Fearing the Worst

Sue Groves, a 25-year-old hydrologist, parked her truck beside the dirt road that ran next to a creek in Colorado’s Mancos River Valley. It was early on a crisp December morning, and the winter sun cut a shadow across the rim of the canyon.

It would be hours yet, she thought with a shiver, before its warmth touched the frost-whitened vegetation along the creek bank.

Groves’ job was to study water quality for the Southern Ute American Indian tribe, whose reservation lies across 1,000 square miles of the rugged, dry canyon land of southwestern Colorado, and she had come to know the starkly beautiful landscape well. As Groves made her way down the steep embankment, she noticed chunks of ice drifting along in the flow and felt grateful for the insulation of her high waterproof boots. Reaching the water’s edge, she pulled out a tape measure and a pocket voice recorder and set about measuring the flow.

A rustling sound caught her attention. Glancing up, Groves spotted a pair of eyes looking down at her from the top of the bank. It took a moment for her to make out the shape of the tawny face and ears against the mottled brownish-yellow of the brush: a mountain lion! A native of Michigan, Groves had never seen one of these elusive animals before.

Their eyes locked. And then the big cat moved, slinking swiftly through the vegetation and down the far creek bank straight toward her. Groves’ sense of awe gave way to a flash of concern: This is a wild predator, she reminded herself. Best to give it some room.

She began fording the stream, thinking the cat wouldn’t want to cross the icy water. But as she clambered up the far bank, the big cat plunged straight in. In seconds it would be on the shore beside her. Groves hurried back into the water, on a diagonal course back to the far side. She hoped that the large cat would just keep going and disappear up the far bank.

But it didn’t. Instead, once it reached the far bank the mountain lion went back into the water and headed straight for her. Groves thought: I’m in trouble.

 

In a matter of seconds, Sue Groves had gone from a normal workday routine to the parallel psychological dimension that is a life-or-death crisis. The same could happen to any of us. The mundane drive to the grocery that swerves into a blare of horns and crunching metal; the lazy summer lakeside afternoon that turns into a flailing underwater struggle; the peaceful slumber that yields to the blaring of an alarm and the smell of smoke.

In the blink of an eye, we’re fighting for survival.

Terror is an intensely unpleasant state, one we normally go to great lengths to avoid. But as I write in my book Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, our brains evolved over millions of years to handle just this kind of situation.

When the threat needle is in the red, a normally hidden set of skills surfaces. This “fear brain,” as I call it, is like a little-seen alternate personality. It’s primitive and fast, encoded with responses for a handful of different kinds of threats. When the fear brain’s responses align with the crisis at hand and we follow its instincts, we can become virtually superhuman.

In the first flush of terror, the body releases two powerful substances into the body: cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol prepares the muscles for vigorous activity by releasing their key fuel, glucose, into the bloodstream. Adrenaline further prepares the body by revving up the heart rate, constricting blood vessels and opening airways. In the brain, a variant of adrenaline wipes out pain and fatigue and focuses concentration on the threat at hand.

For Groves, this meant that all of her previous priorities were upended. Expensive tape recorder? Didn’t matter. She chucked it at the oncoming mountain lion, and hurled some chunks of ice for good measure, shouting as she kept up her steady retreat.

Groves had studied enough predator behavior to know that if she turned and ran, she might trigger an attack. As she felt her fear rising, she struggled to keep control.

But still the animal kept on, pressing ever closer, and Groves felt her panic spilling over. She broke. With all her might, she began to run, her legs windmilling so hard that she ran right out of one of her hip boots.

 

We tend to think of panic as a bad thing, as a loss of control that inevitably leads to disaster. But in fact panic evolved as a positive response to danger. A primitive region called the midbrain plays a key role in modulating different panic responses depending on the nature of the threat at hand.

When panic is triggered, it overrides the complex reasoning of the logical mind and switches on a suite of automatic behaviors. These can feel so overwhelming—and so un-willed—that it’s like being taken over by an outside  force.

These responses evolved long ago, when the primary threats were physical—animal attacks, flash floods and intertribal warfare, for instance. They aren’t designed for complex situations such as the ones you find in an airplane cockpit or a nuclear power station.

But as it happened, Sue Groves found herself in a type of peril very much like the ones our ancient ancestors faced. In her case, running away from a hungry mountain lion wasn’t an irrational response at all.

She ran fast, but the cat was faster. Closing the last few feet, the hungry animal launched into the air. At that moment, Groves’ foot slipped on an algae-slicked rock and she toppled into the water. Her fall threw off the animal’s trajectory, and its jaws landed on her head instead of her neck.

She felt the warmth of its mouth as its fangs sank into her scalp. Together, human and cat tumbled into the churning, icy water.

In an instant, Groves’ midbrain switched gears. The panic strategy that made sense while the cat was still a few yards away was no longer viable. Instead, Groves fell into a response mode called tonic immobility, better known as playing possum. This is an ancient behavioral strategy that’s designed to fool a predator into believing that its prey is already dead and therefore not palatable.

As Groves looked up at the light dancing on the surface of the water, the intense struggle of a moment before was replaced with a kind of peaceful acceptance. When your time’s up, your time’s up, she told herself. This is a pretty crappy way to go, but what are you going to do?

Tonic immobility is a long-shot strategy. The only way it will work is if it lulls an attacker into letting its guard down.

