Those who work in law enforcement and emergency services deal with the almost mystical substance that is known as adrenaline. A lot.
Of course, all humans have some experience with this bodily-produced drug, some more than others. Let’s take a look at the effects that it can have on our bodies.
But first, why does it exist?
Adrenaline is inside of us as a natural protectant. In times of crisis, it is there to help us achieve peak performance, so that we can prevail in the event of combat or if we’re under attack.
Some people believe that, in modern times, we don’t need adrenaline as much as we did back in our “caveman” days, but this isn’t the case. While many peoples’ lives these days are relatively tame when compared to the days when we hunted wild animals (or they hunted us), there are still times when life can reach out and touch us.
Traffic accidents, assaults, athletic events, rescues, and arrests are but a few times when adrenaline comes in very handy to help us out.
Throughout my career working in corrections, I’ve experienced every one of the facets of the adrenaline dump that we’re going to look at here during emergency situations that I was involved in. Simply gearing up for work is enough to get a mild rush for many people; strapping on a protective vest, duty belt, uniform, gun, and other gear reminds us where we work and what we’re preparing to do. And that’s just a “normal” day!
Auditory exclusion occurs because our mind shuts out what it believes is extraneous information that we don’t need at the time in order to survive. As a result, we often do not hear what is going on around us. Even loud noises, such as gunshots, explosions, and shouted orders, may be blocked out or muted so that they sound as if they’re coming from a far off place. In an emergency, this can pose a problem because we may be missing vital information such as shouted orders or radio calls.
Tachypsychia is our perception of the altering of time. Specifically, the feeling that the unfolding events are occurring in slow motion, sometimes feeling as though it is a sort of surreal dream state. The mind can race wildly, and a ridiculous volume of thoughts can be compressed into a tiny span of time. This effect is sometimes achieved by the taking of drugs as well. Adrenaline is simply a drug produced by the body. As such, our thinking and perceptions are altered when we’re under the influence of adrenaline.
Adrenaline causes the pupils to dilate, and this dilation lets in more light, which can be helpful during an emergency. Many people report not being able to see their sights during gunfights, and this is likely an effect of the adrenaline.
The mind focuses on what it perceives to be the immediate threat, and excludes what it believes is unnecessary at the time. We may see the threat only, and peripheral vision is blocked out, as if we’re literally looking down a tunnel. This can be a real issue because we may not see threats approaching from our sides or behind.
We try to overcome this during our training, but it’s difficult to replicate the effects of adrenaline during training, and since adrenaline alters our thinking, sometimes we have major difficulty accessing our training while under the effects of adrenaline. It becomes a Catch-22.
One mistake, and lives are lost. Your backup is the difference between whether
you go home at the end of the shift. Photos by John Pavoncello
Firefighters routinely deal with harrowing events.
Adrenaline often dulls our sense of pain as part of our body’s own protection. I’ve talked with literally hundreds of survivors from incidents in which they’ve received wounds (usually from bullets and edged weapons), and there is an overwhelming trend: A large percentage of them did not realize at the time that they had been shot, stabbed or otherwise wounded—and many were seriously injured. Many felt no pain from several minutes to hours later after their wounding, even after discovering their wounds.
Mind you, some did feel immediate pain, but from my very informal survey, those who immediately felt pain were in the solid minority. It seems that our bodies often doed an effective job of masking the pain until after the life-threatening emergency is concluded.
Blood moves from our extremities to our internal organs for two reasons:
• It helps us to perform better when our core is oxygenated.
• Less blood in our extremities means that if we are cut/shot/wounded in an extremity, there is less blood loss for us and we can keep performing longer.
The problem with that leads us to our next order of business…
LOSS OF FINE MOTORE SKILLS
The reduced blood flow to extremities is the likely cause for us having less ability to perform complex, fine tasks, especially with our fingers.
A good friend and outstanding tactical instructor, Robert Desrosiers, described it to me once as, “Your hands suddenly become flippers!” I think that sums it up rather nicely.
Some people are seriously affected in this area, and this can make it next to impossible for us to do tasks that we take for granted—dialing a phone, flipping the safety of a firearm on or off, accessing keys lock or unlock doors. The list goes on, but it’s serious stuff, especially when fractions of a second count!
This can be a big help for us. Not so much though when the bad guys experience it (let’s not forget crooks have adrenaline glands too).
We’ve all heard the account of the mother lifting a car off of her child using super-human strength. There are a myriad of examples of feats such as this, and I’ve seen a couple, such as an inmate snapping leather restraints, or a video I watched in which a bank robber was shot through the heart during a robbery, and he ran outside the bank and made it quite far down the block before finally collapsing and dying.
Just because a person is mortally wounded, don’t think he cannot still harm you!
Obscured vision can add to the confusion and difficulty with target identification, which can up the ante.
Tunnel vision is a fact of life for those whose occupations elicit adrenaline dumps.
Fear must be overridden, no matter how intense.
During a few incidents I’ve been involved in, I forgot details of what happened until I spoke to witnesses or participants afterward and they mentioned details that unlocked a door in my brain. “Oh yeah, I forgot about that!” This is part of what makes law enforcement and military debriefings, or after-action reports, important.
