unexpected calmness in a dangerous situation

While driving the other morning, a semi nearly ran me over while he was changing lanes.

A little background and clarification: I was on his right, presumably in a blind spot, just about halfway between the front and rear of the trailer. I’d just recently merged onto the loop (on the left-most of the two “dedicated” merge lane), so I didn’t really have a choice, yet, as to which lane I was in, etc. (“dedicated” = the lane doesn’t exist prior to the main interstate exiting onto the loop.)


I’m cruising along, there’s semis on either side of me, and the semi on the left starts to creep into my lane. I react in time, and am able to slow down quickly enough so that the semi doesn’t hit me (barely) but slowly enough so that the car following me doesn’t plow into my rear. It was very close, though. Too close.

I don’t drive for a living, I don’t generally drive in stressful situations or “bad” traffic, so it’s not as if it’s a “same old same old” situation for me. I’ve been in other situations – which were far less dangerous – where I felt an adrenaline rush, anger, fear, or what have you, but I felt absolutely nothing in this instance (other than calm).

Why was I completely nonchalant about the whole experience?

I don’t know the answer without googling it, but this reminds me of my own experience - I was going on the UK’s most famous roller-coaster (at the time) known as ‘the big one’. I was nervous as hell as we sat waiting for the thing to go, but as soon as it got out of the hut my nervousness was replaced with an unusual calm. I remained calm (calmer than the ‘default’ calm) all the way up the long climb to the first drop.

I have heard that people experience a similar phenomenon when they are in a plane that is going to crash. I assume it is a defence mechanism. I don’t know what evolutionary advantage it would have, but I’d be interested to find out. Off to google it now.
edit: My google-fu is failing me for now.

Sometimes it’s like that - I walked into the middle of an armed robbery once and the whole thing was so surreal it was like watching a movie - didn’t faze me a bit. I was calmer than calm - felt almost tranked, really. It was all in slow motion.

Of course, later that night I heard a noise downstairs and almost accidentally eviscerated my dog with a pair of dressmakers’ shears. (Why he had to pick THAT NIGHT to learn how to open the door from the kitchen I will never know.)

Can’t explain the why but I would be willing to say you probably have the same “gift” that makes some people good EMT’s, firefighters, and cops. The ability to act effectively and decisively in a crisis is not easily trained.

It’s a good stress response to have.

Mine’s similar - I’m fine as long as the crisis/stress is going on, but as soon as it’s over, or I’m no longer needed to be ‘in charge’ of whatever situation, I go all to jello.

It’s really frustrating. If I’m fine during the stress itself, why can’t I keep calm for just an extra 5 minutes, maybe an hour, get to somewhere where people can’t see me, and THEN start shaking and having my muscles cramp up?

Much nicer to just be calm throughout the whole thing and the aftermath. I’m a little jealous!

This happened years ago, but I still remember it like it was yesterday. I was taking the kids to the babysitters, which is along a two lane road and steep ditches on each side. There’s some pedestrian walking along the shoulder of the road, which I almost hit because there was no room. I stopped a few car lengths past him because I had to make a left hand turn to get into the babysitter’s driveway, and I wait for traffic to clear before I turn.

Suddenly I hear a noise and look to the right. The passenger door is open and there’s a man about to sit in the passenger seat! I immediately floor it and he almost falls out of the car under the wheels, but he manages to get in. My very next thought is “I have to send this son of a bitch through the windshield before he can put his seat belt on.” The guy yells about me almost killing him, then when he turns to look at me, he sees that A) we’re accelerating quickly B) I’m not even looking at the road, I’m completely turned towards him with the most :mad: and crazy wild eyed look on my face ever. His face looks like :eek: and he starts blubbering about how he thought I was stopping to pick him up, and to just stop the car and let him out.

