What really happens to the body in a life-threatening crisis?
The complicated emotions still felt by the bushfire survivors cannot be explained simply by saying they are in shock, or traumatised, Dr Rob Gordon says. Survivors told The Times that as they fought or fled the fires they felt no fear, but weeks afterwards they were overwhelmed by exhaustion and despair. They found it hard to make any decisions and many could not even fill in the forms to receive aid — a state that Kristine Conron called “bushfire brain”.
This is all the result of the physical state the body goes into during and after a disaster. In a life-threatening crisis, the body goes into the now widely recognised adrenalin mode, energising the body to fight for survival. It is not just a short-term burst of energy as most people believe it to be but a more complex state that can last for months after the immediate threat has passed. In the adrenalin mode other senses and feelings — fatigue, fear, even hunger — are shut down so a person can concentrate on the immediate crisis. “In the adrenal state people are too busy to know how they feel,” Gordon says. Certain thought processes are also shut down, making it difficult for people to absorb complicated information.