4 Ways Your Body Betrays You In Crisis Situations
Deep down, you probably assume that you'd be a badass during a crisis. Or at the very least, a competent and supportive bystander who isn't frantically shoving babies out of their way in an attempt to get to the to the nearest exit. But you know what? You'd be wrong, for reasons that aren't really your fault. It all comes down to how your brain and body react to danger. You see ...
Freezing Isn't A Choice
When it comes to "F" words in a crisis, Fight and Flight are the big two, though I'm sure "Freak The Fuck Out" would earn the bronze. Fight is the one that people usually aspire to, while Flight is treated with disdain. Who imagines themselves running away from a crisis? But there's actually one that's even worse: "Freeze."
When playing out a scenario in your imagination, this doesn't even come up as one of the options. Who in their right mind would freeze in the face of a threat? Definitely not me. And probably not you, either. At worst we'll run -- but, like, strategically. You know, so that we can be heroes from a more advantageous position.
So when veteran police officer Cordell Hendrex froze in the hallway of the Mandalay Bay Hotel during the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting while "terrified with fear," it's sure tempting to make like the media and slam him as a "coward." And don't even get me started on how sexual assault victims are treated; anyone who didn't immediately transform into a scratching, biting badger in their story is assumed to be a liar, despite the fact that 70 percent of sexual assault victims are hit with a thing called "tonic immobility," with 48 percent experiencing extreme symptoms like going numb and mute.
It's not a moral failing; it's a physiological response. Like 22-year-old Sam, who went out drinking with his girlfriend and best mate in Manchester. A lost phone and a few too many drinks later, and Sam was raped by two men: "When you're being attacked, your body makes the decision between fight, flight or freeze. I froze."
Like all victims everywhere, Sam didn't want to go catatonic. It's not about courage. Whether you freeze for a few seconds or a few hours, it's not a choice. We think it is because it never happens to characters in movies, and it sure as hell never happens in our fantasies. But judging real survivors' performance against a fictional scenario is an objectively shitty thing to do.
Your Senses Start Messing With You
Remember Officer Hendrex from a few paragraphs ago? Along with freezing, he blamed part of his problems on his eyes. "I also felt myself starting to get tunnel vision," he said, "and I can remember concentrating on tactical breathing to calm myself."
Scot Peterson, who failed to run into Stoneman Douglas High School during the shooting earlier this year, blamed his ears. According to his lawyer, he "heard gunshots but believed that those gunshots were originating from outside of any of the buildings on the school campus."
Let me make one thing clear: I'm not defending, let alone exonerating, either Hendrex or Peterson. I wasn't there. And they made serious mistakes. People died because of them. But law enforcement and military are aware of how the sudden adrenaline dump from a crisis situation can turn your senses into a confusing clusterfuck. Now imagine that's you, someone who presumably has a fraction of their experience.
Your pupils may dilate, causing tunnel vision, bright patches, and dark spots. And this is wonderful when you consider that danger gets a little more complicated when you can't, ya know, see it. This ramps up your fear. And if you thought that it was hard to multitask when you have to both cook a pizza AND watch all of Season 2 of The Good Place, imagine how hard it is when you're in danger.
Then there's the study that came out in May on soldiers facing their first combat situations, which found that 24 percent of veterans reported tunnel vision, and 18 percent experienced a loss of hearing. That's about one out of every four or five heavily trained soldiers who found their most basic and primary senses going haywire right when they needed them most. Again, that never happens in movies or your ass-kicking daydreams. But there's more ...
You Basically Lose Control Of Your Fingers
You want to know what freaks me out the most? Those stories about a kid getting "sucked from their mother's arms" in a drowning. That messes with my head. Because I grew up around water, nearly drowned once as a teenager, and I can tell you that if my kid was at risk of drowning, I would beat down Poseidon before I'd ever let them go. So before we get into the terrible thing that you know is coming, here are some puppies playing.
Sadly, children getting pulled out of their caregiver's arms during a crisis that involves water is shockingly common. If you didn't catch Tia Coleman's tearful interview after losing nine family members in a boat accident earlier this year, she said her sister-in-law's final words were "Grab the baby!"
And while I'll admit I felt a visceral urge to scream at the screen (as if what a grieving woman who lost nine family members needs is the self-righteous rantings of someone watching from the safety of their sofa), I also know the same adrenaline dump that wrecks your vision and hearing can also mess up your coordination.
When you are faced with danger, blood helpfully starts fleeing your fingers and toes to go back up things like your heart and lungs. So while your big muscle groups tense for action, your extremities start to tingle or go numb and your fine motor skills go to shit. Thus your hands become weird flippers right when you need them most. Thanks, human body!
It Takes A Lot Of Training Overcome This
I've previously mentioned that I practice getting hit, choked, stabbed, and held up at gunpoint several times a week as a self-defense student and instructor. Aside from being fun (and it is), the point is less about learning fancy fighting moves and more about training your body to do what you want it to in a crisis. There is a science to being a hero.
For instance, psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who convinced a lot of students to be inhuman pricks in the 1971 Stanford prison experiment, apparently decided to go in the opposite direction and founded the Hero Imagination Project. Through training and workshops, it helps teach people to overcome the inner biases that stop us from taking action (including the "Maybe someone else will do it" bystander effect).
Zimbardo argues that our experiences shape how we react in a crisis, noting that a full third of "heroes" were people who had volunteered a significant part of their time before their big moment came. And people who survived a traumatic experience themselves were three times more likely to take action to help those in need.
None of it guarantees success -- remember the anecdotes earlier about professional police and soldiers -- but there's no question that some of your body's dumb, self-defeating responses can be overcome with practice that lets your system adjust to being in "OH SHIT" mode.
There's also no question that you shouldn't blame yourself if, when a potential hero moment comes, it doesn't play out the way you imagined it.
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