I slammed on the brakes, and he bonked his head on the windshield. I told him to get the fuck out, which he did, quickly. I turned the car around and went back to the babysitters. I asked the kids if they were OK, which they were totally cool. They were 2 and 4 at the time, I don’t think they fully realized what had happened. I took them in, told the babysitter about what happened, then went to work. I felt so alive all day! I’m really glad I didn’t have to wreck the car, because I didn’t have insurance at the time, and I couldn’t afford to buy another one.

Well, there was a small earthquake at my school today. No building damage or injuries, but the earth did shake a bit. I expected to be a lot more scared than I actually was, although I did have quite the adrenaline rush while hunkered under a desk. The kids didn’t seem scared at all.

Wow, EvilTOJ, I am impressed!

My moment of calmness was when I ripped open my arm on new sharp barb wire, through the skin and exposing the fat layer down to an earthwormy looking artery. We were only about 40 minutes from a hospital though and I hadn’t actually nicked the artery so the wound stopped bleeding pretty quickly. There was no use in freaking out, so I didn’t. I wish though that I could always have such an impassive and objective reaction to stressful events in my life, that’d be a handy thing to count on.

Oops, upon rereading, mine doesn’t really fit the definition of dangerous situation. It’s just the most recent time I remember being totally calm when someone else was freaking out.

I thankfully haven’t had a lot of dangerous situations, but it has been interesting how time has either sped up or slowed down–or felt slowed down and then you have a bit of a hard time pinning down the sequence afterward, or really knowing if you could have reacted differently in the time frame given.

I’ve only had one near-miss in traffic. Some guy cut over from the right lane to the left in front of a line of 4 cars in steady 45 mph traffic then JAMMED DOWN HIS BRAKES LIKE HIS LIFE DEPENDED ON IT! (I still have no idea why, there was no turn or anything. Maybe he wanted to spend thousands of insurance company dollars to save a hapless bunny?) Anyway, I was the car in back of the line. I reacted appropriately, and ended up stopping within an inch of causing a 5 car pile-up. But the whole time my brain was in the redzone of panic. OMGOMGOMGOMGOMG I’M GONNA BE ON THE HOOK FOR LIKE A BILLION DOLLARS BECAUSE THE CAR IN THE BACK ALWAYS GETS FAULTED OMGOMG! (I guess it’s 'cause I work in auto insurance that that’s the first place my brain goes)

I wouldn’t say I was calm about it. Nor did time go by slowly. It all happened in a split fucking second (well maybe 3 seconds, technically, including the time to stop), and I was smashing the fuck out of my brakes knowing that whether the car stopped or not, it was completely out of my control and in the hands of that bitch, inertia. I didn’t panic afterward, per se, but the adrenaline rush took a couple of hours to completely go away. My hands were shaking for at least a half hour afterward. I didn’t cry but I felt like a blubbery, pissed-off mess.

I came across an interesting bit of research via ScienceDaily today: Scientists Discover Anti-Anxiety Circuit in Brain Region Considered the Seat of Fear

A bit overblown, perhaps, but the Nature article seems to say much the same thing (based on the title and abstract–I didn’t pay to read the rest). Essentially, the researchers were able to target a particular region of the amygdala, which is often associated with fear responses, that instead suppressed anxiety.

I’m not sure what would normally stimulate the response, but maybe that’s the fear off-switch those of us who tend to go calm in a crisis are hitting somehow. It could be more sensitive in some people than others, or we might just have a knack for triggering it. (Yes, I’m in the calm-now-shake-later set as well.)

I’ve had it happen a couple of times. I’ve always written it off to my ADD - being easily distracted also means being able to assess new situations quickly.

Once in a figure drawing class, one of the models, a heavily pregnant lady, fainted. I was sitting on a drawing horse and managed to dump my charcoal, paper pad, and the seat over, and catch her head as she went down. Another time, I caught a friend’s little girl as she tried to climb over a chair and inadvertently pushed the chair away from herself. I just leaned over, stuck my hand out and caught her like she was taking a Superman jump on purpose.

Both times I was extremely proud of myself and then had a delayed minute of incoherent panic.