Fortunately it worked for Groves. The cougar released its grip.

 

And again a switch tripped in her brain, and the will to struggle was back in full force. Groves pushed herself to the surface and ran as hard as she could, her mind so overwhelmed by fear that the moments that followed are permanently wiped from her mind.

The next thing Groves remembers was being on the creek bank, lying on top of the mountain lion. She was pinning its shoulders under the weight of her body and had shoved one arm as deeply into its mouth as she could. As long as she kept her arm down the animal’s throat, Groves knew the big cat wouldn’t be able to slash her with its long teeth.

Somehow during her blackout, her midbrain had switched to a fourth panic mode. Now every fiber of her being was geared up to fight.

One of the many incredible powers that the fear response unleashes is imperviousness to pain. Later, Groves would find cuts and bruises all over her body, but at the time, she felt nothing. Instead, her thoughts were 100 percent occupied by one idea: Kill or be killed.

 

Gone was the mental fog of panic that had gripped her just a moment ago. Now she saw everything with crystalline clarity, as if the world were moving in slow motion.

She became aware that she was wearing a fly-fishing vest filled with all sorts of tools and implements for her water-quality work. Among them was a type of scissors-like clamp called a hemostat, connected to the vest by a length of cord. Perhaps, she thought, she could wrap the cord around the cat’s neck and strangle it.

But as she tried, the animal snapped at her. “I remember looking at my left hand, making sure all my fingers were there, because if they weren’t I was going to pick them up and put them in my pocket,” Groves said years later. “It’s just crazy, the stuff that you think about.”

Without pausing, Groves decided to use the hemostat itself as a weapon. Brandishing it like a knife, she began savagely jamming them into the beast’s eye. I’ve got to get to its brain to kill it, she thought. As the metal prongs sank deep into the cougar’s eye, it let out a horrible scream.

Although Groves worried that the injury might make the animal even more vicious, she didn’t hesitate. She kept stabbing and stabbing, punching the hemostat deeply into the mountain lion’s eye.

At last she sensed that some of the fight had gone out of the animal. Kicking off the remaining boot—now full of water—she prepared to get off the mountain lion. It relaxed its grip on her arm and let her go.

Groves’ fear had transformed into fury. “Come on, you want some more?” she screamed. She cursed and lunged at the animal.

It did nothing. It just stood there. Groves backed up a half-dozen yards to a spot where grazing cattle had cut a path up through the brush up toward the road. Then she turned and ran up the embankment to her truck. Groves kept expecting the cat to come after her, to leap through the air and tackle her again.

But it didn’t.

Groves jumped in her truck, threw it into gear, and high-tailed it out of the canyon.

 

The sensation of pain returned later as she lay on her back in an ambulance—as her bruised and bloodied arm began to swell.

Trackers returned to the site of the attack, located the animal that had attacked Groves and shot it. The mountain lion was an 11- or 12-year-old female, an advanced age for the species. Its teeth were worn down, and it weighed just 65 pounds, far below the 100 to 120 pounds that’s considered normal for a healthy female. Its state of starvation must have made it reckless enough to attack a prey as dangerous as a human being.

Today, Groves considers herself lucky to be alive. Apart from the crucial moment when she blacked out, she remembers every instant of that encounter vividly.

But she doesn’t like to talk about it and rarely does. Revisiting the attack makes it too real, brings back too many emotions. Still, the one part of that day that Groves holds valuable is the insight it gave her into her own resilience, into the powers of her own fear mind, a part of herself she’d never experienced until that day.

“It’s amazing when you’re under that kind of stress, a life-or-death situation,” she says now. “You do whatever you can to keep yourself alive.” 

 

 

Grappling With Fear

When faced with high stress and huge challenges, your brain is looking out for your best interests but you’ve got to give it a chance to figure out the best response. For instance, if you unexpectedly find yourself in a life-or-death situation as Sue Groves did, what you do in the first few seconds is crucial. At this point, fear floods your nervous system with powerful hormones and neurotransmitters that lend your body extraordinary powers of strength, speed and endurance. If channeled correctly, this response can greatly increase your chances of appropriate action—but if not, it can present a danger in itself. Here are a few tips on getting it right:

Breathe. In the grip of a sudden crisis, you often feel a strong impulse to react instinctively, but doing so can make the situation worse. Unless a deadly outcome is truly just seconds away, take a couple of breaths and collect your thoughts. Remember that under duress, mistakes are easy to make and hard to undo.

Assess. Concrete, actionable information is a powerful antidote to fear. So find out as much about your situation as you can. (In the panic of a burning theater, few bother to locate the nearest fire exit.) The more you know, the better you’ll be able to respond and the less stress you’ll feel.

Take positive action. The fear response revs up the heart and dumps high-energy molecules (glucose) into the bloodstream, preparing your body for vigorous action. Remaining inactive gives that energy nowhere to go. Find something productive you can do to improve your situation and carry it out vigorously.

Keep perspective. If you feel your fear spiraling out of control, force yourself to think about the situation in the most favorable light. Psychologists call this technique “positive self-talk.” Upon reflection you’ll often realize that you have more and better options available than you realized.

Get angry. If there are no silver linings, fight fire with fire. Nothing combats fear like a good head of steam. Fuel your indignation by thinking about all that you stand to lose—and do battle with righteous fury. 

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