If there were a sci-fi apocalypse, how would you react? Here is what psychology and neuroscience have to say: 07-Jul-2019


Imagine that the apocalypse is coming: the Earth is about to experience a massive solar storm; an asteroid is about to crash into our home planet; or a supervolcano is bursting, sending huge amounts of ash into the atmosphere.

How will you react?

Would you be the boss? Or the one who takes care of everyone? Or the person who goes out incredulously?

It is often very difficult for us to predict how we will react to extreme adversity, said Sandy McFarlane, who is director of the Center for Traumatic Stress Studies at the University of Adelaide and has worked in the field of trauma for four decades.

And this is because the kind of stress we experience in our daily life is very different from what we might encounter in a life or death situation.

"The language and our imagination are very poor in anticipating what the reality of these survival challenges is," said Professor McFarlane.

"Often people have not been able to create a real scenario in their mind that they can practice, so that when they arrive in a place of extreme horror or fear they do not have a repertoire or a way of understanding or dealing with where they are."

Even people who have been well trained for difficult situations can actually discover that they are rather disorganized in the face of an extreme challenge.

Let's take a look at some of our common stress responses.

Flight, fight or freeze

If you are unlucky enough to find yourself in an apocalyptic situation, you may find it impossible to choose the right kind of action.

"People often panic because they can't choose what they should do," Professor McFarlane said.

This can be a problem because choosing an action line allows you to concentrate.

Sometimes running away from a threat makes sense. We call this the flight response: reacting with fear to a situation and retreating to a point of safety.

But this answer is not always so useful, especially if you are in a position of responsibility or leadership.

"If people are in a role where they have to act proactively, for example to protect members of the public, if they feel overwhelmed by fear they will literally withdraw from the situation, flee," Professor McFarlane said.

"It is where fundamentally an individual's decision-making processes and the ability to organize their environment are broken down and escape is the only solution."

Another way to deal with fear is to try to fight the threat.

This is a very instinctive response, Professor McFarlane said.

In some cases it can work well. Trained soldiers often talk about how their worst fear is waiting for a battle, and once they enter the battle and can use their abilities, they feel a certain degree of calm.

In other cases, the response to the fight can lead people to react inappropriately, such as reacting to a threat with extreme aggression, Professor McFarlane said.

Freezing – being physically unable to move and literally frozen by fear – is another common way for us to respond to extreme stress.

It is a classic also in the animal world: prey animals often lie down when they are pursued, in the hope that the predator will miss them.

In extreme situations this can lead to dissociating people from a situation, such as the character of Kirsten Dunst in the movie Melancholia, which becomes catatonic as a rogue planet approaches on a collision course with Earth.

"Some people can lose their memory and behave very automatically in times of extreme stress that are not particularly targeted or targeted," said Professor McFarlane.

Leaders and followers

Some people are able to remain extraordinarily balanced in extreme situations and have the feeling of being able to contain and dominate any threat.

Those of us who can do it are better able to control the way our body reacts to acute stress. This is known as your physiological awakening, for example when your heart starts running or you are short of breath.

One of the most notable examples of this is the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, said Professor McFarlane.

Armstrong has maintained extreme coldness in difficult and life-threatening situations, and his ability to do so is one of the reasons for the success of the first moon landing.

People who manage to cope with difficult situations often become extremely valid leaders.

They are often very well connected to others, Professor McFarlane said, and can often bring a group together, because not only can they see the circumstances in which they find themselves but they can also use the group they are in.

Ensuring that other people are well or supporting leaders by taking more subordinate roles are other ways of dealing with extreme situations.

Focusing on people rather than on the external threat allows these people to avoid the challenges of the circumstances in which they find themselves, Professor McFarlane said.

And supporting those who are potentially more capable of dealing with the threat can help them – and the group – to survive.

Our brain under stress

Our bodies release three different hormones when we are faced with a stressful situation: adrenaline, norepinephrine and then, very soon, cortisol, said neuroscientist Lila Landowski of the University of Tasmania.

These three hormones affect different parts of the body.

The first part that is affected is our amygdala which is the part of our brain that processes emotions, said Dr. Landowski.

It is the part of the brain that guides our most basic survival instincts and our immediate reactions to things.

"That part of the brain is actually activated even before we have a chance to think about what we are facing, before we can even think about the situation that lies ahead," said Dr. Landowski.

It is the amygdala that will instruct other parts of the body, to tell us to escape or to freeze or any other reaction it may be.

The problem in today's modern world is that many people are facing constant or chronic stress and their brains are always in survival mode.

"When you have chronic stress, you lose the ability to use much of your prefrontal cortex," said Dr. Landowski.

"You have less decision-making skills, you have difficulty judging things, you have a lot of difficulty putting yourself in other people's shoes and understanding their perspective".

And this does not promise anything good for people's ability to react rationally in an apocalyptic situation.

"They could be reactive and visceral and not make the most appropriate decisions and not really think rationally" What will be the best for me or the population? "," Said Dr. Landowski.

"They will have less information on what will improve the people around them, they will be more self-centered."

Novices can do better in an apocalypse

Challenging yourself in a way that you need to manage fear – either through skydiving or playing a contact body sport or another thrillereking activity – could put you in a better position to deal with an apocalyptic situation.

This is because you first put yourself in a similar situation, essentially training yourself to manage fear.

"Your body is almost asking the question" I've never felt this way before, "Professor McFarlane said.

"And in that situation he can really use whatever behavior is used in that kind of environment before."

However, everyone has the potential to arrive at a circumstance in which they do not function optimally, Professor McFarlane said.

Think that people often do not anticipate the extent to which fear can affect your ability to make decisions.

However, research shows that if you are taught to monitor and understand how your body reacts in a training situation, you will perform better in front of the real deal.



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