As mentioned, adrenaline is a drug, and it affects how we think, and apparently memory is not immune to its effects. This is likely another example of the mind discarding what it considers to be unnecessary information that is not directly related to the Fight/Flight crisis at hand.
For example, before one very violent incident in which I was involved on duty, I’d been having a conversation with a coworker. The incident kicked off, and until I spoke to that same coworker the following day and he reminded me that we’d been talking, I had utterly put it out of my mind.
When he mentioned it, it was as though a floodgate in my mind opened, but until that time, it was as if my mind had compartmentalized it into a “This doesn’t really matter” folder.
If involved in a shooting this is a good reason why you should not immediately give a statement. You don’t want to fumble with an answer to an attorney, “Why can you remember this now and you couldn’t remember just after it happened?”
People occasionally ask me how they can train for traumatic events such as those we may face on duty. That’s a tough one to answer.
Ideally, we’d put ourselves into conditions that cause an actual adrenaline dump, but in which our lives weren’t in danger. The problem is that this is very difficult to do because our mind is pretty good at deciphering whether or not we’re really in danger and whether adrenaline is called for or not.
Various units are enjoying decent results with force-on-force training where Simunitions trainers are used because there are real humans trying to shoot us—albeit with munitions that hurt far less than real bullets. The idea is to train under adrenal stress so that we can learn how to function under it.
Mundane, calm classroom training does not allow this, and this is why we often see individuals who are trained in the classroom-only atmosphere “freeze up” when the chips are down. They are simply not accustomed to operating with adrenaline coursing through their veins.
In the prison where I worked training is largely of the on-the-job type. In my time there I went through many incidents that were adrenaline-charged events. Each time, I became a bit more used to operating under the influence of adrenaline, and the more experienced I became, generally, the better I could function during emergencies.
And it wasn’t just me. That’s why rookies often do not perform as well as veterans, regardless of what profession we’re talking about, but especially where violent events are concerned.
THE FREEZE RESPONSE
Sometimes, when we’re in an adrenalized state, we “freeze”, or become immobilized. This can occur because our brain is overloaded with thoughts and we can’t choose a course of action. I’ve heard it referred to as “Paralysis by Analysis”.
This phenomenon actually happens more often than most people like to admit. It’s simply the mind’s inability to process so many thoughts and decide on a course of action in such a compressed time frame, and it’s happened to most people who respond to emergencies at one time or another.
There is another “freeze” that sometimes occurs, but this one takes place after the event itself is over. It’s called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. For those afflicted with PTSD, it can sometimes freeze a person’s progress in dealing with the aftermath of traumatic events. Symptoms can include anxiety, depression, and flashbacks that can play out in a person’s mind uncontrollably and at random, often inconvenient times.
The flashbacks are rather like nightmares, but they occur while a person is awake and they can be quite vivid. Of course, nightmares during sleep can also occur, disrupting sleep.
Sometimes the decision to use force can be more frightening than the prospect of being injured.
Try steadying the crosshairs when your heart is pounding and your breathing is rapid as adrenaline courses through your veins. Snipers have to override this in order to make the shot.
It wasn’t until the first stabbing that I was involved in while working in the prison that I grasped just how many thoughts could race through my head in an incredibly short time frame. I swear, in the span of one second, the following thoughts rushed through my mind:
“Oh my God, he just stabbed the guy next to me, he’s really close, that knife is HUGE, doesn’t he see me standing here, they’re not supposed to stab each other right in front of the guards, he must be planning on killing me next, here he comes, will my training really work….”
And on the thoughts went! I was terrified and fairly convinced that I was about to be killed or seriously injured. I happened to be faster than the large man with the huge knife and my footwork allowed me to evade his attack.
I don’t care who you are, or how much experience you have. During such an incident, you will experience a large amount of mental shock. It will take you a certain time frame to process exactly what is happening to you.
Now consider that many of us who work in violent prisons walk around our work site basically expecting trouble. It’s just a matter of time before something happens, and those with enough experience realize that. So we anticipate it, we expect it.
Now here is the key: even those of us expecting trouble are still usually surprised, if only for an instant, when it does hit the fan. Imagine how much more time it is going to take the average person, who is not in such an environment, and who is not expecting that sort of trouble, to process it and react. You can begin to understand how important mindset and experience truly are when put into this context.
In conclusion, I do not believe there is any magical formula to dealing with adrenal stress. Training is certainly a worthwhile endeavor, and the more realistic one can make that training, the better and more worthwhile it will likely be.
Seek out people who have “seen the elephant” and who are experienced in the particular field that you need information on. Keep in mind that simply having “been there, done that” is not necessarily a sterling endorsement of one’s teaching ability, either.
Does this make it tough to find good trainers? You bet! But it behooves each of us to try to get the best that we can afford and obtain.
Keep vigilant and hang tough!
Jim Davis has worked for the Department of Corrections in his state for the past 24 years in one of the largest prisons in the country. He has been involved in numerous violent encounters on duty.