As I neared the corner of a shady forest trail, I caught sight of a large blur of reddish-brown fur: a dog, of indeterminate breed, off-leash. Running straight toward us at high speed. My own canine, a mountain dog named Barkley, whined loudly in response. He strained his 100 lbs-plus frame against the leather leash that I held in clenched hands, as I prayed this wouldn’t throw out the adjustments that my chiropractor had made just that morning. Barkley was a good boy, a well-socialized dog who was nonetheless still a puppy at heart, but it was impossible to predict what might happen. So, I filled in the blanks with my fear.
With our previous two dogs, German Shepherd mixes who were rescued from the same shelter, such encounters typically ended in disaster, which meant our circle of activity gradually became smaller and smaller over the years as they aged. We lived in the “free range” city of Portland, where confining your chickens (in coops), dogs (on leash), or children (in strollers) could easily be judged as cruel and unusual punishment, or at least, not very enlightened. But we made adjustments to the free-flowing nature of bustling urban life, and we survived, with only the occasional dog fight. However, even after my first two “special needs” doggies died, I never lost that hair-trigger response of racing heart and tightened muscles when an off-leash dog raced our way.
But Barkley is different, so this situation is different, too. At least that’s what I told myself. The old predictions might not hold true.
I made myself take a deep breath, as the other dog slowed to a walk but continued to approach us, tail erect but head down, eyes focused upon us. Barkley became still, mimicking the other dog’s posture; waiting, either to be greeted, or to run and greet (or fight, my mind whispered).
I should mention, because it’s relevant, that I’m a wee bit high strung. It’s just my genetic wiring, further solidified by a few life events along the way, so my baseline of autonomic nervous system arousal (in psychological speak) is set pretty high; somewhere between “Did you just hear that thump in the night?” and “Run! For heaven’s sake, run for your life!” Fortunately, after years of mindfulness-based practices, I’ve managed to lower – or otherwise, identify, contextualize, and more skillfully navigate – these settings. I could joke that I’m no longer a Red or Orange in fire danger ratings, but more like a moderate Light Green, where fires are far and few between, and generally don’t spread.
But. But, still – there’s this: Fear-based strategies are tremendously reinforcing. Here’s how it goes: What do you do when you are presented with a (perceived) source of danger, and you (imagine that you) have few skills at your disposal? You run. Or freeze. Or fight. Many of us have learned and implemented some variation of this since childhood. Sometimes, these reactions are perfectly valid, even resilient or effective ways of navigating difficulties, especially if we didn’t have other response options…or are still learning what else to do.
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), there is something called the “The Tug-of-War with a Monster Metaphor.” The idea is that we might find ourselves wrestling with our struggles like a tug-of-war game, pulling and pulling even as we exhaust ourselves and are dragged through the mud. Standing on that dirt trail in the woods, I realized that I was holding onto a belief (“Something bad is going to happen now”) as fiercely as I was holding on to the leash that was attached to my panting, exuberant boy.
I had a choice: I could cling tightly to the leash, as I always did, and see how it turned out. Probably my chiropractor would be seeing me again, in that case. Or I could try something radically different, even as I felt the sensations of fear in my body, even as the strange dog crept slowly toward my own.
So, I dropped the leash. I let go.