In an Encounter with a Cougar, Four Different Ways to Panic

The new issue of The Brain, Discover magazine’s newsstand special, is now out, and with it an excerpt from Extreme Fear in which I discuss Sue Yellowtail’s struggle with a mountain lion in a remote canyon in southwestern Colorado:

At 25, Sue Yellowtail was just a few years out of college, working for the Ute Indian tribe as a water quality specialist. Her job was to travel through remote areas of the reservation, collecting samples from the streams, creeks, and rivers. She spent her days criss-crossing remote backcountry, territory closed to visitors, and rarely traveled even by locals. It’s the kind of place where, if you got in trouble, you were on your own.

On a clear, cold morning in late December Yellowtail pulled her pickup over to the side of the little-traveled dirt double-track, a few yards from a simple truss bridge that spanned the creek. As she collected her gear she heard a high-pitched scream. Probably a coyote killing a rabbit, she thought. She clambered down two steep embankments to the water’s edge. Wading to the far side of the creek, she stooped to stretch her tape measure the width of the flow. Just then she heard a rustling and looked up. At the top of the bank not 30 feet away, stood a mountain lion. Tawny against the brown leaves of the riverbank brush, the animal was almost perfectly camouflaged. It stared down at her, motionless.

She stood stock still.

As I go on to explain, Yellowtail had entered the first instinctual fear-response state, the condition of freezing known as attentive immobility. But her trial had just begun. Within the next 15 minutes, she would pass through the three other distinct forms of panic.

As I’ve written before, in the throes of intense fear, we suddenly find ourselves operating in different and unexpected ways. Sometimes these are positive, other times not. For one thing, the psychological tools that we normally use to navigate the world — reasoning and planning before we act — get progressively shut down. Instead, in the grip of the brain’s subconscious fear centers, we behave in ways that to our rational minds seem nonsensical or worse. We might respond automatically, with pre-programmed motor routines, or simply melt down. We lose control.

In this unfamiliar realm, it can seem like we’re in the grip of utter chaos. But though the preconscious fear centers of the brain are not capable of deliberation and reason, they do have their own logic, a simplified suite of responses keyed to the nature of the threat at hand. There is a structure to panic.

The first researcher to begin sketching out the logic of fear was Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon. In 1915, he pointed out that the different effects of sympathetic arousal — the increased heart rate and blood flow, the sweating, the trembling, and all the rest — all serve one underlying purpose: to prepare the body for a vigorous defense. Cannon’s idea was so persuasive that his pithy encapsulation — “fight or flight” — has become the best-known term for the sympathetic nervous system.

Like many theories that subsume a great deal of data into one compelling explanation, however, it has turned out to be oversimplified. There are not two kinds of defensive reaction but at least four, each with a suite of physiological responses optimized to handle a different category of threat. When the danger is far away, or at least not immediately imminent, the instinct is to freeze. When danger is approaching, the impulse is to run away. When escape is impossible, the response is to fight back. And when struggling is futile, the animal will become immobilized in the grip of fright. Although it doesn’t slide quite as smoothly off the tongue,  a more accurate description than “fight or flight” would be “fight, freeze, flight, or fright” — or, for short, “the Four F’s.”

What I find uncanny is that, although these behaviors are governed by deep, automatic regions of our unconscious brain, people later report after a life-or-death crisis that they decided to carry them out. I tell the story in the book, for instance, of a student who says that during the Virgina Tech decided to play dead — whereas the neuroscience would suggest that he had no actual part in the decision. I’d be keen to hear from readers who have been in an intensely frightening situation and felt that experienced one of the four F’s. Did fighting, freezing, fleeing, or playing dead seem like something you chose to do, or something that just happened to you?

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