Fear Turns Invisible

As a pilot, and as someone with a personal and professional interest in the emotion of fear, I was delighted to read the following in today’s front-page New York Times story about mayor Michael Bloomberg’s obsession with helicopters:

 Back in 1976, when Mr. Bloomberg was training to become a pilot, he nearly encountered disaster as he flew alone off the coast of Connecticut.

“I wasn’t sure what was going on in the engine compartment behind me, but I certainly knew I was falling and couldn’t breathe. I was going down,” he wrote in his autobiography. He landed on an island and ultimately put out the helicopter fire himself.

“Was I scared?” he wrote. “Well, there’d been no time for any emotion when I was in the air, and on the ground I was safe. So the answer is no — unless of course you count the internal shaking I couldn’t stop for the rest of the day.”

Funnily enough, a very similar story came up at a talk I gave just two days ago at my flying club in Poughkeepsie. I gave a brief presentation about the different kinds of fear that I’ve encountered as a pilot, and the mechanisms that underlie each. I said that I imagined that every single pilot has felt intense fear at one time or another, and that that was a good thing. Fear focuses our attention on what’s important and helps us to survive.

After the talk some of the guys shared their experiences. I found it particularly interesting that two of them discussed how they felt after unexpectedly losing engine power in the club’s Cessna 152 and having to make an emergency landing. Those stories brought a lump to my throat because apparently they happened quite recently. Last summer I took the plane on a long flight to Indiana and back, a trip of more than 1000 miles all told. I’d always assumed that the chance of losing engine power in a well-maintained, fully certified airplane was essentially zero. There were a few stretches along the way in which an engine-out would have put me in a dire predicament indeed.

At any rate, one of the pilots raised his hands and said that he while he thought there was a lot of sense in the points I’d made about fear, there was one major area where he thought I’d got it wrong: that we all naturally are bound to feel fear at some time or another. He said that he’d had one hair-raising flight that had the potential to go seriously wrong, and he hadn’t felt any fear at all. He just did what he had to do, and then didn’t feel any emotion at all until he was back on the ground.

“And how did you feel then?” I asked.

“Like I was going to keel over,” he said.

Basically, he had had the same kind of emotional response that Mayor Bloomberg had when he started to lose power over the Connecticut coast. Essentially, his fear response kicked in so strongly that it wiped out his sensation of emotion altogether. It was only when he was safely back on the ground, well away from the danger that had threatened him, that he was overwhelmed by a flood of feelings.

In researching my book Extreme Fear, I encountered many such stories. One of the case-studies I relate, for instance, is the experience of Dave Boon, who survived an avalanche that swept his car off the side of the mountain. He and his wife were severely bruised, but managed to survive without serious injury. At the time the accident was unfolding, he felt no emotion of fear – it was almost like he was watching himself in a movie. It was only, he said, when he went to see his car in the junkyard that the latent flood of emotion was released. “When I saw my car, my legs just buckled. I just sat down in the middle of the parking lot,” he told me. “That’s when it set in for me. I thought, holy crap, how did I get out of this?”

Fear can have many different manifestations, depending on the individual and the particulars of the situation. But one of the most helpful things in can do for us is to automatically focus our attention on what’s important and on doing what we need to do. One result of this is “cognitive tunneling”: everything apart from the relevant peril (a charging bear, a gun aimed at us) becomes invisible. Irrelevant thoughts vanish. Many people facing life-or-death moments report feeling an incredible sense of being focused, alive, aware, and present in the moment.

Another distraction we ignore is pain – we just don’t feel it. And, of course, in many cases we don’t feel fear. It’s not that the emotion isn’t there. It’s just that the primitive part of our brain that has evolved to help us survive in such situations has extraordinary power over what we do and don’t consciously perceive. When we’re totally focused on keeping ourselves alive, the emotional sensation of fear won’t help us, so it gets thrown out.

