How now brown cow!

16th August 2022

I’ve never had a panic attack, but something happened this week that gave me a little window into how it must feel.

On my usual dog walk yesterday, we (just the dog and me!) were met by 6 black calves (with horns) who appeared quite suddenly on the path we were walking. As a rule cows don’t scare me and seen from over a wall this little gang look pretty cute with their long lashes and swishy tails. But close up, even the little ones felt HUUUUGE! I stopped as soon as they appeared hoping they would carry on down the field but they stayed on our path and I think because I had the dog with me, they began walking towards us….at a speed that felt like it was increasing. 

In that split second, my brain was helpfully reminding me of those horror stories about people who’ve been trampled by cattle. And even though a tiny part of me was trying to tell myself “they’re just curious!”, I felt the panic set in. It was a gut wrenching, heart stopping moment of pure unadulterated fear. The urge was to run, but I knew that was NOT going to help or be an option. 

It’s was a few minutes of abject fear and panic, that stayed with me for a while.  Here’s what I noticed;

  • When panic sets in, it’s pure fear and it physically feels dreadful. It’s a gut wrenching, hot, prickly feeling of your heart pounding out of your chest and everything else around you fading into the background.
  • In that moment, objectivity eludes us – all we can think about is the danger that is right in front of us. Nothing else matters and we don’t see anything else.
  • Somehow, from somewhere I remembered how focusing on the breath can help (even momentarily). Focusing on my breath did give me a sliver of clarity to think about my options and what I COULD do. 
  • Whilst thinking about my options, it was actually calming to just know I had an options. For a split second it made me feel better to know that I could just go back (very slowly) or could wait and stay still. I wasn’t trapped.
  • Whilst thinking about options I noticed a spike of ‘righteous indignation’ (aka anger) at the thought that these hairy buggers could stop me from doing my usual walk. I love those walks and they’re a key part of my WFH routine. It was almost a weighing up of why I wanted to keep going – was I REALLY going to let them stop me?! 
  • I think the ‘righteous indignation’ gave me the energy to step forward slowly (very slowly) and stand my ground……all the while I was whispering “Shush, shush” to myself, the dog or the cows who knows….but it helped me focus on my breathing.
  • When the emergency was over I felt the heaviness in my legs (presumably they were braced for a run!) and it took a while for my heart rate to come down…presumably that’s the after effects of the adrenalin right there!

With clients we’re often talking about the stress response (flight or flight) and this little drama, whilst nothing earth shattering was a helpful reminder of how disturbing fear and panic can be. In amongst my little cow drama there are a handful of pointers for helping yourself when fear and panic sets in;

  • Focusing on deep breaths and slowing your breathing down really does dial down the stress response and begins to regulate your heart rate and nervous system.
  • Thinking about what you CAN do has a number of benefits;
    • It brings our front, thinking brain back online, which helps us problem solve. Enabling us to see possibilities which will elude us when we’re stressed.
    • It switches off the back, emotional brain – which is the one that’s driving things when we’re scared or stressed
    • We feel more in charge – we’re not stuck or trapped – there ARE options here.
  • Anger, if it appears, might just be the extra oomph we need to take the first step. Anger often gets a bad wrap, but when we’re scared it’s an emotion that has an energy and heat behind it, which can help us take that first difficult step forward.
  • Recovery time is important – adrenalin can hang around in your system for about an hour after an emergency and a good way to burn it off is through exercise! I often harp on about self-care and the importance of looking after ourselves and after something stressful it’s essential to give yourself time to recuperate.

On this morning’s dog walk the calves were safely back behind a wall (see my header picture!) so we were decidedly more brave as we walked past….but I didn’t want to get too cocky just in case we bump into them again! Wish me luck!!