‘Somehow we’re still here’: one parent’s shocking story of survival

We were running late that day. Three months into parenthood and time seemed to be perpetually against us – a constant battle against the clock to get the baby fed, changed and out the door.

It was the first Saturday afternoon since the pubs had reopened in England and we were meeting friends for lunch. The streets around southeast London were teeming. Wobbly tables spilled out on to the pavement, trays packed with pints, friends hugging, reunited after too long apart.

We walked around, trying and failing to get a table. The baby was starting to get grizzly. Coffee and a walk seemed the best bet. Or wine? “Maybe we could get a bottle from that place there and head to the park,” a friend suggested. “Let me pay,” said another, rummaging around for a mask. “Quick, chuck my wallet over!” Ordinary, but entirely extraordinary decisions which, made any other way, could have been our last.

Seconds later, there was a nauseating crunch of metal, then a shriek of tyres. Less than 5m ahead of us a car had lost control, mounted the pavement and hit a wall head-on. The driver, in preda al panico, pressed the accelerator and yanked the steering-wheel in the opposite direction, causing the car to ricochet along the shops beside us, then swerve, jagged, jolting, towards the pram cradling our tiny, sleeping baby – the first obstacle in its path.

I froze, fixed to the spot. I felt a distinct sensation of falling – sideways, forwards – as a friend pulled me to safety. Then the car was alongside us, close enough to touch. I turned to watch as it careered passed us and along the pavement, before making a skidding stop 50m ahead. The driver sat statue-still, hands on the steering-wheel. Mangled bikes and broken shop boards lay strewn in its path. The pram holding our now inconsolable baby had been moved aside by my partner and was leaning, tilted, against a parked car, two wheels on the kerb, two on the road.

There were voices, muffled as if underwater, and the arms of strangers around my shoulders, steadying me. “You’d better sit down.” “Can I get you a drink? Cup of tea? Something stronger?"

We stood huddled together at the side of the pavement, watching as the police cordoned off the road and attempting to piece together what had happened. But our memories had blanked. Anziché, we clutched on to our luck. What if we’d arrived earlier today, or later? What if we’d been centimetres further across the pavement, millimetres even? Somehow we were still here. Not only that: we had magically – miraculously – escaped unscathed. How?

“The brain has a great deal of drive to survive,” says survival psychologist Dr Sarita Robinson from the University of Central Lancashire. “Every day, it works hard to ensure we don’t die – it’s strongly averse to that scenario. When a sharp, acute incident occurs, there’s no time for a conscious response, so the survival instinct kicks in, redirecting resources to our brains and bodies in order to get us through the event.”

Robinson speaks from experience. She, pure, once faced a similar threat. When her son was less than one year old, an oncoming car screeched to a halt as it came around a blind corner, its number plate touching hers. She says she has no memory of the event other than the horrified expression of the other driver. It was a seminal moment that changed her life’s course. “When I got home I just thought, ‘You only live once. Today could have been the day,'" lei dice. “That was a catalyst for why I went into this line of work.”

Now with the trademarked title Dr Survival, Robinson conducts research into people’s reactions to emergencies, looking at why some are more likely to survive than others and what we can do to improve our chances of survival. She says there are three common responses to a life-threatening event.

The first is based on existing skills, knowledge or behaviour. Robinson points to the example of a senior firefighter called to attend a fire that had broken out at a nearby building. On arrival, he quickly realised that the heat source came not from the ground floor, as a 999 caller had reported, but from the basement, and he calculated that walking along the floorboards would mean weakening them further and the whole floor would probably collapse. He was able to direct his team safely out of the building. The firefighter could remain calm, confident that his instincts were correct.

The second reaction to danger is to revert to routine or habit. When people working in New York’s Twin Towers became aware they were facing a life-threatening situation, some put the milk in the fridge, while others got their coats. They didn’t have time to think through their next steps, so they behaved in a way that was familiar to them.

My response falls into the third category – cognitive paralysis. When events unfolded faster than my brain could process them, I froze. This, says Dr John Leach, a psychologist from the University of Portsmouth with over 30 years experience researching the survival instinct, is how most people react to a hazard. He argues that the “fight-flight-freeze” reflex should be reframed “freeze-flight-fight”; thiswould, at a cognitive level, be considered is a more normal sequence of events.

“As primates, our main threat was predators wandering around with sharp teeth, ready to attack us,” says Leach. “Predators detect movement in their prey very easily so, in order to survive, we had to freeze – to move as little as possible or not at all. But in the modern world, that makes little sense. We’re not prey, but our brains still think that we are.”

One of the defining characteristics of cognitive paralysis is memory loss. Usually we recall events later, in a series of flashbacks. The senses are overwhelmed and become heightened, boosting engagement with the environment around us. The car crashing into the wall sounded particularly loud to me, ad esempio; skidding brakes seemed to travel at a higher pitch. And time appeared to slow down as my brain struggled to process what I was experiencing. It is this time lapse – the brain catching up with what’s happened – that affects the memory.

