Saturday, July 10, 2010

'There is a structure to panic'

The 4 Stages of Fear, Attacked-by-a-Mountain-Lion Edition
Fight and flight are part of the brain's automatic system for dealing with life-threatening situations -- but there's more to the story.

Excerpted from Extreme Fear by Jeff Wise: In the throes of intense fear, we suddenly find ourselves operating in a different and unexpected way. The psychological tools that we normally use to navigate the world -- reasoning and planning before we act -- get progressively shut down. In the grip of the brain's subconscious fear centers, we behave in ways that to our rational mind seem nonsensical or worse. We might respond automatically, with preprogrammed motor routines, or simply melt down. We lose control.

In this unfamiliar realm, it can seem like we're in the grip of utter chaos. But although the preconscious fear centers of the brain are not capable of deliberation and reason, they do have their own logic, a simplified suite of responses keyed to the nature of the threat at hand. There is a structure to panic.

When the danger is far away, or at least not immediately imminent, the instinct is to freeze. When danger is approaching, the impulse is to run away. When escape is impossible, the response is to fight back. And when struggling is futile, the animal will become immobilized in the grip of fright. Although it doesn't slide quite a smoothly off the tongue, a more accurate description than 'fight or flight' would be 'fight, freeze, flight, or fright' -- or, for short, 'the four fs.'

On a winter morning a few years back, a young woman named Sue Yellowtail went through them all in about 10 minutes. [Read the rest here.]
Image source here.