November 13th, 2009
01:46 PM ET

Fight or flight: The chemical motivator

ashleycarBy Ashley J. WennersHerron
CNN NY Medical News Intern

It was the last day of winter break. I was driving to a friend’s house to say goodbye before returning to New York for the spring semester. I was stopped at an intersection when the light turned green. I pushed down the gas and saw a flash of white. Next thing I knew, I was facing the wrong way, toward oncoming traffic and I could feel the January wind rushing in through the driver’s side window I had shattered with my head. My steering wheel was stuck and hitting the brakes did nothing. I hit another car head on and side-scrapped a third. I barreled up a hill, finally stopping just feet away from a row of gas pumps.
ashleycarpicMy airbags had deployed, filling the air with a foul smell and bits of grit. Disoriented and terrified, I thought the burning odor meant my car was on fire. I tore my seat belt open, which was no easy feat. In the impact, I slammed against the armrest, breaking it, which jammed the seat belt buckle. I got myself free, dove through the broken window (my door wouldn’t open), somersaulted to a standing position and ran away from the car I thought was going to blow up. When I reached what I perceived as safety, I collapsed. It felt as if I couldn’t move at all. During my escape, I couldn’t feel the pain, but as soon as I relaxed, I became aware of the extent of my injuries. My head felt as if it were leaking (a result of a concussion and a hairline skull fracture), my ribs were bruised, my leg was banged up and I had shards of glass and airbag dust in my eyes. I could barely answer the paramedic’s questions; how had I managed to perform acrobatic tricks just minutes earlier?

The answer lies in the functions of the autonomic nervous system, a branch of the central nervous system, which is what operates involuntary body functions, including breathing and blinking. The autonomic nervous system operates the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The first perks up in a fight-or-flight situation, where danger is perceived. It releases adrenaline, a hormone also known as epinephrine, in response to fear or anxiety. It dilated my eyes and heightened my other senses, allowing for a higher intake of information. It also increased my blood pressure, which let oxygen travel quickly to my muscles and brain, explaining my circus-stunt escape route. Adrenaline powered my body in preparation for an attack or to flee. I wasn’t about to fight my Chevrolet Blazer, so I did everything I could to put distance between it and myself.

As soon as I was safe, my parasympathetic nervous system took over. The norepinephrine (the opposite of adrenaline) slowed my breathing, lowered my blood pressure and relaxed my muscles. My body had entered a long-term state, beginning the process of assessment and healing.

I’m glad to say that despite the severity of the accident, everyone involved was able to walk away. Now, I’m still in physical therapy and I will forever have scars of the accident, but my body took care of me in the moment.

Have you ever experienced unusual focus or strength in the face of danger?

soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. Linda Zaremski

    Wow...isn't it interesting how the body kicks into action during times of injury/shock...

    November 13, 2009 at 16:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. kat

    Norepinephrine is part of the parasympathetic nervous system and works with epinephrine to induce the fight-or-flight response. We use it at the hospital to RAISE blood pressure in patients experiencing servere/uncontrolled hypotension.

    November 14, 2009 at 08:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Heather

    ACh (acetylcholine) mediates the parasympathetic NS; NE and EPI have comparable effects.

    November 14, 2009 at 15:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Patrick cross

    Wow!it is interesting 2 find how our body takes care of itself in times of danger.

    November 15, 2009 at 03:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. satan

    could this response theory also be used by people who are being taken into custody be the police.why wouldn't it be.if you are approached by the police and you have grown up with the idea that the police are a threat then would'nt it warrant a fight or flight response i have seen many videos of people running from the police even thought they haven't commited a crime.when the police capture them and ask why did you run they say they don't know.does this make any sense to you?And also countless videos of people fighting w the police for the same reason.if this is a natural automated response it has been evolving for millions of years and it wouldn't be natural for us to just wait n see whats going to happen after they take you into custody by the percieved threat?

    November 15, 2009 at 06:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Diane Jacobi

    When reading the account of your story, I am strongly reminded of the book:
    Emotional Intelligence.
    Very happy to hear everyone walked away from this
    accident, but it also sounds as though you really took something very important away with you, a lesson on how truly amazing and intelligent our bodies are.

    November 15, 2009 at 12:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Christy Gonzalez

    I had a similar incident, and at the time I couldn't distinguish why my body didn't react to the bruises at the exact incident of the crash. Then, in the aftermath the effects started taking its painful toll on my body. It wasn't until my anatom and physiology class when I learned about the fight or flight response.

    November 16, 2009 at 00:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Elle

    My brother once pulled a car off a guy after it came off the blocks. i asked my brother, then all of 18 at the time, how he did it, and he said without the adrenaline, he'd never have been able to do it.

    November 17, 2009 at 15:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Colleen

    When faced with an intruder in my basement apartment in college without a window in my bedroom I was able to pull a 6 foot by 3 foot bookcase full of books infront of the door to keep him out. To get back out of the door after help arrived from upstairs I had to take the books off the bookshelf a little at a time then move the bookcase. It was amazing! I was female 5 ft 6 inches and about 110 pounds at the time.

    November 19, 2009 at 15:05 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.