The 4 Stages of Fear, Attacked-by-a-Mountain-Lion Edition

By: Jeff Wise

In the throes of intense fear, we suddenly find ourselves operating in a different and unexpected way. The psychological tools that we normally use to navigate the world—reasoning and planning before we act—get progressively shut down. In the grip of the brain’s subconscious fear centers, we behave in ways that to our rational mind seem nonsensical or worse. We might respond automatically, with preprogrammed motor routines, or simply melt down. We lose control.

In this unfamiliar realm, it can seem like we’re in the grip of utter chaos. But although the preconscious fear centers of the brain are not capable of deliberation and reason, they do have their own logic, a simplified suite of responses keyed to the nature of the threat at hand. There is a structure to panic.

When the danger is far away, or at least not immediately imminent, the instinct is to freeze. When danger is approaching, the impulse is to run away. When escape is impossible, the response is to fight back. And when struggling is futile, the animal will become immobilized in the grip of fright. Although it doesn’t slide quite as smoothly off the tongue, a more accurate description than “fight or flight” would be “fight, freeze, flight, or fright”—or, for short, “the four fs.”

On a winter morning a few years back, a young woman named Sue Yellowtail went through them all in about 10 minutes.

FREEZE

The Mancos River rises in southwestern Colorado and flows through the Ute Mountains on its way to New Mexico, where it empties into the San Juan River three miles shy of the Four Corners intersection. Over millions of years, the river and its tributaries have carved a fanlike rill of dramatic canyons out of the ancient sediments of the Mesa Verde tablelands, a maze of vertiginous stone walls. The rugged, arid landscape of juniper forest proves a rich habitat for wildlife.

At 25, Sue Yellowtail was just a few years out of college, working for the Ute Indian tribe as a water quality specialist. Her job was to travel through remote areas of the Ute reservation, collecting samples from streams, creeks, and rivers. She spent her days crisscrossing remote backcountry, territory closed to visitors and rarely traveled even by locals. It’s the kind of place where, if you got in trouble, you were on your own.

On a clear, cold morning in late December, Yellowtail pulled her pickup over to the side of a little-used dirt double-track, a few yards from a simple truss bridge that spanned a creek. As she collected her gear, she heard a high-pitched scream. Probably a coyote killing a rabbit, she thought. She clambered down two steep embankments to the water’s edge. Wading to the far side of the creek, she stooped to stretch her tape measure the width of the flow. Just then she heard a rustling and looked up. At the top of the bank, not 30 feet away, stood a mountain lion. Tawny against the brown leaves of the riverbank brush, the animal was almost perfectly camouflaged. It stared down at her, motionless.

She stood stock-still.

Yellowtail had entered the first instinctual fear-response state, the condition of freezing known as attentive immobility. Even before she was aware of danger, subconscious regions of her brain were assessing the threat. Cued to the presence of a novel stimulus, the brain deployed the orienting reflex, a cousin of the startle reflex. Within milliseconds Yellowtail’s heart rate and breathing slowed. A brain region called the superior colliculus turned her head and slewed her eyes so that the densest part of the retina, the fovea, formed a detailed image of the cat. The visual information then flowed via the thalamus to the visual cortex and the amygdala, the key brain center for evaluating threat. Her pattern-recognition system found a match in the flow of sensory information. It recognized a pair of eyes, then the outline of a feline head. In less than half a second, before her cortex even had time to complete the match and recognize what she was seeing, her emotional circuitry had already assessed the situation: It was bad. Subconsciously, her brain also determined that the threat was not immediately pressing, and so a region called the ventral column of the periaqueductal gray (PAG) triggered attentive immobility. This is generally considered the first stage of the fear response, because it tends to occur when the threat is far away or not yet aware of the subject’s presence. The goal is to keep it that way.

When a person is frozen with fear, she is motionless but far from passive. With cortisol and adrenaline coursing through her body, she is primed for physical action, alert and intensely focused. The heart rate slows and blood pressure shoots up. Muscles tense and the pupils dilate. The body may tremble and the eyes bulge. If the fear is intense, the mind might be plunged into a state called hypervigilance, in which a person scans the environment rapidly and randomly, unable to think through the available options clearly.

Freezing is a posture of an animal that, while in danger, is primarily concerned with not getting in worse danger. Its plan is to do nothing, hope to avoid being detected, and see what happens. In the natural environment, it often proves an effective strategy. Young antelope can spend the better part of the day lying crouched and motionless in tall grass, their ears tucked and heads pressed against the ground. When accidentally disturbed by a passing lion or hyena, they bolt so unexpectedly that the predator may be too startled to chase after them.

Yellowtail’s was just the kind of situation that the behavior had evolved for: eluding a nearby predator. But freezing is essentially a temporary measure, a stopgap until the danger either goes away or becomes more pressing. It is a posture that asks the question: What next?

In the morning light of Mancos Canyon, human and animal stood confronting each other. Yellowtail had never seen a mountain lion in the wild before. Even as she fought to contain her fear, she marveled at the beauty of it. Its dark eyes looked back at her. Who knew what it was thinking behind that gaze. Was it curious, or hungry?