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    Fight or Flight: Can We Breathe Yet?

    By Dr. Tim Seelig–

    This article is not about the election. We’ve all had enough of that for a while. This is more a reflection about where we are as individuals in the wake of the last four years. Countless friends have shared thoughts such as, “I feel like I can breathe again,” “I didn’t realize how bad my sleep patterns had become,” “I don’t wake up every day with a knot in my stomach and a sense of dread for what’s to come.”

    Thinking about these comments took me right back to my many decades of teaching Vocal Pedagogy, mostly to studies about stage fright! It’s a funny thing about performing, whether on stage in front of thousands, leading a Zoom meeting, singing, speaking, dancing, or waiting for a blind date. We all share anxiety in much the same way.

    Studies say one of the things people dread most is speaking in public, and that includes Zoom. There’s the whole other level of fear involved in singing in public. Well, that’s most people, not choir people. We miss the pre-performance anxiety more than you can know.

    Okay, maybe this is a teeny tiny bit about the election after all. What does this have to do with the here and now? Everything. For many of us, we have literally been in the fight-or-flight mode for four years. This is massively unhealthy. Some of the time, we knew it. Much of the time it was simply lurking just below the surface waiting to be activated by daily idiocy chronicled so dutifully by our ever-present, 24/7 news access. OK, hourly. “Breaking News!”

    Maybe the actual fight-or-flight is not top of mind for you. It is a stress reaction that evolved out of the survival needs of our early ancestors living with the daily dangers of the time. When early man was being chased by a bear (and I don’t mean at the 440 bar and grill!), he had to decide to fight the bear, run from the bear, or freeze so the bear might not notice him. What does the body do? In response to acute stress, the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated due to the sudden release of hormones.

    Most resources cite three stages: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. Some swap the third word, using fight, flight, freeze. Even the phrase “fake news” can trigger this response.

    OK, we all agree. Even without seeking a professional diagnosis, we got the disease. Let’s just be honest. 2020 sucked. A pandemic. Well-deserved societal upheaval with the murder of George Floyd. Trump. Fires and hurricanes. To list just a few.

    Hang on, 2020 is almost over. We only have six weeks left. There is little good that can be said about this year … except for the fact that we get to look forward to the arrival of a brand-new cabinet. It’s been ordered from Amazon—they have everything! Delivery is delayed a little. There’s a little work to be done on it before it’s ready to ship. We truly did not know how bad the old cabinet was. Truly. The man who put the old one together kept pointing and saying, “Hey look over there!” He took our attention away and sucked all the air out of the room while all kinds of horrible things were happening below deck as it were.

    But this is not about the election. Sorry, slipped. This is about the after part. Back to fight-or-flight. How do we manage it? We do it just as we would if being chased by the bear.

    Breathing deeply, with a slow and steady inhalation to exhalation ratio, signals our parasympathetic nervous system to calm the body down. Long, deep breaths can also manage our stress responses to help decrease anxiety, fear, racing thoughts, a rapid heartbeat, shallow chest breathing, clammy hands, dry mouth.

    There is also another telltale sign of this diagnosis: music. What music have you been listening to over the last four years? Has it changed? Have you gravitated toward fun, uplifting, inspiring, perky music on your playlist? Most have. We’ve avoided dark, depressing for the most part. For many of us, our journey with fight-or-flight was made easier by music. It got us through some dark days.

    As a leader in performing arts during the 4 years, it has been difficult finding and choosing uplifting music. My colleagues and I had many conversations about the fact that we could absolutely not sing patriotic music. One of our ensembles, Homophonics, was invited by the SF Giants to do a virtual chorus video of the National Anthem. We hesitated. We eventually agreed, but only if we were allowed to scroll the names of our trans siblings who have been murdered. They said, “Yes.” It’s a new day. You can see it on YouTube.

    I’ve listened to a lot of music over the last four years. Songs that previously brought a “that’s nice” would suddenly dissolve me to tears! My response would be, “I didn’t see that coming!” I, much like you, have also held on to some music of the past. I’d like to share the texts from two magnificent pieces of music that I have revisited. Each has helped me through some dark times: “The Awakening” and “The Narrow Bridge.” I’ll not pontificate on either one, but rather will leave it for you to define them for yourselves.

    For the first one, Joseph M. Martin created both the text and music. For the second, librettist Pamela Stewart created the text, which was set to music by San Francisco’s most lauded opera composer, Jake Heggie.

    The Awakening
    I dreamed a dream, a silent dream, of a land not far away.
    I dreamed a dream of a land where every song,
    both weak and strong, withered and died.
    No alleluia, not one hosanna, no song of love, no lullaby.
    No pipers played, no dancers twirled.
    I dreamed a dream a silent dream.
    Awake. Awake my soul and sing. 
    The silence of the night has passed, a new day has begun.
    Let music never die in me, forever let my spirit sing.
    Wherever emptiness is found let there be joy and glorious sound.
    Let all our voices join as one to praise the giver of the song.
    Awake. Awake.
    Let Music Live.

    The Narrow Bridge (excerpt)
    We’re standing on a narrow bridge,
    a span across a great divide
    It soars above a deep abyss,
    the very narrow bridge of life
    We cannot cross it on our own,
    or safely reach the other side
    unless we walk the bridge as one,
    step by step and stride for stride.

    At times we all will hesitate
    We may give out, give up, give in
    Without someone to offer hope,
    we would never rise again
    So wait for those who trail behind
    Lend a hand to all who fall
    and rescue others from the edge
    Carry those who can’t go on.

    And when we learn to walk as one,
    we find the bridge is wide enough
    There is enough for us to thrive,
    enough to reach the other side
    Enough respect and dignity,
    enough for you, enough for me
    There is enough love in supply
    for it to ever be denied.

    I hope those sparked some reflection, maybe even joy! Back to the beginning. Can we breathe? Yes, we can. Can we sleep better? Absolutely. With one eye open maybe! We’re not out of the woods as long as much of our country stands so very far out of our own reality.

    Now, go back and choose two songs—any genre—that helped you through. And, get ready for live music to return, to a venue near you, sometime in 2021!

    It feels great to breathe! Feed the bear.

    Dr. Tim Seelig is the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.

    Published on November 19, 2020