I wouldn’t know why but I’ve already wondered about this.
I’ve been assaulted (by thieves) twice. First time by a guy alone, unarmed (except for a pepper spray), at a busy crossroad. The second by 6-7 guys, in a back alley, one holding a knife at my throat, one at my belly. I was perfectly calm and level-headed the second time, not at all the first time.

My opinion in my case is that the first time I had options (flee, fight, call for help, etc…) and somehow it resulted in confusion and agitation (instinctive reactions, maybe, adrenaline rush, whatever) . The second time, on the other hand, I was trapped, and could only rely on my brain (pondering the options, thinking about what I should say and do…).

Anyway, it seems to me that though I didn’t control those reactions, they were in both cases well adapted to the situation.

It seems to me that fear is useful to trigger a sensible and immediate reaction (there’s a lion just over there, let’s flee rather than look at the beautiful scenery), but that past a certain point it doesn’t serve any purpose, and switching to “level headed mode” is more useful (well, didn’t work…the lion is now in front of me and about to jump, what should I do?").

So, we might be wired that way.

I was driving on a road with lots of semi-truck traffic; I was in my MG, which was tiny. Going about 40 and the light ahead turns yellow. I could have maybe made it, but I don’t rely on maybes when I’m driving so I step on the brakes. I hear a noise behind me, and in the rearview mirror I can see headlights that are about as high as my roof and they’re shuddering up and down. A semi behind me is hard on the brakes.

No panic. I just eased up on my own brakes enough to stay a few feet in front of him. I figure whatever I might hit in front of me can’t be worse than what I know is behind me. We come to a rest with the truck right at the stop line for the intersection, and me just in front of that. The cross traffic has to steer around me a little bit. My light turns green and I drive off.

I’ve always kinda wondered about my reaction. It always seemed like I should have been more scared than I was; didn’t even get the shakes later. I wondered about the truck driver, too; was he scared, or just royally pissed? I wasn’t gonna go ask him to find out, though.

Then there was the time I went to sleep during stormy seas and woke up to a bell ringing and someone calling “man overboard”. I knew where I was supposed to go, what I was supposed to do, and I did it.

I’m similar. The few real stress situations I’ve had in my life, I felt this strange, surreal “hyperfocus”, where it seemed like the world slowed down for me, I was completely calm, and everything was based around completing one single objective. I wish I could conjure up that sort of determination in normal functionings. Alas, it only seems to happen in real “mission critical” situations for me.

However, every time I’ve had this, immediately after the danger was eliminated or critical task was completed (driving a friend with a medical emergency to the hospital), my body and brain went haywire, and have experienced minor panic attacks. It’s during the destress, when I have time to process the information logically, that my emotions catch up to me.

Wow, I feel bad for that guy. He’s probably posting at another forum in the “WTF moments with strangers” thread: “First of all, this car nearly runs me off the road, then stops to pick me up, but when I open the door they accelerate out of control, then slam on the brakes to make me hit my head on the windshield and then have the temerity to tell me to get the fuck out. Later I learned that this driver was also illegally operating the car with insurance. WTF?”

That happened to me once when a nut came into a lobby where I was waiting and proceeded to start smashing everything with a bat. Normally I’m very easily startled but that time I felt relatively calm and kept my head. Other people were screaming, I just found a good hiding place until the cops came.

Anyone else finding this post to be really scary and sad now? I checked the date stamp, and :frowning:

This phenomenon was mentioned by David Livingstone (you know, the explorer found by Stanley who greeted him with the famous “Dr. Livingstone, I presume”). In his book “MISSIONARY TRAVELS AND RESEARCHES IN SOUTH AFRICA”, published in 1858, Livingstone relates his encounter with a lion in 1844. Livingstone and some native Africans were pursuing some lions that had been attacking some villages. This is what he wrote, in extenso (sorry for the length, but I think it makes good reading. Also, emphasis mine in the excerpt that follows):

It would seem that this “unexpected calmness” has some physiological basis.