One thing that both helps and hinders us when we’re faced with an unexpected emergency or catastrophe is our physiological reaction to fear.
It’s obviously a very primitive response, and activates what scientists call our “fight or flight” mechanism. Our fear circuit is located in the amygdala section of our brains. This is shaped like an almond,and located deep within our temporal lobes. Once alerted to danger, the amygdala sends the alert out to the rest of your body.
Your blood chemistry changes so it can coagulate more easily in case you’re wounded. Your blood vessels constrict so you lose less blood in case of injury. Your blood pressure and heart rate shoot up.
Your hormonal balance changes. Immediately, cortisol and adrenaline control your metabolism, so you have more strength and energy. Your muscles are stronger. Your body creates natural painkillers.
However, this natural response, while quite effective back in the days when we had to either run from danger or fight it, unfortunately reduces our brain’s ability to think clearly. We don’t perceive our surroundings as much. Our senses narrow to focus on just what’s important to survival. Many people get tunnel vision, though some report seeing more clearly than usual. Cortisol reduces our ability to think rationally.
Unfortunately, in many disasters we can’t flee unless we can find the exit or the stairwell. We can’t get out of our airplane seat because we treat the seat belt we try to punch a button as though it were an automobile seat belt instead of the type on an airplane.
If we can get moving, we’re more distracted by the noise, smoke, confusion, and darkness, so it’s harder to find the exit that’s no longer lit in handy red letter.
Our mouths dry up because salivation is not an essential function. Neither is digestion, which halts. Sometimes the body decides controlling your sphincter and bladder are also nonessential, which is why people sometimes wet or evacuate when afraid.
Time seems to slow down, which is called tachypsychia. Of course, that’s an illusion, but it’s how many people feel. That’s probably from your brain and body speeding up, so the outside world seems slower in comparison. It’s practical in many situations. For example, if you can slow down your perception of time in a fight with an opponent, you have an advantage over the, since you are more subjective time to see their attacks and decide how to best counter them.
People often feel disassociated. They see what’s going on, but it doesn’t feel real. It’s like they’re watching a movie. In extreme cases it can even lead to out of body experiences.
Although it’s probably impossible to be fully prepared for any disaster without undergoing extensive training for particular problems, as fire fighters and police officers do, it’s possible to improve your responses by taking a few moments when in public places to plan your escape. Just in case.