Hundreds of dollars spent on gear. Endless hours devoted to prepping stands. Cameras checked -- and rechecked -- scouting for "the one." It's what you've been waiting for all year long -- deer season -- and hunters across the country are flocking to the woods. Unfortunately for some, the thrill of the hunt can become all too real.
Imagine this: Out steps the trophy buck you've dreamed about since last season wrapped. You ready your bow or gun, set your sights on the wild game and suddenly, you find it hard to breathe or keep your hands stable. Seems that a case of "buck fever" has set in, and unfortunately, there is no cure.
What triggers buck fever?
Buck fever is typically described as the nervousness hunters get when they first sight game. Many hunters have stories about buck fever, and usually they say their hands were shaking so hard that they missed the broadside of a buck from 100 yards away. Still, there's no reason to worry; apart from the embarrassment, buck fever doesn't really have any lasting effects.
Everyone reacts to buck fever in their own way. In some small cases they may just have shaky and sweaty hands; however, in other cases, they may have chest pain, breathing troubles or increased blood pressure.
To fully understand what buck fever is, it's best to break it down to its key elements, and the main chemical behind buck fever: adrenaline. "Adrenaline comes from the adrenal gland, above the kidney," said Jeffrey B. Michel, MD, a cardiologist and clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine. "It's a powerful stimulant that increases blood pressure, heart rate and metabolic pressure. It's like pushing a gas pedal on a car." Like any other substance coursing through the body, though, adrenaline does have side effects, including shortness of breath and tremors.
Adrenaline is a key component to your body's evolutionary "fight-or-flight" response. When you detect a threat, your body's sympathetic nervous system triggers a release of adrenaline into the blood, which can increase blood flow to the muscles and make people faster and stronger for a short period of time.
"You'll often hear stories of someone doing some incredible feat of strength in the heat of the moment," Michel said. "That is because they had a short adrenaline kick that helped them achieve the otherwise unimaginable."
Adrenaline has its advantages for being able to outrun or fight off danger, and it is also very commonly used in medicine. "We use epinephrine (adrenaline) in medicine to treat cardiac arrest or anaphylaxis," Michel said. "Over the long-term though, it has its negative effects; for example, excess adrenaline can cause high blood pressure, stroke and work the heart too hard -- making adrenaline a toxic substance. There are rare tumors that make adrenaline and can cause heart damage."
However, a small stretch of nervousness or adrenaline doesn't increase your risk of heart attack or arrhythmia. "This is what happens when you experience full activation of adrenaline," Michel added. "A slight bout of nervousness -- like hunting -- shouldn't be harmful."
Because buck fever can be triggered by adrenaline, it's very difficult to manage. Adrenaline is a natural response from your body to help you either flee from danger or fight off the threat. However, when you're hunting, you really don't want to engage in either of those possibilities. "Hunting is supposed to be a calm, thoughtful and careful process," Michel said. "Adrenaline is not good for being any of those things, and it's trying to find an outlet."
How do you fight off buck fever?
It's almost impossible not be anxious or nervous in stressful times, but there are medical ways to fight off the physical manifestations of anxiety. Interestingly, while they won't be prescribed for combatting buck fever, beta blockers are often used to treat anxiety disorders, and musicians, public speakers and actors may take beta blockers to help overcome the physical effects of stage fright or performance anxiety, such as shaking, increased heart rate or voice tremors.
"Beta blockers won't take away the nervousness, but they will limit how it can affect you physically," Michel said. "They will block your heart receptors for adrenaline. Adrenaline is like a key going into a lock, and beta blockers will block the keyhole."
Although beta blockers are one way to limit the physical manifestations of adrenaline rushes, they won't do the average hunter any good in combatting buck fever. Luckily, there are other ways to keep cool in the heat of the hunt. Taking deep breathes when you're nervous can increase the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calmness. Also, Michel recommends putting in training and practice to be sure that you are calm under pressure.
"A lot of stuff we train to do becomes automatic, like driving to work or riding a bike," Michel said. "When you hunt, there has to be training so that there is less panic. Go out on the range and be comfortable so that it isn't a frightening or stressful situation."
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