The Science of Freaking Out


This post is based on our new book, Do Hard Things. Check it out!

Acute stress can be debilitating. It can cause professional baseball players to lose the ability to throw a ball 30 feet, something they’ve been doing since elementary school. In theater, it can cause stage fright, freezing, and forgetting lines that you’ve spent hours memorizing.

The impact of stress isn’t just on our behavior, it can shift how we see, hear, and experience the world around us. It can cause us to disassociate: a type of foggy, zoning out; where reality is literally distorted. In a study on US soldiers going through a survival training simulation, 96 percent of soldiers reported symptoms of disassociation. What did that mean? After facing a stressor, soldiers reported:

  • 52 percent: seemed unreal, as if in a dream.
  • 41 percent: a feeling of separation from what was happening, as if you were watching a movie.
  • 57 percent: things happened that you were unable to account for later.
  • 98 percent: felt as if you were looking at the world through a fog; people and objects appeared far away or unclear.
  • 65 percent: spaced out or lost track of what was going on.

Let’s take a brief foray into the science of stress and what it can do to our brain, body, and cognition.

At low levels of arousal our attention is broad. We pick up a little bit of information from a bunch of different sources. As our arousal climbs, we start suppressing more extraneous information, narrowing our attention. It’s why our signal to noise ratio is often best at moderate levels, where we are in that sweet spot between broad and narrow. The contrast between items or sensations becomes clearer. We start seeing distinct divisions instead of shades of grey. In the brain, a moderate level of the hormone norepinephrine (one of the primary drivers of arousal) helps bring clarity to the picture.

But as we continue along the stress and arousal journey, our perception increasingly narrows. We get tunnel vision. We start missing cues from our periphery. As our arousal further increases, we start overestimating how tall items are. Our accuracy in assessing the passage of time declines. We start perceiving time as moving slower or quicker than it actually is. As norepinephrine rises to exceedingly high levels, we lose the ability to focus and concentrate. It’s as if we are on our overload.

Not only do our attention and perception shift, but so do our memory and behavior. With extreme arousal, our memory encodes a small number of defined details and neglects anything from the periphery. It’s why those who experience trauma often remember very specific items in clear detail, but often have many gaps in the big picture. We shift from being able to take into account future rewards and consequences to focusing only on the here and now. It’s pure survival.

The brain is balancing the quality and quantity of information with the rapidity of action. There’s a tradeoff between accuracy and action. If you see a tiger on the trail you won’t care how many stripes it has. You’ll care to get moving fast.

This tradeoff can be observed in the brain itself. Research shows that one’s level of stress or arousal also impacts two critical areas of the brain: the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) and the amygdala. The PFC is largely in control of executive functioning and cognitive control. The amygdala is related to emotional processing. One of the PFC’s jobs is to keep the amygdala in check. To make sure that the vital information and emotional experience is taken into account, but doesn’t overrun things. As arousal increases, the PFC literally shuts down. The amygdala wins the battle. As arousal increases, we go for rapidity of action, forgetting about everything else. There’s a tiger on the trail. I better run.

What impacts whether we go down the rabbit hole towards disassociation or can stay on the right side of clear thinking?

  1. Expectations: They set the stage. Whether we perceive something as a threat or challenge goes a long way to determining which way our stress response goes.
  2. Control: Can you do something about it? Can you influence or change the outcome? Our perception of control is like an ignition switch, turning on our ability to navigate difficult situations more deliberately.
  3. Familiarity: There’s a reason why the military spends billions of dollars creating realistic simulations for soldiers. They are utilizing stress inoculation techniques to prepare soldiers for navigating stressful situations. From police to athletes, training for the demands of your event helps you navigate your inner stress and respond better.

But what if we’re in the middle of it? What if we are headed down the rabbit hole of our world narrowing so far we miss everything going on around us; we succumb to rapidity of action — escaping the tiger — over all else?

When pilots faced this freezing and narrowing during World War Two they found that simple, clear, monotone-like commands snapped them out of it. They could unfreeze “by using a firm voice devoid of fear to issue simple orders that the men had already learned and that were automatic: ‘flaps,’ ‘raise the stick,’ ‘rudder.'” Recent research validates this approach, showing that talking to oneself in third person helps us deal with acute stress.

Another tactic that works is to intentionally reverse the narrowing. Go broad with your vision. Adopting an almost panoramic like lens of the world, where you shift your focus from the details to taking in as much of the periphery as possible.

You’ve got to drag yourself away from the narrow world which stress is pulling you towards. Broaden your horizon, through vision, inner dialogue or mantra, or whatever means you can to gain some perspective, and remind your brain and body there’s more to the world than whatever you’ve locked on to. Unless, of course, you are locked onto a real tiger. Then just run.


If you liked this post, you’re really going to love our new book Do Hard Things! Order today and receive all sorts of bonuses.

It goes in-depth on the science of freaking out, explaining what the latest research says about keeping your PFC online, and your amygdala in check.

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