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Between Life and Death

Every year, thousands of sportsmen find themselves suddenly thrust into extreme situations, even life and death ordeals, with brains and bodies forced to make equally sudden reactions.  It turns out that many of our initial physical responses are actually instinctual.  A good thing, too.

 “The human body’s a very efficient, very smart computer,” says Dr. Mahmoud Ahmed, M.D., a psychiatrist at Marshfield Clinic, in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, who treats many patients with high-stress encounters in their pasts.  “It does not wait for us to tell the computer what to do.  It’s able to function independently, automatically.” 

Much of the automatic reaction by the human “computer” is routed through the brain’s amygdala.  According to Amanda Ripley, in her book, The Unthinkable:  Who survives when disaster strikes, the amygdala is, “an ancient, almond-shaped mass of nuclei located deep within [the]…brain’s temporal lobes that is central to the human fear circuit.  In response [to fear or extreme stress], the amygdala set off a cascading series of changes through [the]..body….without any conscious decision making” on our parts.

Those changes include the release of hormones into the bloodstream, chief among them adrenaline and cortisol.  The impacts are near-instantaneous:  blood pressure and heart rates shoot up;  extra blood’s pushed to our muscles and organs;  reflexes quicken;  we’re suddenly stronger;  wounds, even broken bones, don’t hurt, for a time, anyway.

“Your pupils dilate, so you’re able to see your environment better,” Ahmed adds.

However, “Not all extreme situations are the same,” says Dr. David Goldstein, a clinical researcher with the National Institute of Health, who specializes in the body’s reaction to stress.    “So, for instance, somebody who falls out of a boat and into ice cold water is going to have a different response, a different outlook, from somebody who is trapped in a jungle and is running away from a lion.  And both of these are going to be different from somebody who is starved or deprived of water…”

The body seems to know what’s needed.  It will, for instance, push extra blood to muscles when we need to fight back against an aggressor.  But if we’re suddenly immersed in very frigid water?  The body can automatically draw blood from our extremities and siphon it into the brain and other organs of need.

Yet what of our thinking, our emotions, when faced with fear, pain, and possible death?  How do they react?  Those are the big wild cards in the whole equation.  In her book, Ripley documents numerous disasters where people respond surprisingly well, folks without even the most basic training in stress or survival.  They fight through their fears, do the next right thing, and save themselves and others. 

Yet other people in the exact same time and place completely lose their minds, flail around, and make the exact wrong decisions.  A fair percentage are unable to react at all.

 “Some people become so paralyzed, they can not talk,” says Ahmed. “This is very different [from a good survival reaction].  Which one will we do?  We cannot predict.”

No, we can’t predict.  But we can observe.  And those observation suggest that when the chips are very down, those of us who make it possess a combination of positive personalities and solid survival instincts, good brains, strong wills, and little of that old-fashioned luck.

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