Why can't you think straight when you're terrified? It's a question that haunted many people in the wake of yesterday's explosions in Boston, and neuroscience journalist Maia Szalavitz explains the answer to you over at Time.

In a time of crisis, you're not thinking the way you normally do. You may find yourself acting before you even realize what you're doing. Writes Szalavitz:

When the brain is under severe threat, it immediately changes the way it processes information, and starts to prioritize rapid responses. “The normal long pathways through the orbitofrontal cortex, where people evaluate situations in a logical and conscious fashion and [consider] the risks and benefits of different behaviors— that gets short circuited,” says Dr. Eric Hollander, professor of psychiatry at Montefiore/Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York. Instead, he says, “You have sensory input right through the sensory [regions] and into the amygdala or limbic system.”


This is great for running away from danger, but it can also lead to poor decision-making too. For example, we may respond to loud sounds as dangerous even if they aren't; or we may misinterpret people's actions as threatening when they are just trying to help.

Once we've calmed down, a new set of issues come into play:

It doesn’t help that the most common coping mechanisms can make matters worse. People who live in fear tend to want to sleep, drink alcohol or turn to sedatives to ease their anxiety. But, says Hollander, “It turns out that you are better off staying up than trying to go to sleep.” Sleep tends to consolidate and lay down traumatic memories. And that’s partly why the Israeli army, for example, tries to keep traumatized soldiers awake immediately after a difficult experience and engage them in warm social contact, both of which help reduce the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


So the best thing to do when you've had a bad scare is to stay awake, get some hugs, and maybe drink a little hot chocolate or warm apple cider. It can even help to do something like watch children's cartoons — anything that will distract and comfort you, and keep you conscious during that crucial window when PTSD might set in.

Read the whole article at Time.


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