Your Brain in an Emergency: the What and the Why

Published: October 7, 2019 | By Meredith Moore

By Meredith Moore, Founder and CEO Greylake Training Solutions

What is going on in our brain when we are confronted with a threat to our survival? And more importantly, why is it happening? Understanding these answers can boost our odds for survival when we are faced with a threatening situation or an emergency and help leaders prepare, anticipate and prevent these challenges for their workforce.

All living things have a fear response that originates in a very ancient part of our brain called the limbic system.  A specific component of the limbic system is the amygdala, which many know as the part of the brain that houses our fear response; and the freeze, flight or fight reaction. Recently, neuroscientists have discovered the amygdala is also a critical part of how we process memory, emotion, and attention.  This explains some of the sensations we experience in an emergency when our amygdala is activated, specifically those affecting our perceptions of time, how we remember details and how we either become hyper-focused or lose all focus.

If we look at the basic function of the limbic system during a frightening stimulus, it looks something like this,

  • A threat is detected
  • The amygdala sends a cascade of hormones throughout our bodies
  • These hormones produce the biological reactions – freeze, fight, or flight – that generate success or failure in response

All of this happens in a millisecond and is driven by our “unconscious” brain.  The hormones, adrenaline, and cortisol produce dynamic changes in our body. These changes affect our senses in a number of ways. The ears begin to ring to block out distractions and help focus on survival. Our vision narrows and produces a tunnel effect so we can hone in on the only thing that matters, the dangerous situation. Our respiratory system kicks into high gear and raises our heart rate, pumping blood to vital organs and pushing glucose into the bloodstream to provide the body with a jolt of energy, preparing us to run or fight for our lives. The elevated heart rate subsequently produces shortness of breath, dry mouth, and sweating. Non-critical functions like digestion slow when we are confronted with a threat; this is why we often experience an upset stomach or diarrhoea under duress because our body has stopped the digestion process.

A whole spectrum of changes occurs, involving virtually all of our body’s systems and organs. All these changes are happening without our conscious thinking. Knowing and understanding what is happening to our brain and body during a threat is important to help us control and condition the fear response.  People who act without hesitation during an emergency, like nurses, firefighters, soldiers, and police officers, have rewired the circuitry in their brains to control the fear response.  Their secret? Experience and repetition. We rely on our past experiences to help us make decisions in our everyday lives.  An emergency is a novel situation, not something we deal with on a regular basis. Therefore, we don’t have a “mental script” on how to handle the situation. Those who work under pressure in high stakes environments have that mental playbook on how to act; it becomes automatic.

This is a powerful skill to have and one you can learn, one that leaders can train teams to acquire. Being able to better react to a threat or emergency can save your life or the life of someone else. I’ll continue to examine the ways in which we can apply these skills in our everyday lives and what it looks like in resilient organisations, communities and corporations.

I look forward to diving into more topics about how we can apply an understanding of neuroscience and behavioural psychology to resiliency, personal safety, and risk, and crisis management.

Until next time.