We all experience scary events, some are traumatic, terrifying, and shake us to our core. If it was a traumatic event, it literally reshapes both body and brain. A small way to address this reaction is to change your relationship or the way that you think about the traumatic event.
Trauma can be treated a number of ways. One way is by talking. Talk with a professional, reconnecting with others, and allowing ourselves to know and understand what is going on with us. Another way to treat trauma is by taking medications that shut down inappropriate alarm reactions, or y utilizing other technologies that change the way our brains organize information. A third way is by allowing our bodies to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that result from trauma.
Our bodies can physically carry the effects of trauma or fear of the event reoccurring, causing symptoms for years to come. It’s vital to seek treatment from a mental health professional who has experience working with trauma.
An incredibly helpful book to read about how trauma marks the brain, mind, and body is The Body Keeps the Score. The author, Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D., has over three decades of experience working with trauma survivors. He has done incredible work and this book is eye-opening.
“The title underscores the book’s central idea: Exposure the abuse and violence fosters the development of a hyperactive alarm system and molds a body that gets stuck in fight/flight, and freeze. Trauma interferes with the brain circuits that involve focusing, flexibility, and being able to stay in emotional control.
A constant sense of danger and helplessness promotes the continuous secretion of stress hormones, which wreaks havoc with the immune system and the functioning of the body’s organs. Only making it safe for trauma victims to inhabit their bodies, and to tolerate feeling what they feel, and knowing what they know, can lead to lasting healing. This may involve a range of therapeutic interventions (one size never fits all), including various forms of trauma processing, neurofeedback, theater, meditation, play, and yoga.
Readers will come away from this book with awe at human resilience and at the power of our relationships—whether in the intimacy of home or in our wider communities—to both hurt and heal.”The Body Keeps the Score
This article isn’t going to dive deep into the full topics of trauma or fear (read The Body Keeps the Score), I’m only going to cover this topic in general terms, focusing on one aspect, and that’s how I changed my relationship with something negative that happened to me. I’m going to share a traumatic experience that happened to me while trail running and how I’m striving towards changing my relationship with what happened, so that I can continue to do what I love without lugging around fear and physical symptoms.
My goal of sharing my story with you is that something will be relatable and something I say you can take with you. Everyone has had something scary happen to them, we need to have some understanding of our reaction, we need to know what to do with this information, how to process it, and how to grow from it.
This is not medical or mental health advice. This is my personal experience.
Cougar encounter on the trail
06/21 I was running on the North Country Trail: Here’s my story
On this day, I was doing a Fastest Known Time (FKT) attempt, as there was no women’s record for this section of the North Country Trail (NCT). To give some background, I was doing this run unsupported, meaning that I carried everything that I needed for the day on me and I couldn’t have supportive contact with anyone, including sending a text message to my husband to let him know how I was doing. Doing an unsupportive FKT is the most challenging way to approach setting a record.
Here are my overall stats (I officially hold the record, verified by Fastest Known Time):
Avg pace 18:42 min/mi
Best mi 13:13 min/mi
Elevation gain 8442 ft
Elevation loss 8337 ft
The run was going well, however, slower than anticipated due to the amount of times I had to stop to refill for water from a creek. I ended up running during the night.
While running at night, I saw different wildlife and one I didn’t wish to stumble across. There were many deer, toads, and colorful moths. My run almost ended with about 3 miles left… cougar (I was too frightened to look. It was definitely a large, angry cat).
It was probably less than 10 feet to my left, just behind my back. It gave a long low growl, followed by high pitched ARAWER!! Then, low growl.
I’ve only ever heard recordings of a big cat roar before, there was no question what it was. Have never been so terrified in my life. I thought I was going to die, I thought my life was over, I let out this big death yelp, which echoed in the trees. An uneasy, warm, numbing sensation that I’ve never felt before overtook my body, starting at my feet and worked the way up. I think my body was physically preparing to be attacked. Everything happened so fast, but in slow motion at the same time.
I blew the whistle on my vest twice, as I was in a panic and hoped it would scare off the cat. I struggle to believe that I remembered carrying the whistle, it’s good to have one, it came with my vest. It was night, but I was sort of near a road and a campground, I pictured their estimated locations in my mind. I was afraid to run, worried I’d trigger the cat to attack. I also worried my bright light might also make it attack. I hiked pretty fast, wondering what I should do.
