This story began more than 100,000 years ago, when three cavemen were walking through the woods. They came across a brick path, on the other side of that brick path was a green bush with red flowers. Suddenly that bush shakes, a Saber-toothed tiger jumps out and devours caveman number 1. Cavemen number 2 and 3 get a shot of adrenaline, their heart-rate spikes, and they take off running.
Caveman number 2 and 3 survived, but there was a difference between them. When caveman number 3’s heart-rate spiked, his brain released a chemical called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). BDNF is the brain growth hormone. It’s like steroids for our memory. So everything that happed during that life and death situation, caveman number 3’s brain was able to lock into memory. Caveman number 2 did not have BDNF. His brain remembers that Saber-toothed tiger attack like it remembers breakfast that morning.
Five years later caveman number 2 and number 3 are walking through the woods. They come across a brick path. Caveman number 3 does not relate this brick path to his friend dying in his conscious mind, but his unconscious brain connects this brick path with a possible life and death situation. So he’s already feeling anxious, and he doesn’t know why. Then he sees a green bush with red flowers. That’s enough for his unconscious brain to trigger a fight-or-flight response. Adrenaline is released causing his heart rate to spike, blood is taken from his brain and pushed towards his extremities to aid in his fight-or-flight. This causes tunnel vision. His body is tingling, he begins to breathe heavily, and he takes-off out of there. Meanwhile caveman number 2 is just standing there thinking, “What the heck just happened?” A Saber-toothed tiger jumps out and eats caveman number 2.
Caveman number 3 survived because his unconscious mind was able to recognize a fight-or-flight scenario at its onset due to a chemical released when his heart-rate spiked, aiding in his memory. BDNF is a survival mechanism and a very useful tool in combat.
To continue this story, 20 years down the road the Saber-toothed tiger is extinct. Caveman number 3 has begun a family, in new colony thousands of miles away. There is no threat of a Saber-toothed tiger and he knows this.
One day he’s walking through a park with his wife and his caveman kids, pushing his caveman stroller. They come across a brick path, he’s already getting anxious and he doesn’t know why. A mile later he sees a green bush with red flowers; that’s enough for his unconscious brain to trigger a fight-or-flight response. Adrenaline is released causing his heart rate to spike, blood is taken from his brain and pushed towards his extremities to aid in his fight-or-flight. This causes tunnel vision. His body is tingling, he begins to breathe heavily, he’s been so tense for the past mile that his chest begins to cramp, causing severe chest pains. It becomes difficult to breath. And all he is doing is walking through the park with his caveman family. He’s confused and scared, he thinks he’s dying, he begins to panic.
This is called a panic attack. Panic attacks are extremely common amongst our veterans. Sometimes those memories are so strong that caveman number 3 will see a Saber-toothed tiger, even though they no longer exist.
We can apply this story to modern day combat. A common scenario is an IED explosion while traveling in a vehicle. Everything about this situation is locked into memory and we can identify the possible triggers our brain will recall from this event.
The easiest of triggers to identify, it’s the part of the threat that directly causes the injury.
- Shock wave
“Brick Path” triggers are the most difficult to identify and often the most scary. We don’t realize our brains have related these items to life and death situations. They are common routines and unknown triggers.
- Hot sunny days
- Crowded vehicles
- Slow moving convoy
- The color orange (dust storms
These triggers can be easy to identify as well. It is our perceptions of the scene directly related to the life and death scenario.
- Item the IED was hiding in (backpack, trash, etc)
- Dust cloud
People we don’t know
We are no longer fighting an enemy in uniform. We watch everyone we’re not serving with, not knowing who has the weapon or the explosive. We trust no one. This doesn’t change in our brains just because we take a flight back to the U.S. We still trust no one. We’re uncomfortable in crowds and more so around people from the middle east. The constant anxiety of society often sends us into isolation.
For hundreds of thousands of years, humans have needed a team to survive. Everyone that was comfortable being alone died. Those who had something in their brain telling them they needed to find a way to stick with the team survived. Therefore we are no longer ok with being alone. When we isolate ourselves we are telling our brains that we are going to die. Isolation is directly related to depression and suicide.
How to Panic Without Fear
When fighting to the death, or surviving a car wreck, we have a rush of adrenaline pumping through our body. The physical effects of this fight-or-flight mode are understandable in a life & death situation. But when adrenaline is released during a non-intense situation it can be very scary. It’s hard to comprehend why we’re shaky, why our heart is racing, why we can’t think clearly, and why we believe we’re dying. Understanding what our body is going through can ease the frightening experience of a panic attack.
The Harmless but Scary Effects Difficult to focus
The “human thinking” brain decreases operation to allow the primal “reptilian” brain to take over. Our reptilian brain is responsible for basic survival instincts, breathing, and our heartrate. It becomes very difficult to read, or gather complex thoughts.
Increased breathing and hear rate
Adrenaline tells our heart to beat faster and harder, and our reptilian brain to breath heavier. This increases our ability to escape the threat, or fight it off.
The body prepares to dissipate heat during the fight, we begin to sweat.
The kidneys release a surge of sugar to help our muscles perform. Then retract this sugar just as quickly. The rapidly changing sugar levels cause our muscles to shake.
Combined with other symptoms of a panic attack, this can convince us we’re having a heart attack. However, the pains of a panic attack are harmless. There are multiple causes:
- Hyperventilation. Rapid muscle contractions and contracting blood vessels can cause severe chest pain. Relax the breathing to remove this pain.
- Cramping. We often have tense chest and shoulder muscles when anxious. Relaxing your muscles, or a shoulder/back rub from a person we trust can quickly dissipate this chest pain.
- Bloating. Anxiousness and fight-or-flight response removes blood from the digestive system. This causes gas and bloating. Gas and bloating causes chest pain.
Muscles all over our body can contract during a fight-or-flight response. Just like tense muscles causing cramps in the chest, it can make us feel like we are choking. However this feeling is not dangerous, our bodies will continue to allow oxygen to our lungs during fight-or-flight. Relax your chest and breathe slowly from the stomach, literally pushing your abs in and out. Once your neck muscles relax this feeling will quickly fade.
Other normal and safe symptoms of fight-or-flight response:
- tunnel vision
- tunnel hearing
- loss of control
- fearing the worst
Understanding these feelings are supposed to happen helps ease the mind during a panic attack and can drastically shorten the panic. Why your body decided to enter fight-or-flight might be explained through the caveman story.
Harness the Energy
Realizing this adrenaline rush prepares us for super human mode can be an awesome experience. Instead of fearing the symptoms, know that you are energized. During your adrenaline rush you have the capability to perform certain tasks far beyond your normal abilities.
Beneficial symptoms of fight-or-flight:
- Increase strength
- Little feeling of pain
- Heightened senses
- Increased energy
Find a sport or aerobic activity and test yourself. Perform the tasks on a normal day, and try it again during a panic attack and compare your results. Exercises can help “burn up” adrenaline and sugars in the blood stream as well. For a long term solution to eradicate anxiety and panic turn to a healthy lifestyle. Include:
- daily exercise for at least 25 minutes
- time with positive people
- eat healthy
It’s simple. We’ve evolved to get exercise through hunting and gathering. We’ve eaten clean meat and food that actually grows. We’ve always needed a team to survive. We’re human, if we start acting like it our brains and bodies will stop telling us something is wrong.