Update: It turns out that all of this is down to a neurological condition I have since been diagnosed with called Neurally Mediated Syncope. Due to an over-excitable vagus nerve (which has a finger in all the pies, neurologically speaking), my body was preparing to keep my brain alive at all costs by triggering what’s called a Reflex Anoxic Seizure because the vagus nerve was telling my brain that I was going to bleed out, no matter how loudly my conscious mind told it otherwise. One symptom of this, and precursor to an actual seizure, is the sudden and fairly dramatic loss of blood pressure through vasodilation.
It’s still interesting though to look at the effects of adrenalisation regardless of its cause, so I’ll leave this post here in case it’s of any interest to anyone.
Honesty is important. This is a key principle of ESP training. We can’t hope to make any useful progress without our instructors being honest with us, without being honest with them, and (this is absolutely crucial) being honest with ourselves. One way we can go about doing this is to talk openly about our fears.
Geoff Thompson is well-known as a prominent figure on this topic. His approach of identifying and confronting our fears in order to overcome them has been adopted by many instructors, myself included, as it is nothing short of necessary. His book, Fear: The Friend of Exceptional People (Summersdale, 2001 – ISBN 978-1-84-024193-8) is an excellent resource for those who want to find out more on this topic.
I’ve made some good progress with my fears, especially thanks to the breathing training and awareness of tension and relaxation I’ve gained from meditation and Systema (Система). There was a time, believe it or not, when if there was a spider above the shower then I’d have to either wait for it to go away, try to move it somehow with no risk of it touching me, or ask someone to shift the bugger for me before there was any chance of me stepping in! This is not the case now, however, and I owe a lot to Geoff Thompson and Rob Poyton for their influences on my training and thinking.
All my life, however, there has been one issue which never did get better whatever I did. Not yet, anyway. As a result, I recently had an adrenalised experience that is worth sharing. I personally found it biologically fascinating, aside from what we can gather from it psychologically about adrenaline and fear. In addition, it was the closest I’ve ever come to unconsciousness without actually being unconscious.
I had a blood test the other day.
Now for many this simple procedure is short and painless. For me it was something of an ordeal. At least it proved to be an interesting one. Let me begin by explaining my relationship with blood and its weird effects on me.
Most people I know are either fine with blood or can’t deal with it. I don’t really fall into either of these boxes. I’ve been hit and bled (quite a bit once or twice – noses don’t like fists or heads) in my time, and never has the blood itself bothered me in the moment of a violent encounter. I’ve also made others bleed and that too has not bothered me (in terms of the blood having an effect; of course violence is inherently horrible which goes without saying). I’ve tasted my own blood and even that of others (not on purpose) and experienced no negative effects. I can watch the goriest, most horrifically violent and graphic movie you can think of and be fine. I can also watch footage of real violence, witness violence or an accident and be fine, aside from the obvious negativity of such a situation.
At other times, however, the mere smell of blood or mention of an artery can start me feeling light-headed and provoke an adrenalised response. Sometimes you can take my pulse and I’ll be fine, and other times you’ll have me squirming and feeling sick for no apparent or rationalised cognitive reason. I have no idea why, and the deciding factors as to whether or not ‘the effects’ will happen have yet to be found!
At school in particular I lost consciousness a few times due to blood – mentions of it, thoughts of it, the smell of it, the sight of it… The list goes on. There’s some very funny stories I can tell you about my head doing various amounts of damage to various pieces of school property on the way to the floor (and many other things besides), but I’ll leave that for another time! In short, I gained something of a reputation for it which wasn’t always a source of bullying but often a source of collective amusement.
Anyway, back to the blood test. As I’m sure you can appreciate, I wasn’t looking forward to it! ‘Tough guy’ self-protection and martial arts instructor that I am, I’m not ashamed to say I was terrified of the prospect. When the doctor said it, within a couple of moments I’d thought of and dismissed more ways to avoid having the blood test than I care to count. I’ll lay out the event in chronological stages as it’s interesting to see the differences between them.
Stage One: Anticipation:
Long-Term Anticipation: So for a week or so after the doctor told me I should have a blood test I experienced a common phenomenon – long term anticipation. This was a period in which I wasn’t completely fixated on fearfully anticipating the event, but I often thought of it and felt rather unpleasant when I did! This period was more cognitive than biochemical; more concerned with unpleasant thoughts of how bad it might be (I had one a few years before and it was not pleasant). I even found myself thinking of excuses to not have one but they were all ridiculous so I dismissed them. It’s interesting how in this stage the struggle is more with conflicting thoughts and feelings than the effects of adrenaline; the dichotomy between confrontation and avoidance.
Short-Term Anticipation: In the car on the way there, I noticed adrenaline start to take hold with its effects. I felt colder than I did before and started to shake slightly. Using slow, deep rhythmic breathing, I kept this at bay. At this stage I wasn’t thinking of anything specific most of the time; I was dealing mostly with the thoughtless feeling of intense unease. Sitting in the waiting room, more formed thoughts began to enter my mind. Memories of hearing the blood hit the end of the bottle last time, imaginations of the feeling of blood rushing out of my arm, etc all flashed through my mind every time someone said ‘blood test’ to the receptionist.