Only when we’re out of danger, and the ancient fear center switches off, is the censorship removed, and we suddenly feel the effects of all that cortisol and adrenaline coursing through our bloodstream. Another person I talked to for my book was Tucson resident Tom Boyle, jr. Boyle wasn’t in physical danger himself, but when he witnessed a bicyclist getting hit by and pinned under a car, he raced to the scene and lifted the vehicle high enough that the cyclist was able to get free. The intensity of the situation gave him preternatural focus and strength. But as soon as the victim was taken away in an ambulance, it was as though someone had pulled an electrical cord out of its socket.

 Boyle collapsed onto the ground. “Hon,” he said to his wife, “I’ve got to get home. I feel like I’m going tothrow up.”

Have you ever experienced intense danger without any accompanying feeling of danger? If so, please share in the comments — I’d love to hear about it.

3 thoughts on “Fear Turns Invisible”

  1. I’ve spent a lifetime dealing with a seriously over active fight, flight or freeze response – thanks to a potent combination of obsessive compulsive and ADD personality traits. For me, engaging the fear response through physical action is indeed the key to mental clarity – hence the reason I run compulsively  But mulling over the basic ethos of the article – that in a life-or-death situation you actually transcend fear and move into a zone of zero emotion – is something I can relate to. Although fortunately I can count on one hand the occasions I’ve found myself in a true life or death situation, in each instance I recall being entirely devoid of fear. I remember as a kid for example, hearing the shattering sound of glass and looking up to see shards of an entire window, together with a chair, falling to the ground from the 11th storey of an apartment – and on which I was on a collision course. Although the whole incident probably happened in less than a few seconds, time seemed to grind to a halt – I calmly analysed the trajectory of the shards (and the chair) and with total focus and clarity evaded the lethal shower. It was only after the incident that I remember feeling absolutely sick with fear – with the inevitable ‘what if’s’ racing around in my head. I’m sure that response to real life-or-death situations – which actually has the capacity to push you past the boundaries of fear – is probably something emergency and military personnel know all too well. I myself, often curse my sensitivity to the f-f-f response, but on that occasion (and a couple of others as well) that instinctive survival instinct – and the paradoxical calm and focus it has bestowed – has served me well.

  2. As a teenager I became a victim of the bad electric work done by a contractor in our new home who forgot to put electric leakage circuit breakers (ELCBs) that are essential for domestic electricity supply. This mistake almost caused me my death when the hot steam iron stuck to my right palm sending electric shocks to whole my body, which, due to shock went straight on the tiled floor. The hot iron burned my palm and electricity crooked my vocal cords until my mom hastily arrived hearing the loud thud and switched off the main power. The whole ordeal went for hardly 30 seconds or even less. I was under tremendous pain after it happened, but during this all I was thinking was how to switch off the power supply. My brain was functioning well during whole incident and it did not feel pain at all. A certain calmness covered me for those moments. I was shaken after the incident and had to lie down until I was taken to hospital. The fear never struck me, even when doctor told us that few more intimate moments with electricity could have killed me.

  3. Right now, as I read what these people were feeling it all SUDDENLY came back to me. A few years ago I was kidnapped in Shanghai. But fortunately, at the time it seemed to me that my kidnappers were amateurs. I remember feeling completely calm, even arrogant, ignoring anything they said to me which I had previously answered or addressed, even turned my back on them. Even when they pulled a knife, I could see the fear and uncertainty in their eyes.
    Reflecting on it later I remember how I felt no fear, in fact, I felt like I was playing with them when I made a bold threat they THEY would be dead soon if they did not release me. I had no way to back up my threat, but perhaps the calm, arrogant way in which I made the threat must have been what convinced them that I had the upper hand. I guess based on what you have written in this article, I did. My brainstem was in a mode which gave me infallible self confidence and strength. But I have to admit that my fearlessness later dissolved when I happily returned safely to my apartment. I remember I later felt an overwhelming emotion of fear when I just realised what I had been through.

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