How does the human body react during a crisis?
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Two years ago while on a guided boat tour in Ecuador, Australian woman Fiona Wilde and a British tourist were kidnapped.
It was the first day of Ms Wilde’s holiday and she could not have imagined what would happen next.
“I remember thinking, ‘Just hurry the f— up, you’re f—ing up my holiday, how long does it take to rob someone?’ I remember thinking little jokes in my head like, ‘I’ll have to tell my mates about this’,” the 34-year-old forensic scientist said.
“Once they got us off that boat and got us to run at gun point, that was when I figured this might be real.”
Fiona was held hostage for 30 hours, and throughout her ordeal, she knew she had to stay valuable to the bandits because the “only way out is relying on these three people that have just kidnapped me and are threatening my life.”
Professor Richard Bryant, from the School of Psychology at UNSW and Director of the Traumatic Stress Clinic, said research shows emergency personnel or people who are trained professionals will cope better in a disaster.
“So [if] they are trained to do it, they can slot into a certain zone, and certain decisions and actions are automatic … I know what to do, I’ve been there before. You’re in the zone. What we see, especially in experienced people, they don’t have the extreme arousal of underprepared novices.”
The overstimulation or arousal that Mr Bryant raised is a something which could also lead people to “freezing” up in a high stress situation.
“We see this [freezing] very frequently in animal literature; if you scare a rat in the laboratory, it freezes. In animals it’s seen as a safety thing – if I’m still, the predator might not notice me. People can freeze in a trauma situation, for that reason it becomes overwhelming, our normal cognitive processes aren’t in pay, you shut it out,” he said.
“In a big stress event there is a period of being almost stunned.”
Dr Penelope Burns, a senior Lecturer at UWS who has been specialising in disaster medicine says a person’s cognition is affected because they are trying to process what’s going on.
“For example in a big stress event, when you drive into the hazard, there is a period of being almost stunned. The input from your eyes and ears leaves your brain trying to work out what it’s going to do… Do I run? Do I stay? We see this takes a period of about a minute to two minutes,” Dr Burns explains.
“There is a lot of indecision … If no one is doing anything, people will often be waiting for someone to do something, waiting for someone else to initiate course of action.”
Ms Wilde told Insight a lot of the other tourists seemed paralysed by what was unfolding, but for her it was a different story.
“A lot of people say they went numb but I didn’t. If anything I became so stimulated. All my senses were stimulated. Colours were brighter; light reflecting off leaves was hurting my eyes. My sense of smell, everything was so incredibly heightened,” she said.
Mr Bryant says in an event such as trauma, high levels of arousal can change a person’s focus.
“When people go through that [trauma], they have tunnel vision – they focus on the threat and they are not aware of anything else. For example, if you hit the brakes on a car, and you’re sliding towards a pole, most people will say ‘I was totally fixated on the pole’. But if you ask them what the person next to them was doing they have no memory.
“In this state you are not taking in peripheral vision – you can only see the centre of your sight. When we get to very high levels of arousal, we actually don’t code anything, we enter a cognitive overload because there is so much going on,” Mr Bryant said.
“If you make their lives difficult you become a burden.”
Ms Wilde said she dealt with her predicament by keeping silent and to try to be as less of a burden as possible for the bandits.
“My way [to survive] was not making it difficult, otherwise you become a problem. Right now you’re an asset, if you make their [the captors’] lives difficult you become a burden and disposable. We had to rely on them. I just constantly processed. I evaluated the situation and I worked out how to stay alive. Also, if I felt really overwhelmed I would meditate.”
“It seems strange but after that night I had to spend with him, I made it my perogative to bond with him, to smile at him, to make him think I was on his side … I think in his deluded mind he thought I wanted to be with him. And that worked out for me.”
Ms Wilde was surprised by how she had handled the situation, and believes her police training definitely helped her stay calm throughout the whole ordeal.
“I’d go through those desperate ‘oh my God we’re going to die moments’, but they never took over,” she said.
“I work with such strong and courageous people, so yeah I guess I would have hoped I was strong enough to get through it. I surprised myself. I’ve had depression most of my life and I’ve always thought of myself as weak because of it, not anymore.”
“What did surprise me about my behaviour, I just did these things and I didn’t think. I knew it was the best way to keep alive. It’s like there was a manual and I knew what was in the manual and I’d be fine. That was totally following my instincts that said ‘this is the way to live’.”
So what are there steps that can be taken to promote resilience in a community?
Mr Bryant said most people are quite resilient, though there is always a proportion of the population who don’t cope well. He has also found that isn’t much evidence in regards to preparing people for every situation.
“For the last number of years the military and others, the police, are searching for the holy grail of being able to make people resilient. Is there a program we can initiate and create this person who is impervious to stress? Clearly that doesn’t happen.”
Mr Bryant believes we need to do more to find a better way at recognising that people are resilient, and to create a systems that could help reduce their arousal after an incident.
“Again the exposure to multiple stresses after the event [can] compound things … Everyone is different, but if you are in an enduring state of adversity the protracted state of stress keeps those levels up.”
“The main problem we have is people get lost in the system and turn up years later. If you have effective systems in place then you can monitor them better. You can try and identify people who are high risk.”
Mr Bryant also recommends work being done to make organisations more resilient and supportive, and less negative in how they manage stress.
“I thought he’d shoot us in the back.”
As the search and rescue party was getting closer and with the repeated helicopter flyovers, Ms Wilde said her captors realised the “heat was on” and that’s when they got their break.
“When he told us to run, Katie just grabbed my arm and bolted. I wasn’t comfortable. I didn’t want to turn my back and run, I thought he’d shoot us in the back. But when I looked back, he was already making his way off and then instinct took over and I bolted.”
Eight months after their escape, Ms Wilde has just come back from Ecuador, where she returned to testify at the trial for one of her kidnappers, an experience she described, next to being kidnapped, as “one of the hardest things” she had ever done.
Fiona Wilde and Professor Richard Bryant are both guests on Insight. Tonight’s episode asks – what does it take to survive? Survivors share their stories with host Jenny Brockie, discussing what goes through their minds in those critical moments.