would it mean to live grounded in a state of calm praise, praises for the world, the abundant world – the world that nourishes and connects.
I use the phrase “stressed humans” here to refer to the common notion of being chronically psychologically stressed, such as by the anticipation of and actual experiences of pressures at work, deadlines, public speaking, traffic, an insane news cycle, political and societal tensions, marital challenges, exams, financial troubles, significant life changes such as marriage, having a child, or loss of a loved one, etc.
Certainly, rabbits and deer experience brief acute physical stressors, such as being hunted or intense changes in temperature, as well as intermittent chronic physical stressors, such as periods when there is not much water, or little food and they must forage a greater area, and with these sorts of events they either make it through or they don’t (see chapter 1 of Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers for more on this). However, what’s important to remember is that these are temporary and relatively infrequent events.
The ability to return to a calm awareness can be seriously impacted by the experience of trauma of many varieties, and this holds true for both animals and humans. Individuals with PTSD are especially prone to hypervigalence, and therapies of many varieties are helpful in re-establishing the ability to down-regulate back to a calm state. (See Peter Levine’s In an Unspoken Voice for more on trauma and it’s effects on the nervous system as well as working with and healing trauma).
See Self-Reg by Stuart Shanker to better understand how and when to practice self-regulation. There are also thousands upon thousands of resources available on strategies that help us to do so (meditation, breathing practices, yoga, qi gong, singing, chanting, playing a musical instrument, creative self-expression, etc.). Remember: different strokes for different folks, and even for the same individual different practices can be what they need at different times.
For details, see Sapolsky’s book Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers, which features a chapter for each bodily system and how it is affected by chronic stress.
In the last year, I read somewhere that anxiety is the most contagious emotion/state. I can’t remember where I read this, but it is likely in one of these books, or a related article. For more on how one individual’s up-regulated or anxious state affects a group, or vice versa (co-disregulation?), and most importantly, how to facilitate better co-regulation, or returning to calm as a result of interaction with another person or a group, see Self-Reg by Stuart Shanker.