A ladder left behind
September 28, 2009 2:55 AM   Subscribe

[FearFilter]: 15 years ago I experienced an imminent death/serious injury moment that turned out ok. However, I still feel physical chills and tingly feelings even thinking about it. Am I the only one or is this common? Thoughts and stories appreciated. The science is a huge bonus.

Short background. Many years ago some friends and I decided to put a ladder out the 3rd floor house in order to gain access to the roof.

I clearly recall the way back down the ladder and it is no mistake, balance was against me. That 1 second of fighting against of gravity while looking down is ingrained in my mind. The moment is etched forever in the brain and triggers immediate fear and physical response if I focus on it. WTF? After so long?

I can't be the only one that has such a memory that stirs such strong physical and emotion reaction. What is it called and how does one not be so jolted?
posted by Funmonkey1 to Human Relations (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not an expert but I'm the first one here so I'll give this a shot. The human mind is programmed to learn fear of certain things. It's an evolutionary thing. The smart caveman who learned a fear of snakes outlived the dumbass who continued to play with them. Sometimes fear is an evolutionary advantage. Our minds also seem to learn fears of natural things more readily: spiders, snakes, heights, but not knives or electrical sockets.

I have a family member with a textbook case of this sort. As a child, he used to catch snakes. One day he tripped in the long grass and a snake crawled down his shirt and against his belly. TO this day, if he even sees a picture of a snake in a newspaper, he will jump, yell, and throw the newspaper away. Rationally, he knows it's just a 2d picture, but it's his fight or flight kicking in.

I would say your near-fall tripped that fight or flight mechanism in your mind. Even the thought of heights elicits a physical response.

Have you felt this feeling while in a high place? Or is it just associated with the memory?
posted by Brodiggitty at 3:05 AM on September 28, 2009

This sounds exactly like a lot of the friends I've had who've suffered from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As far as what to do about it when it's not severe enough to require therapy, I'm not sure.
posted by larkspur at 3:17 AM on September 28, 2009

Brodiggitty: Yes, I have had a fear of heights since then, but have usually overcome with a strong dose of attitude or alcohol. For example, in Paris, I was scared to death of going up to the 3rd level of the Eiffel tower and chickened out, while in Madrid managed to take my time around the glass walk at Peurto Americana thanks to copious amounts of alcohol. The examples are weighted by the fact I will take chances, but if left up to me would rely on chance and stupor.

Regardless of my apprehension, there hasn't been a period after the ladder experience where I haven't been game, albeit miserable while traversing new heights. It still scares the living shit out of me.
posted by Funmonkey1 at 3:42 AM on September 28, 2009

A while back, a multi-ton metal bulkhead just missed turning me into a red paste, thanks to a fast acting co-worker pulling me clear at the last second. I do clearly remember being on the deck looking at the massive object and flattened guard rail where I was standing, but I didn't feel panic or fear then and I don't now. More a cross of excited "holy shit that was close!" and "hahaha suck it death!"

Then again you were literally clawing for your life, whereas I didn't even see it coming.
posted by anti social order at 5:43 AM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, man. I think this is typical. I'll share my story - which I was once tempted to make into an AskMe of my own - in the hope that it is helpful to you.

Just over two years ago, I experienced a traumatic injury while on vacation in North Carolina. While bodysurfing, I attempted to dive into a large wave. The force of the wave dislocated both of my shoulders. Fortunately, although I was a considerable distance from the beach, I was able to struggle out of the water. The left shoulder (which had been surgically repaired in the past to correct recurrent dislocations) soon returned to its socket; the right was out of its socket for several hours and later required surgery to reattach a torn labrum.

Somewhat paradoxically, there were some good things that came of this traumatic experience. I took this painful and scary reminder of my mortality as a sign to attempt some goals I'd had in mind for a while. Since the accident I've recuperated from surgery and then run both a full marathon and three half-marathons, long-term goals I was motivated to pursue. I've also questioned some of my long-term goals with respect to my job and health. In a sense, I felt liberated to pursue, or at least consider pursuing, some changes to my behavior that had seemed pretty well-ingrained prior to the accident. For that sense of liberation I am (weirdly?) grateful.

I "celebrated" the one-year anniversary of the accident by getting in the ocean. It was in San Diego, not North Carolina, and I barely went out to my chest, but it was tremendously, tremendously hard for me to do. The weeks and months leading up to that anniversary were rough: for the first time, I really considered how close I was to not surviving the accident. I mean, if I hadn't been able to stand up (with two useless arms)... if I hadn't been able to struggle in to the shore... if, if, if... you get the idea. I still wrestle with those issues from time to time, but I've found that the further away in time I get from the accident, and the further I am from the anniversary date, the better it gets.

And yet, it doesn't take much to bring back the terror of that moment... in fact, just reading your story made me clutch my shoulders in sympathy! There are still nights I wake up with nightmares, but they're less and less frequent. I don't know how to "get past" this, if that is even possible, other than by the passage of time. I think getting back in the water was good for me psychologically, but... who can tell? That you are continuing to experience these horrible flashbacks 15 years on neither surprises nor amazes me. I think it's the brain's natural reaction to that moment of imminent death or serious injury.

Good luck, and please don't worry about this being an abnormal reaction - it sure seems normal to me.
posted by cheapskatebay at 5:46 AM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Interesting article explaining the amygdala (part of the brain that controls fear).