Thoughts of how stupid this run was kicked in. Shaking, I thought of reaching for my phone to call my husband and possibly get picked up at the next road. Reasoning, I felt that I shouldn’t throw away all of the day’s effort with 3 miles left. I also thought that it might be a low chance I see another cat or bear, or that the cat follows me for 3 miles (my worst nightmares of being on the trail). I kept picturing the video that went viral of the cougar following the man in Utah. No. Thank. You.
I then stopped eating until I finished the run, my adrenaline and survival kicked in. I still drank water. The 3 miles took a very long time and I was feeling unwell-ish, sick, mostly terrified. I gripped my whistle between my fingers, ready to blow again for the remainder of the journey. I decided to turn on my heavy rock music through my phone speakers to let animals know I was coming. It was the first time I had on music all day. The music was a part of survival, I didn’t even enjoy it.
As the music was spottily playing due to connection issues, I repeated out loud to myself, “Get to Jennings, please more traffic, people.” I only received relief knowing a person was driving on the road nearby or was partying a far from the campground. Repeating this affirmation, I was practically out of breath and having to drink because my mouth was getting dry. I hope that I never go through that again. I might just stick with races (more people around) if I’m going to be running at night.
Another mile or two passed and I felt the presence of a large shadow approaching my back left side, again. I think I was imagining it because of the cougar encounter, but that didn’t stop my body from reacting in the same way as when the cat growled. The freak-out from the shadow caused me to turn off of the NCT and onto another trail at Jenning’s Environmental Center. My watch alerted me that I was 200 feet off route. I was scared to turn around and go back, but knew I had to. It was hard to be brave.
I was fearful for the rest of the route. When I finished, I was out of it. I didn’t feel as excited as I thought I would, I was relieved and happy to be alive.
While my husband was driving me home, I had to have him pull over, so I could throw up. I threw up again when I got home, it wasn’t pretty, it was blood.
Waking up post run morning, I was feeling “off” about the run. I wasn’t feeling excited about it, I felt neutral. I also think that doing this run was stupid of me, I think because it went drastically different than I imagined it would, taking me into the night, I underestimated the difficulty, and I was fearing for my life with 3 miles left. All of this comes from my commonsense. The more I reflect on the run, the more proud and accomplished I feel. I’m glad I did it and finished.
I’m grateful for the experience and accomplishments. Grateful for the “me time,” the trail, and benefits of nature and exercise. I’m grateful for what my body can do. I’m grateful for this reflection. Actually, kind of grateful that I had the rare experience with the cougar and that I was the bigger predator. Grateful to see my family again. Grateful for an answered prayer of safety.
What trail running was like afterwards
After getting my FKT record, I was hesitant about going back on a trail, including the short local trails around town. Anxious thoughts of what might happen if I went on a trail catastrophized, causing me to run sidewalks for weeks.
If you knew me, you’d know that I’m a trail runner, I identify as a trail runner, it is a part of my lifestyle. My continual reaction to the cougar encounter continued to influence where I ran and how my body reacted for weeks. I couldn’t allow this to happen. I couldn’t lose trail running, it makes me happy, keeps me sane, my friends are trail runners, and the races I do are usually on trail.
I needed to face my fears and figure out how to get myself back out there, but this was challenging.
What my body was experiencing during trail runs (and examples)
- Racing heart.
- Hands slightly trembling.
- Jumpy at falling leaves and small critters rustling about.
- Hearing faint growling, but not noticing anything actually present.
- Imagining a mountain lion or bear, some times this was caused by seeing a log or shadow off in the distance before I my mind could make out what it was.
- Feeling paranoid. Occasionally, checking behind me to make sure I wasn’t being stalked by a mountain lion, sometimes I imagined the mountain lion coming up behind me.
- A large bird was startled in brush next to me, causing me to instinctively yell at it, my face became hot and tingled, my hands tingled, and my heart raced.
- I came across a few hundred black birds flying wildly from tree to tree and dive bombing towards the ground. It seemed odd, like something was off. You know how birds will stick together to protect a nest from a predator, this was what I was thinking. Of course, I was immediately looking for a predator.
- Stopping dead in my tracks, my arms and hands were shaking as I began examining the terrain for what was causing the birds behavior. No idea, I couldn’t find anything. I thought to myself, I’m about two miles away from the Jeep, I need to either get past these birds, or turn around and go all the way back to Eckert Bridge and call a ride.
- It was also getting dark, so it could possibly take longer if I turned back. I chose to continue towards the birds and the Jeep. I sang and talked to myself out loud, knowing that animals could hear me coming and can be scared off by the human voice. The last two miles seemed very long.
- A pile of Hawk feathers, meaning one might have been attacked by a predator, causing anxious thoughts.
