Freezing in the face of danger

We seize up in the face of danger. Why is this so?

For years I have used Hans Selye‘s research on stress as an introduction when discussing aerial rescue and planning for emergency. Selye, a native Austro-Hungarian who emigrated to Canada, started his studies on stress in the late 1930s. He was a prolific writer with many research publications to his name, as well as a number of popular books. He formulated the GAS (General Adaptation Syndrome), which describes a response to stressful situations in three steps:

Alarm Phase
Upon perceiving a stressor, the body reacts with a slow-down, all no-essential systems, such as higher cognitive functions or digestion are shut down, responses happen at an instinctive level. The body’s resources are mobilised to meet the threat or danger, releasing “stress” hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.

Resistance Phase
In this phase the body uses the mobilised forces to either fight or flee the stressor, at the same time, the nervous system attempts to return many physiological functions to normal levels while body focuses resources against the stressor and remains on alert.

Exhaustion Phase
If the stressor or stressors continue beyond the body’s capacity, the resources become exhausted and the body is susceptible to chronic, stress-related disease and/ or death.

As is so often the case, when you think you have understood one aspect of a subject, you discover that there are many other aspects you had not considered. The same was true here, I only recently understood some further consequences the GAS can have…

One of the things which Selye’s model explains is the cognitive paralysis which is frequently observed during ferry or aircraft incidents, where studies have shown that around 75 percent of people simply stay put and die, rather than attempt to flee the area of immediate danger. This is due to a cognitive paralysis. In your daily life, your brain builds a model of the world around you, usually that model is accurate. In a threat situation, however, when the model in your head and the reality of the situation are no longer be congruent, this dissonance can led to freezing – a bit like your computer beach balling…

In the alarm phase, the evolved fight or flight reflex serves to prepare us for action – yet at the same time those parts of the brain linked to working memory or assimilating new and/ or unexpected information are inhibited. So if you are confronted with a situation which demands novel solutions, your body’s response to the danger – preparing for action – may well at the same time be blocking your ability to think sufficiently clearly or innovatively in order to be able to address the danger.

It is interesting talking to crews who have experienced hazardous situations or accidents, how divergent the recollection of individual team members can be in regards to the actual duration of the incident, as well as the exact sequence of events. This is largely due to the way in which the body attempts to adapt to the situation. In instances like this, it is not about who gets smarter under stress, it is about who gets dumber faster.

One clear point the reflections above highlight is the importance of preparing for emergency.

If your emergency response plan is that you will wing it, takle the situation there and then, you are setting yourself up to fail. However, if you form a muscle memory of sequences of actions, are deeply familiar with procedures such as rescue technique or first aid, then in a stressful situation the body has familiar patterns to fall back upon and you are increasing the likelihood of responding well in an unforeseen, stressful and maybe dangerous situation.