Thursday, February 9, 2012

The physiology of panic

Panicking. Losing it. Going apeshit. The movies make it look easy.

It's generally charted against a measure of one's pulse in beats per minute -- as a person passes from calmness to alertness to fight-or-flight to blind panic, the heartbeat rises from 60 or 80 beats per minute up to... well, the chart I'm looking at tops off at 220.

The chart I'm looking at appears in On Combat, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Loren W. Christensen. It's a highly informative look at the physical and psychological effects of combat and I'm working my way through it just barely in time for the part of the story I'm working on.

In the meantime, what you rarely see depicted accurately in movies or on TV includes:
  • Progressive loss of motor control until one is only capable of the most general behaviors (running, bashing things.) 
  • Loss of perception: selective deafness or complete loss of hearing, tunnel vision, pain immunity.
  • Changing color. People tend to go red in the face as the capillaries dilate to provide lots of blood, and then as they panic further they turn white because the capillaries constrict to reduce bleeding in case of injury.
  • Loss of rationality. Your frontal lobe gets over-ruled by the emotions -- which are rooted in the mid-brain. Emotions, which include your animal instincts, are older than rational thought (biologically speaking) and in a sense "know more" about keeping you alive than rationality does. This doesn't always work out, of course...
  • If there's something in your bladder or your lower intestine, ditch it. Nobody likes to talk about this, of course. Everyone thinks it indicates cowardice, but it has nothing to do with that. What we're actually laughing at, when someone pisses his pants in fear, is that he is panicking "too much" for what is considered appropriate in the situation. As if there is a master list, somewhere, of what the "appropriate" level of panic is for every possible situation. If someone knows where this list is, please let me know.

Admittedly, you do see these in the better war movies (Saving Private Ryan, etc.) On television, not so much.

Grossman notes that the range between losing your fine motor skills and losing your complex motor skills (115-145 beats per minute) is considered the optimal alertness state for fighters -- with a little training on how to manage the adrenaline. With extensive training, people can continue to function as they get into ranges where most people have frozen up or run away. People may not be able to do anything they haven't been trained on, which is why soldiers learn so many drills, but it's a valid way to keep them alive.

After the danger's passed, there's the after-effects to deal with. If it was a short crisis (while chasing a suspect, say) the adrenaline rush is going to keep the person jacked up for some time yet. If it was a long day of fighting (such as soldiers face) then the adrenaline crash will plunge the person into exhaustion.

Certain of my characters will be experiencing a full range of heartbeat levels (evil grin.) What have you subjected yours to, recently?

I also blogged about Grossman's excellent On Killing here.


Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

Wow...lots of physiological changes take place when your heart beat speeds up. This is kinda cool.

The Golden Eagle said...

Interesting list!

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