Stage Two: Adrenaline:
The moment the phlebotomist came out and called my number, I felt a surge of adrenaline. I knew it was all completely ridiculous at the time, but that didn’t lessen the effect the situation had on me! I used the energy it gave me by standing up immediately and trying to ‘walk it off’ as I followed her. I also wanted to keep a cool exterior until I exited the waiting room in case I made someone else who was waiting feel worse.
When I got into the room and saw the desk full of needles and bottles, a secondary adrenaline surge hit me. I explained, slightly falteringly as my body began to shift focus to survival-necessary processes and away from speech, how I felt and why as I took off my coat and lay down, and the phlebotomist engaged me in conversation to try and help distract me. This worked well, and I felt a little better as I lay down. It was still more to do with thought processes than actual biochemical issues.
This changed when the needle went in! Immediately a number of effects took hold simultaneously:
An electric feeling of paraesthesia (akin to ‘pins and needles’) all over; more intense in limbs and digits.
A sweeping sensation of cold, accompanied with slight shaking.
Instant urge to hyperventilate, which I overcame with forceful, slow, controlled breathing (I think this is how I stayed conscious).
Intense lightheadedness and dizziness.
A few moments later, it was as though the adrenalised reaction intensified somewhat. The above sensations became more intense, and then the following occurred:
Physical Appearance: Immediately, I went pale and cold with hypotension as my blood pressure dropped. As adrenaline dilated my blood vessels, my blood pressure dropped suddenly and in an attempt to raise it back up, the blood vessels around my extremities constricted, moving the blood away from my skin and towards my core.
Loss of fine motor skills: The feeling was as though I had very intense ‘pins and needles’ sensations through my hands, but also that something was pressing hard into my fingertips. I was advised to wiggle my fingers in order to help with the sensations, however I found this unbelievably difficult at the time! My fingers were moving very slowly, as though they were clawing through jelly! It was as though the joints had gone too stiff to move with any speed. This was of course not the case, but I’m merely describing the feeling here.
Sense alteration: Sounds that were normally quiet or distant became loud and close-seeming. Sounds that were normally loud or close sounded quiet; as though the phlebotomist talking to me was far away and yet the person who coughed a room or two away sounded as though they were right in there with us. There was widespread loss of sensation (or loss of attention paid to it; I’m not sure which). My vision had small lights dancing in it, and my field of perception greatly narrowed as tunnel vision set in. Eventually, I remember opening my eyes and only dimly seeing the edge of the bed I was on as a vague shape. I could hardly see; it was just the vague outline – light and dark. I think this could have been an indicator of how close to unconsciousness I was, but I’m not an expert so I’m not sure.
Time dilation: (Not in terms of a huge gravitational anomaly; psychological!) I thought this whole process took between 40 minutes and an hour. At one point I said to the phlebotomist that I could make my way to another room if needed so that room could be used in the meantime, thinking I was getting in their way loads. I thought she’d gone and had her lunch break at one point. Nearer the end, I was getting bored of being there for so long and feeling the way I did, as it had been such a long time and I was just lying there feeling out of sorts. In actuality, she’d only nipped out momentarily to tell the other phlebotomist to use the secondary room while I recovered! The whole thing only lasted around 5 minutes.
Speech impairment: As my adrenalised state intensified, I realised that speaking had become difficult. This was the most interesting effect for me, as it was something I’d never experienced before in my life. As I was trying to answer the phlebotomist’s questions, I found that not only did it take a little while to think of the words and get them out of my mouth but I was slurring! It was as though my tongue was moving slower than I was sending the words to it! It really was absolutely surreal.
Stage Three: Aftermath:
Short-Term Aftermath: This stage was, in this case, quite boring really. Aftermaths can have a whole host of effects, and they can be dramatic, but for a few minutes after I was merely cold. That’s all really. I shivered quite a lot and felt much colder than I did before, though it was a cold day regardless. The only interesting point was a few minutes afterwards, when I was halfway back to the car. Suddenly I felt momentarily nauseous, and on discussion with my father found that this is often a sign of the moment that the digestive system kicks back into action after being shut down temporarily in an adrenalised situation. Aside from that, the only effect I experienced was a feeling of tiredness for the rest of the day.
Long(er)-Term Aftermath: I thought I should just mention this for those who don’t know about adrenaline and stress or their effects. With a more stressful situation than this, such as violence, there is often a longer-term aftermath which can have effects as serious as fear, paranoia or even guilt. There were no such issues for me from this situation but I just wanted to make you aware of the possibility.
I decided to write this little article for a few reasons. Initially it was just simply an amusing share of my recent experience of fear, adrenaline and unconsciousness so that it could become a source of discussion on the topic. Most instructors write about fear, adrenaline and unconsciousness (as you might expect) from the perspective of a violent encounter, but I thought it would be amusing and perhaps even interesting to share my experiences of some of the effects that stress and adrenaline can have in a violent encounter from the perspective of one that was completely nonviolent. More importantly, to those who’ve never experienced these effects, who have never been unconscious or have never come close to it, I hope the descriptions of them have been useful or interesting to you.
If anyone has any questions, I’m happy to answer them! If anyone who knows more about fear, adrenaline and unconsciousness wants to expand on anything here then please also feel free to open up discussions in the comments. As soon as it had happened, I thought to myself that discussion of this could be a learning opportunity for us all, myself not least.