Extreme Fear

Getting a grip on the brain's alarm system

Readers Write: How Fear Saved My Life

Readers Write: How Fear Saved My Life

Since I've started blogging, I've been amazed not just by how it lets me reach out to all sorts of people all over the world, but even more so by the ability of these readers to reach back and share their experiences. Their real-life stories not only make for gripping reading, but offer vivid insight into the mechanisms of fear.

A few days ago I got an email from Tom Bittner of Ellsworth, MN, who wrote about how he found himself acting to save himself before he even consciously realized he was in danger.

A few years ago I was at an old folks meeting hall, looking in the furnace room for stuff that might be sold at their auction that day, when the wooden floor collapsed. There was no noise, no sense of danger, no indication that anything was about to happen -- it just went. Instantly I threw out my arms and did an iron cross pose catching my self from falling down an old indoor well. Hanging there, it was then that "Oh, s**t" kicked in and I was able to figure out how to maneuver to remove myself from the situation. The two things I find most intriguing are, first, the throwing of arms to stop the immediate drop without any thought -- where does that come from? And second, while hanging there my thoughts went to the fact I could not hear the falling wood hit the bottom of the well.

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Ray McAlevy of Birmingham, Alabama had a similar experience under very different circumstances -- in his case, while kayaking on a whitewater river:

At age 30, as a fairly novice but well studied kayaker, I was on the Cheat River in West Virginia and decided to go down what seemed like an easy run close to the bank. However, straight ahead, with no chance of stopping the kayak, there appeared a large undercut rock blocking the channel with the bottom of the rock even with the surface of the water. Hitting the rock upright meant being pinned and drowned for certain. In the few seconds available I rolled the boat upside down and tucked my body up close to the boat. It got completely dark as I went under the rock, then turned light again as I came out. I rolled up shaken but okay.

Fellow Psychology Today blogger Christopher Ryan wrote about a near-miss while riding a motorcycle in Spain:

One Saturday night my now-wife/then-girlfriend and I went out to hear a friend's jazz band play. I broke a loose rule I had about not taking my motorcycle out on weekend nights (to avoid drunk drivers) because it was a straight shot from the club to our apartment, and we knew we'd be coming home relatively early. We were cruising down Muntaner (in Barcelona), safely trailing about 30 yards behind a group of cars sliding through the timed red-lights at about 30 mph. Suddenly a car parked on the left side of the street shot across the two lanes right in front of us, blocking our lane, and nosed into an empty parking spot on the right side of the street. He was moving his car across the street at midnight so he wouldn't have to get up early the next morning. He'd waited for the cars to pass and hadn't seen us, somehow. No turn signal, no lights, no warning. Without thinking, I hit the horn, visualized us hitting the side of the car and flying over it (or through it), while my body swerved the bike into and out of the parking spot around the nose of the car -- not hitting any of the three cars we came within inches of at high speed, not losing control of the bike. No legs lost. No necks broken. Pure instinct. I felt like a cat jumping through a hoop.

Each of these stories is remarkable. And they all share a few common insights into the nature of the fear reflex -- a reflex that we rarely get to witness, and indeed which many of us may never experience at all. Here are some of the points they all have in common:

Fear is strange. When we're in a moment of life-or-death danger, we're frequently amazed by how our brains and bodies react. That's because the fear response is carried out by subconscious systems to which we have no direct conscious access. It's like a separate personality lurking deep within our skulls. The only time we get to meet it is when our lives are on the line.

Fear is fast. Like all automatic systems, the fear response deploys much more quickly than our conscious thought processes. The amygdala can identify danger and prompt an effective response before our higher-level mind is even aware than a problem exists.

Fear is clever. We tend to think of automatic processes as being stereotyped, if not wholly irrational. Creativity tends to get credited to the frontal cortex. But in the laser-like focus of a life-or-death crisis, people are often able to come up with creative solutions with astonishing speed.

Fear is effortless. Automatic processes don't require mental effort. Time and again, people who survive mortal danger report functioning with unusual clarity, as they immediately perceived what needed to be done, and did it.

Fear is unforgettable. Amygdala activation jolts the hippocampus, the region that mediates long-term memory storage. This results in the "flash-bulb memory effect": we can vividly remember events that took place in conjunction with intense fear. It's a testament to that fact that each of these men, years after a life-threatening event, can recount what happened to them in great detail. In contrast, mundane details -- What did they have for breakfast that morning? What were they wearing? -- have long since faded away. It's how we handle intense danger that we remember years and decades hence. These experiences play an outsize role in how we view ourselves. They are formative, transcendent, and unforgettable.

I'd like to thank Tom, Ray, and Christopher for their contributions, and invite other readers to share their experiences with fear. Have you ever been surprised by your reaction to an acute crisis? Have you ever experienced danger so intense it changed the way it looked at the world? I'd love to hear your stories.

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Jeff Wise is a New York-based science writer and author of Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger.

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