- Strong odor of scat, causing anxious thoughts.
- Anxious thoughts catastrophized and made the situation seem worse.
- Avoiding trail running every once and a while due to anxiety or fear.
These are things I experienced during trail runs, but I also had a few reactions when I wasn’t on the trail. I was weary of the dark, even in my house. My mind pictured a cougar. If I heard a recording of a big cat, my body felt sick and tingly. I had nightmares. If there was a dark figure, my brain told me to freeze until it figured out that it was an inanimate object.
Returning to the spot of the encounter 10/10/21
I returned to where I came across the mountain lion back in June and I ran that section twice (because out and back).
My mind was on high alert, telling me that it was too dangerous to be out there. My heart raced, I experienced tingling and warmness on and off in my legs, hands and face. Anxious and catastrophizing thoughts occurred, but were well-managed. I replaced the thoughts with realistic ones and was mindful of my actual environment. – It was a beautiful day, I was blessed to be out there, hikers were enjoying the trail (not freaking out like I was), and keeping my goals in mind.
I knew I had to be out there, in that spot, facing my fears. I was doing it for myself and doing it for Oil Creek 100, which was the next Saturday. [This was helpful for Oil Creek, I wasn’t fearful of the dark and wild animals attacking me until about midnight or so, and that was just because I was tired.]
After being with my feelings and thoughts, I then took notes on my environment. I was present with it and noticed how pleasant it was. As I looked around, I searched for a mountain lion. Yes, terrifying, but I reminded myself that it would be an extremely small chance that I’d see one. My reasoning for not seeing one even though the last time I was there there was one?
It was not around 1:00 AM; there were a few hikers out and they were not concerned; I was wearing a bear bell and making other noise, which would help scare it off; I had trekking poles in case I needed a weapon or something to wave around and make myself look big. These were my facts and I was sticking to them.
The next thing was rewriting the story or script of what’s happening. The current story was that I could never return to that spot until Glacier Ridge Ultra (the race course covered the exact spot of the cougar, twice), which was almost a year away.
I could also never fully enjoy trail running as I once did because all trails equaled danger, since that’s where the wild things are. To go deeper into the story, I was almost beginning to believe that this was my new norm, being afraid. I needed to squash these beliefs that my mind was creating and recreate good memories at the spot where I ran into the mountain lion.
As I rewrote my story, I acknowledged my feelings and thoughts; managed my symptoms by saying positive affirmations out loud; I took deep breathes; kept running and slowed to look around to notice the environment better; I reframed the faulty thinking and replaced it with positivity; practiced mindfulness and gratitude; told myself how lovely it was to be on the trail.
Lastly, I told myself that back in June, I got to experience something very rare and powerful. I came across a mountain lion and it had a good ending. I was not hurt and now have the most ridiculous trail story. Heck yeah.
Reshaping / finding healing
- Noticing my anxious thoughts and reframing them into more realistic ones.
- Steady, deep breathes
- Being in-tune with my body and try to develop understanding.
- Practicing mindfulness
- Reading trusted resources to learn more about trauma and stress-related events.
- Connecting with colleagues and getting resources from those who specialize in trauma and stress-related events.
- Hitting the trail, not avoiding them
- Sharing my story and experience with people I trust.
- Coping and distracting when appropriate (Like videoing the run made me feel safe and not alone.)
Doing all of this helped me practice coping, changing my thoughts, and recreate new, better memories. It was a lot of work, it was scary, but it was worth it. I might never fully recover, I might still experience stress symptoms when I trail run, but I know how to manage them and how to continually heal.
Healing has been a process, slower than I expected. I don’t know if I’ll ever fully recover, but that’s alright because I can continue to overcome it and anything else that comes my way. By the way, you can continue to overcome anything, too.
Thank you for reading my story.
This is what helped me, if you’ve experienced trauma and are showing symptoms of stress from a scary event, don’t try what I do because it might not be right for you, instead, seek professional help. We can all experience and heal from trauma differently, so keep this in mind. Meet with a professional who specializes in treating trauma, and they will guide you based off of their expert knowledge, your needs, and the up-to-date research on trauma.
Fantastic resources to learn more about trauma
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma By Bessel van der Kolk, MD
Somatic Psychotherapy Toolbox: 125 Worksheets and Exercises to Treat Trauma & Stress By Manuela Mischke-Reeds, MA, LMFT
Transforming the Living Legacy of Trauma: A Workbook for Survivors and Therapists By Janina Fisher, PhD
— Cool fact: a while back, I took an online course on trauma taught by Janina Fisher, PhD.