Survival in extreme situations often depends on an individuals ability to respond to the threat they are faced with. The stress response in humans has for decades been referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
When faced with a sudden or extreme threat, two body systems act together to give you the best possible chance of survival. The reaction is for the most part not under your control. Your brain and your body decide what happens, the biggest toughest guy in the bar may turn and run, the tiny young bar tender may not, 90% of what happens is decided by chemistry.
The sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system get together at the first sign of a serious threat and if the threat persists for longer than a few more seconds both systems kick into high gear and adrenaline (epinepherine) noradrenaline (norepinepherine) and a couple of dozen other hormones flood the body and the fight or flight response is triggered.
• Pupils dilate to take in as much light as possible
• Blood-glucose levels increase
• Veins in the skin contract allowing extra blood flow to the muscles
• Smooth muscle relaxes to allow extra oxygen for the lungs
• Heart rate increases
• Blood pressure increases
• Non-essential systems shut down (digestion for example)
• The only focus is the task in hand
It is your reaction to this flood of chemicals that decides what happens next. The first, often vital seconds can be wasted whilst your body decides what to do, which option will give you the best chance of survival. Your brain is processing information much faster than usual and increasing or decreasing the levels as the situation dictates. Running for your life or staying to fight is not at this point entirely under your own control, though the 10% of you not being guided by this chemical battle will have a bearing on the final outcome.
Highly trained individuals are much more able to overcome the flight part of the response and stand their ground and fight. Equally, in a hopeless situation their training allows them to make the decision to retreat faster than the average person would. Sadly though, many of those that will form part of ‘The Golden Hoarde’ in a collapse situation are also able to process the information faster than average people can. Many of the people that will be a threat to you are used to handling weapons and there is a good chance they have used those weapons on live targets. They are more used to violence and bloodshed than you are and this, like it or not, gives them the edge over you.
So what happens when you are in a situation where you can’t flee regardless of the fact that your brain is urging you to do so? Maybe your home is surrounded and there is physically nowhere to go. Maybe a child is seriously ill and cannot be moved…there are many reasons that could warrant staying put.
Your physiological response to the stress will be exactly the same as it would be if you actually had the option of fleeing and this is where the problem arises. Your brain will be working overtime to come up with a scenario that will allow you to leave the situation in safety. It will take it a few seconds to catch up to the fact that you can’t leave, and to adjust the flow of chemicals accordingly.
At this point you will start to become calmer, your breathing will slow a little, your heart rate will drop slightly but you will still be on heightened alert. This resolution phase enables you to think logically and clearly about the situation you find yourself in.
As I mentioned previously, those vital first few seconds can make or break a situation and at that point any advantage you can give yourself is worth exploring. The optimum is to give yourself some breathing space, literally, but to put the opposition into a state of stress, to switch places with them if you like. To put them into a stressful state gives you the upper hand, it buys you time and can even the playing field considerably.
Guerrilla warfare tactics have had a massive effect on regular, highly trained forces around the world for centuries. Those tactics have included leaving dead bodies lying around, a human skull standing on a pole, IED’s, unexpected loud alarms going off, stepping into a quagmire of human excrement…practically anything that is totally unexpected can have the desired effect. It’s a physiological response…those seeking to do you harm may be better at shooting another human without compunction but they are no better than you at not reacting to an entirely unexpected stressor.
I appreciate putting a couple of skulls on six feet poles is most likely not possible but anything from fishing hooks to barbed wire, chemical smells to tanglefoot can have an effect on those who are hellbent on doing you harm.
As an example: A 14 year old boy was accosted in London recently by a group of four youths. He saw them approaching and decided he didn’t like the odds and being close to his home he ran. His would be attackers followed. He reached his home and is fumbling with his key. The attacker leading the group slipped in dog waste, the others laughed. The kid covered in dog shit was disgusted and complaining loudly, the would-be victim opened the door and went inside. A very simple case of the unexpected, and in this case a totally unplanned distraction buying time.
Look at your situation, see what you can do to make the aggressors stressed, what surprises you can arrange that can put them into a state of confusion, what can you do to give you those vital seconds back? Use your understanding of how the human body works to give you a better chance when you have few other options.
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Contributed by Lizzie Bennett of Underground Medic.
Lizzie Bennett retired from her job as a senior operating department practitioner in the UK earlier this year. Her field was trauma and accident and emergency and she has served on major catastrophe teams around the UK. Lizzie publishes Underground Medic on the topic of preparedness.