Out of control, the body knows it

Ship passing on the Coral Sea. A long way from home.

So here we are cruising the Coral Sea and as I look from the balcony of our state room into the dark ocean at night, there is a small murmur of discomfort that reverberates through my body as I contemplate the vast ocean below and beyond. Imagine if. You fell. You were stranded and no one noticed. A sure death. In time. Soon enough.

Thankfully, I knew that did not need to be my fate. I can keep myself safe. I am with the mother ship and I trust in those who command her. I am in control.

Yet some confront circumstances when they are not in control. Indeed, they are contemplating imminent death. And for those who survive such, they are able to describe how their body knew. Knew that they were in dire straights. That death could be beckoning.

So it was for Captain Kevin “Sully” Sullivan as he flew flight QF72 from Singapore to Perth in 2008. So I have just learned as he described in his book of 2019. He experienced this state of being beyond control when the automation on his A330 Airbus malfunctioned over the Indian Ocean. The automation responded to false data suggesting the plane was about to stall, and so within two seconds, the automation corrected with abrupt nose down. People in the cabin were flown about, many struck the ceiling and dozens hurt.

Sully explained in significant detail the fight he fought that day. And as he could see the bright blue of the Indian Ocean below him on one of the unscheduled and uncontrolled nose down incidents, his body responded like he had never experienced before. For the first time in his distinguished flying career, he was not in control. And his body knew it. His heart pounded, and adrenaline coursed through him. He equated it to the terrorist placing a pistol to the head of the bound and hooded victim, just waiting for death to arrive.

But Sully had some control. His body was telling him otherwise, but his mindful brain was determined to fight. And so he did. But not just fight, but think his way through what next. With some help on the flight-deck too. What a day, what a story, what survival.

When the body knows that survival is the only immediate goal, it will do everything physiologically to aid us. To rally muscle power and oxygen, to narrow our field of vision to focus on the greatest threat, to be alert visually but less capable of processing language, drawing on instinct. But this circumstance demanded more, and for the veteran like Sully, this included accessing intuition and embedded expertise. He was able to think, even while his body alarm system was roaring panic in his physical self. The epitome of emotional intelligence.

Sully, his colleagues and passengers survived that day but many have never been the same since. Sadly. Their bodies and the related memory systems remained scarred by this experience. Some with chronic physical injuries but many too with trauma that has not receded. So many stimuli that continue to activate the survival response in the body, the responses ‘learned’ that day. An ingrained stimulus-response pattern that all too regularly is activated. Flashbacks, intrusive images, increased heart rate, sweating and flushing, and more.

The body remembers and the mind knows. We cannot simply forget. So it is traumatic and life changing. Of course, trauma is best avoided but like so many first responders, soldiers and others facing extreme circumstances through their work, sometimes they become permanently injured. Through the experience of losing control and facing death. No one can know that unless it happens to them. Let us hope it never happens to you!

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