Thursday, May 27, 2010

Does this happen to anyone else?

Sometimes when I'm startled or scared, my body has this weird response, like it's suddenly flooded with some fight-or-flight chemical (adrenaline? cortisol?? catecholamines??) that I perceive as a distinct but passing pain, mostly in my torso but to some extent in my legs, a kind of intense twinge that feels somehow sour (the bodily equivalent of tasting stomach acid in your mouth). I hate this feeling. Some instances in which it might occur: when I have to slam on the brakes or swerve to avoid an accident; when I wake up from a bad nightmare; when my fear of heights is triggered (this can happen just from looking at photographs of someone on a precarious ledge; it happened repeatedly while I was watching Man on Wire). Anyone know what this is or have the same experience?


  1. I've experienced similar symptoms with mild panic attacks in the past. No idea what the physiological trigger was but I would get them anytime I felt I was losing control of my physical and/or mental faculties, and sometimes when I just thought that I might lose control.

    Thankfully, I don't need to worry about this happening anymore as I apparently no longer have any physical or mental faculties to lose control of.

  2. I've experienced similar reactions (I almost said symptoms, but that's maybe a little extreme), at moments of sudden high stress.

    I Googled "adrenaline" and checked the Wikipedia article -- ergo caveat lector -- (Wiki redirected to the article on epinephrine, which according to Wiki is another name for adrenaline). I also checked the Wiki article on "fight-or-flight response," which was linked in the first article.

    Among the particulars that caught my attention from the two articles:

    Epinephrine/adrenaline is a catecholamine.

    Among the common physiological effects of the release of adrenaline are: the heart rate increases, blood vessels contract, the breathing passage dilates.

    According to the fight-or-flight article, catecholamines are active in the fight-or-flight response. Among additional physical effects that article lists are: slowing or stopping of digestion, inhibition of tear ducts and salivation, dilation of the pupils, loss of peripheral vision, loss of hearing.

    The fight-or-flight article mentions contraction of blood vessels in many parts of the body, but also says that blood vessels for muscles dilate. The article mentions acceleration of body reflexes. These among other effects.

    In general, as I read it, the body under high stress redirects blood flow to the parts of the body that may be needed to protect itself, and speeds up some functions (heart rate, reflexes, etc.) that may also be needed. The weakening of vision and hearing would explain why things seem to become blurred. The decrease in salivation may explain the dry-mouth sensation. The slowing of digestion may explain the pit-of-the-stomach sensation.

    Adrenaline and (apparently) various other catecholamines appear to be involved in all of the above, under high stress.

  3. Yup, sounds like a panic attack. Do spots also appear in your field of vision? Shortness of breath?

  4. No, just the weird sensation, which only lasts 1 or 2 seconds. But this is in situations where it becomes clear really quickly that I'm not actually in danger. The first time I went up in a ski lift I basically had a panic attack.

  5. what happened when you went down the mountain?

  6. That wasn't scary because if I fell I wouldn't have died. (It was like a bunny hill.) But the lift was like 50 feet up and I wasn't strapped in or anything.

  7. the two times i went skiing, i never left the bunny slope. not a hard decision. didn't even have to use a lift--there was a moving rope that ran along the ground, which you would just pick up and let it tug you up the hill. it was almost as much fun as skiing down.

  8. A rope would have been nice. I might have liked the skiing part OK but it wasn't really good enough to overcome the complete horror of the lifts. I can't think of a time I've been so scared.

    All for the better, really, since downhill skiing is so expensive/involved.

  9. where was it? with me, it was school/band trips to a place called paoli peaks in southern indiana, where all the mountains are in scare quotes.

  10. New Mexico, where the mountains can get fairly real.