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Survival Strategies Part 4:
How the Brain Reacts to Disaster
The "fight or flight" response
Part of the human brain has been termed the 'hindbrain' (medulla, pons and reticular formation). One of its functions is to be on the lookout for danger. Incoming stimuli from the environment are checked by this part of the brain for signals that may indicate we are in imminent danger. Danger signals from the hindbrain put the body on alert. When this happens there are many biochemical changes occurring very rapidly, some brought about by the hormone, adrenaline. The function of the hindbrain is to give a simple, immediate assessment of the level of danger — the so–called fight or flight response: should we run away (flight) or face up to it (fight)? In these situations, there is often an altered sense of time. Time seems to slow down, probably because the responses of the hindbrain are much quicker than our normal state of consciousness and because our metabolism is speeded up.
This is why things can seem to happen in slow motion when danger threatens. In a car crash, for example, many people say that it all seemed to happen in slow motion and they even remember it that way later.
I remember being in a fierce hand–to–hand combat situation and it seemed as if we were all acting in some macabre sort of ballet, all choreographed and in slow motion. Each blow, each dramatic wounding, each death that I witnessed was fixed in my mind in great detail. The actual engagement was over in just eight minutes, but to my mind, it went on for a long, long time. My resultant nightmares all followed the same pattern and reoccurred for some years until I finally dealt with the trauma.
Tonic immobility (freezing)
As well as 'fight' or 'flight,' there is a third option that is called 'tonic immobility' and this is why, for example, passengers in an air crash may remained seated even though the plane catches fire.
Fuselage of Flight KT28M after the fire.
"On 22 August 1985, a British Airtours Boeing 737 with 131 passengers and 6 crew members was taking off from Manchester Airport in the UK on a charter flight to Corfu. As the aircraft approached take–off speed, an engine disintegrated rupturing a fuel tank and starting a fire. The crew brought the aircraft to a halt and started an emergency evacuation. Eighty–two of those on board managed to escape. Fifty–five were killed by the fire or its effects.
"As the aircraft slowed, the crew steered it to take a runway exit. This put the fire upwind of the fuselage. Thus the wind blew flames towards the passengers." (Comment taken from the official inquiry No. 8/88.) Most of the deaths were caused by smoke inhalation.
The enquiry noted that if this had not happened passengers would have had more time to escape.
This disaster happened over three decades ago. I use it as an example because it has happened since then in one form or another and it could happen again today, but I also chose it because there is more to the story.
I flew out of Manchester Ringway Airport the day after the accident and saw the burned–out plane; I recall it sent a chill down my spine. Of course, everyone was talking about the previous day's disaster and I started chatting about it to the man sitting next to me. Quite by chance, he was a survivor of the fire. The man (who does not want to be identified because his account does not agree with the official report No. 8/88 of the incident) told me that he encouraged his family to climb over the other, still seated, passengers. He opened an emergency door and got his family out of the plane.
He told me that it was as he began opening the emergency door that the crew began instructing the passengers to stay where they were, even though the plane was filling with thick, toxic smoke from burning seats. He also said that, as he opened the door, the crew were shouting at him to sit down and not to panic.
This man acted immediately. He thought quickly, and reacted calmly and decisively. He most certainly saved the lives of his family and others who later escaped through the door he had opened. He also told me that when the plane suddenly came to a halt, the majority of the passenger and the cabin crew seemed incapable of movement. People just sat blankly staring at the door he had opened, as if unable to comprehend that they could escape. He said some considerable time elapsed before panic broke out and the cabin crew started to operate the emergency evacuation of the passengers. By which time, his family were safely standing on the tarmac. He was unable to understand why people just sat in a burning plane unable to move. The answer to that is tonic immobility.
An animal attacked by predators may 'freeze'. If it is not too injured this can give the animal a chance to escape because the predator thinks it is incapacitated.
Humans who have been subjected to torture or extreme pain as a result of injury even report an altered state of consciousness where they feel no pain. They speak of a detachment from the situation, to the extent that they may observe their body from a distance (often referred to as an out–of–body experience) but this is not something everyone experiences.
To be more scientifically correct, we are talking about a process called 'dissociation'. Dissociation may be short–lived or it may be permanent and is undergoing much contemporary study by psychologists and psychiatrists (who are mainly interested in the extreme end of the spectrum whereby dissociation is a permanent mental disorder).
Dissociation is a mental process, which produces a lack of connection in a person's thoughts, memories, feelings, actions or sense of identity.
During the period of time when a person is dissociating, certain information processed by the brain does not associate with other information as it normally would do. For example, during a traumatic experience, a person may dissociate the memory of the place and circumstances of the trauma from their on–going memory. This results in a temporary mental escape from the fear and pain of the trauma and in some cases they create a memory gap surrounding the experience.
It is possible that a trauma victim is left with no memory of the traumatic event at all. This process can produce changes in memory and people who frequently dissociate often find their senses of personal history and identity are affected. They are often vague and confused about what exactly has happened to them. I have a memory of a combat situation that took place in dense jungle — in reality it took place in a small clearing. I know it took place in the small clearing, but in my memory, the fight took place in dense jungle. I clung on to my false memory in my nightmares, even though, intellectually, I knew that such a battle could not be fought in dense jungle and the reality of the situation was that the battle did take place in the open.
We can literally dissociate ourselves from the reality of the situation. This may help an animal to escape a predator but for humans in a disaster situation it can either cause problems or it can be a vital response. This depends upon the individual, the state of their psyche before the disaster struck, their individual body chemistry and the situation itself.
So we have seen, just like most mammals, we respond to threats by adopting an 'alarm state'. One of the first responses in the initial stages of the alarm reaction initiated by a potential threat is freezing. This is when we evaluate whether to fight or flee and decide we can do neither.
The freezing stage allows a mammal to hear more clearly and observe more keenly, scanning the environment for the source of the potential threat. In addition, lack of movement makes it harder for the predator to find them (camouflage, of a kind) and so they are less likely to be attacked. The human psychological equivalent of such freezing is indecision or ambivalence and that can cause us problems in a life–threatening situation.
Each of us has experienced information overload; a time when we are swimming in information yet cannot organize it and make a decision. This makes us anxious and the anxiety makes it harder to think clearly, making it even more difficult to get organized and decide on a course of action. Typically, we will 'freeze'. This temporary freezing allows us slowly to begin to process and re–evaluate the information available to us in order to make an appropriate decision. The more anxious we get the less likely we are to make an objective or wise decision. Our predicament as human beings is that we hold on to that alarm state and are often unable to mobilize our 'flight' or 'fight' resources appropriately. We feel frozen in time, unable to correctly evaluate the situation and make an appropriate and wise decision (to fight or flee).
We are often in potential survival situations where 'flight' or 'fight' are not options, for example, a car or train crash. We may then freeze (tonic immobility), which may help us to escape pain but this builds up a charge in the nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system remains activated. The mind is disturbed and the processing of this information normally results in the return of the body to action. If the body does not return to normal, the trauma may live on as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
One of the problems of surviving a disaster situation is that you may not know how your body and mind are going to react to a disaster if you have not previously put this to the test. Some people take action immediately and others freeze — there's just no way of knowing unless you have experienced a similar event before. People who swing into action are not necessarily heroes and people who freeze up are not necessarily cowards – they just have different body chemistry and life experiences.