Another article on the use of beta-blockers to erase or repress fearful memories.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:24 AM on September 28, 2009

Look at the bright side: This is Mother Nature's way of saying, "Don't do that again."
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 6:48 AM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I wish I had science but this story will have to do:

I was swimming in Galveston and got pulled under by a very strong undertow. I almost passed out before a small wave (or something) urped me back up so I could gain my footing. To this day, I can't go very far past my knees in the ocean without getting the shakes. That was about 13 years ago.

So no, you are not alone.
posted by caveat at 7:01 AM on September 28, 2009

A friend and I were accosted by thugs in a back alley in Athens when I was 20 (don't ask what I was doing there. I fully acknowledge that I was an idiot). Three large male friends whom we hadn't even known were in Athens turned up at that exact moment and saved us. The memory is visceral and real and still brings tears to my eyes and bile to my throat. No idea what the science is, but no, you are not alone.
posted by nax at 7:57 AM on September 28, 2009

P.S. This is why I believe in angels.
posted by nax at 7:58 AM on September 28, 2009

Google PTSD and "intrusive memories." This is very, very common. Mortal fear can do this to a person. CBT can help if you find it disruptive to your daily life.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:02 AM on September 28, 2009

As a PTSD survivor, I can tell you what my psychiatrist told me. The brain does not store time elapsed along with a specific memory. That is, when you remember something, it's as if it were happening right then. Think about something embarrassing from your middle school years. Yuck! Seems like it just happened, doesn't it? This is why flashbacks are such a beeyotch sometimes.

If it significantly interferes with your quality of life, I suggest seeking help. EMDR saved my hiney wrt PTSD; there are ways to beat it. If it doesn't, just enjoy the fact that you made it through unscathed.
posted by tigerjade at 8:20 AM on September 28, 2009

You might be interested in reading about the theories behind somatic experiencing therapy:
posted by backwords at 8:41 AM on September 28, 2009

I personally think it's PSTD related. I nearly choked (couldn't breathe or cough or anything at all, ) from water going down the wrong way into my airway in front of about 30 people at college orientation.

Someone saved me, my throat was scratchy for days, and I was horribly embarrassed. I turned away the paramedics partly out of embarrassment, though one of them warned me that I was vulnerable to choking again while healing. I think that played into the fear.

For years afterward, I had a major anxious feeling anytime I would drink something. Given how often people drink on a daily basis, this was something that constantly came up. I would hardly drink enough out of anxiety. I'm not sure exactly how I overcame it, though once in a while it will manifest again in a very minor split second feeling. Ten years later.
posted by cmgonzalez at 9:49 AM on September 28, 2009

I don't know that it's really PTSD, because I do this sometimes even with less traumatic things. Example: Once, while jogging, I landed on the outside of my foot, rolling it severely. It made a crunching sound and was very painful, taking years to fully heal. Now, when jogging sometimes I'll suddenly remember that moment vividly, causing me to involuntarily wince or even stop jogging suddenly.

This isn't PTSD, because I think that would really cheapen other peoples actual trauma, but I think that the occurance blazed a really stong neural pathway that makes it easy for my brain to relive the event.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 10:07 AM on September 28, 2009

There's no value judgment being made in an incident like this being a form of PSTD. War vets and rape survivors' experiences aren't "cheapened" by someone else's trauma being serious enough to affect his or her life in such an impactful way.
posted by cmgonzalez at 12:31 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Depending on how much this affects your life it many be a case of flashbulb memory rather than PTSD. Basically this is the idea that a significant event is stored in a certain way in the vrain which means that it can be recalled for longer and in more detail than an everyday event.
posted by Laura_J at 4:52 PM on September 28, 2009

BusyBusyBusy -Oddly enough, I do not have any PTSD related to a couple of very serious accidents (drunk drivers and in one case I was not alone in the car and had to drag my friend out and to safety) although I do have physical symptoms which are only just now - now that I well into adulthood and far far away from compulsory education - bearable and manageable if I have to go into an elementary school building for any reason.

I know a woman who treats PTSD - it can be triggered by remarkably small, specific details that are associated with the stress. Like, in your case, Funmonkey1, if you were climbing the ladder next to a pine tree, the smell of pine air freshener might make you uneasy.

It's probably healthy that you think about it. That sounds like what they call counter-conditioning.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:09 PM on September 28, 2009

I have a mild fear of height. I say mild, because it doesn't affect anything I do, except when I feel better by holding on to something. The feeling I get, when looking at a drop and thinking of jumping or falling, is like a jolt of electricity in the bottoms of my feet. (kind of funny, when it's thinking about the drop from my 7th floor balcony).

I recently decided I wanted to know why I felt that feeling. Probably because it happens lots, due to living on the 7th floor. So I slid back into time, and found out: It's the feeling I got as a small child, when I finally dared jump off a wall that was 3-4 feet (~1-1.33m). I hated that jump! But here I am, 51 years old, and still get that feeling. Oddly, it has nothing to do with my fear of heights, which manifests quite differently, and is kind of weird (I get vertigo if I look up, from a height, especially if there is something above me, like more ladder. Looking down is fine!).
posted by Goofyy at 9:45 AM on September 29, 2009

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