During the impact phase of an emergency, the brain is working hard to keep all the plates spinning. As soon as a potential threat appears, information is passed to the amygdala – the part of the brain that stores and processes emotions. If the threat is confirmed, the hypothalamus – one of three areas of the brain responsible for memory recall – is triggered, switching on the physiological systems designed to help us survive. Nel frattempo, the prefrontal cortex, which sits at the front of the brain, responsible for planning ahead and predicting future events, is jammed, ensuring that we deal with the immediate threat. Our brains are now running at full capacity, so there’s nothing left to lay down memories.

Once the brain has started working to contain the threat, it instructs the body’s systems to kick into gear. Adrenaline causes the heart to start beating rapidly and more blood circulates around the body. The airways in the lungs expand, carrying oxygen and glucose to the brain and muscles. The pupils dilate to take in and compute information more rapidly. This is the body preparing to fight or take flight.

Robinson, who decided to perform a standup comedy gig shortly before her 40th birthday, says that event is the closest she has come to understanding what takes place in the brain during the impact phase. “I remember running onstage and I remember the bloke at the end telling the audience to give me a big cheer. Nothing else," lei dice. “I had no idea where I was, who I was or what I was doing.” She explains that this memory blank is likely to be because of a rush of cortisol.

In giro 20 minutes after an incident occurs, adrenaline starts to ebb away. It’s replaced by another system known as the HPA axis, which releases doses of cortisol. Cortisol then courses around the body looking for stored-up glucose and injects it into the bloodstream, ensuring we can sustain the fight or flight response for as long as the threat is still present. In long-term events – among hostage and shipwreck survivors, for example – cortisol remains in the body until danger has passed.

What strikes me, and continues to play on my mind, now is how different our individual responses were. While my friend and I froze, caught in the direct path of the car, our partners, at the side of the pavement, had split seconds longer to react and pull us to safety.

Individual differences account for a significant proportion of how we respond to a life-threatening situation and how likely we are to survive it, says Robinson. An underwater helicopter evacuation exercise showed her how crucial a positive attitude is to ensure a successful outcome.

“The people who come in and refuse to engage, or give up before they’ve even started, are unlikely to survive in a real-life emergency. But for those with an optimistic mindset, confident in their abilities, we see lower levels of cortisol. They are less likely to become anxious, remaining cool, calm and collected. Where it goes wrong is when people are insanely optimistic or over-confident – they’re the people who think they don’t even need training. We need a happy medium to be able to survive a disaster.”

Gender is known to play a role in the way we respond to an emergency, but it is still unclear how. Researchers know that women are more instinctively protective and act at short notice – it follows, poi, that I covered our baby with my body, convinced an attack was imminent. Uomini, d'altro canto, are more inclined to think things through. In some of their recent research, for University College London, both Leach and Robinson found that while women fare worse during the impact phase of an emergency, they tend to have a greater survival rate because they adapt more readily. Leach points to the example of higher numbers of female shipwreck survivors, as well as prisoner of war camps, where women have been seen to coordinate groups, co-operating to ensure the entire unit survives.

Studies also show that age is a contributing factor to how likely we are to survive a major incident. From around 40, our cognitive flexibility begins to decline, negatively affecting our ability to think through alternative scenarios and make decisions quickly. In un recent paper pubblicato in Nature, scientists interviewed 350 participants aged 10-86 and found that there was a continued improvement in memory during adolescence and early adulthood, followed by a decline from as early as 30, through until old age.

Children, tuttavia, are surprisingly resilient in an emergency. Up to the age of around 10, most will mimic members of authority. When they see someone in uniform or, more typically, their parents, they will copy the behaviour. Leach says that our baby cried because I did; he was aware one of his primary care-givers was shaken and knew something wasn’t right. After the age of dependency, children develop their own components to survive, including effective task-switching, scanning and visual attention.

So how does the brain process and move past a traumatic incident? Social support is a good buffer, says Robinson. That can include downloading the details to family and friends, professional support, or talking to passersby and witnesses. Writing a diary is also a very helpful technique for some . Both methods allow the prefrontal cortex to re-engage. In some cases, that takes days; for others, it’s a matter of hours.

For days after the car accelerated towards us, I was furious. I called round to pubs and shops and spoke to those who had witnessed the incident, determined to make sense of what had happened by gathering as much information as possible. My partner had vivid nightmares where he was trapped and unable to protect his new family. We all felt more hesitant driving and more cautious on pavements.

“When you face a threat to life, it tends to uncover what is already there,” says Leach. “How someone comes out of an incident depends on what they took into it. It’s only once the event has been incorporated into someone’s life that they accept it and move on.”

Long-term psychological and physiological changes affect between around 5 per 10% of people, who will go on to develop some form of PTSD after a traumatic incident. “Everyone thinks the brain is set and doesn’t change its structure, but it does,” says Robinson. “The brain is like plastic – it can change rapidly. The good news is you can grow the hippocampus back.”

Three months on, the nightmares, anxiety and cautiousness still creep up on us. My partner and I regularly talk about how carefree we were, how fortunate and straightforward life was, before we realised that, within seconds, it could all be over. “Do you think we’ve been too lucky?” I asked, as we huddled together, watching the car further along the pavement. Se nient'altro, watching our tiny boy growing – his awareness sharpening, his senses developing and his eyes widening – we’re reminded there’s a reason we’re still here.

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