Too Much Adrenaline

Too Much Adrenaline and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

If you have ever had a near miss while driving to work or riding your bicycle to school you know what it is like to have too much adrenaline rushing through your body.  Our bodies are set up to respond to life threatening situations by flushing our systems with adrenaline so that we are able to pay extra close attention to what is happening and to respond more quickly than we are normally able to do.  This increased response time is what scientists since William James in the nineteenth century have termed, “the fight-or-flight response.” 


For most people that heightened state of awareness fades shortly after the life-threatening event, although even those who respond normally to such situation may find that they have a certain return of that heightened state when they recall the incident later.  In fact, soldiers returning home from war may find that they have a rush of too much adrenaline when they hear a car backfire or smell early morning dew mixing with diesel, if those were present at a time when they felt as if they were threatened.

Posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD for short, is the technical term for this condition, though it is not isolated to soldiers.  Any one who feels their life or well-being is threatened can begin to suffer from this condition.  This is because of the way the brain is wired.  When we go through a life-threatening situation, that rush of too much adrenaline works like a recording device taking special care to note every detail of the events before, during and just after the situation.

We can see the usefulness of this kind of mental recording when we think of PTSD in evolutionary terms.  It is very useful for creatures like us, who have large brains capable of problem solving, to pay careful attention when our lives are threatened.  To begin, there is an immediate benefit.  The rush of adrenaline allows the mind to process information more quickly so that the individual can figure out the closest means of escape when a wild animal is about to devour the individual or to determine what the best means of self-defense is if flight is impossible.

There is, however, a second long-term benefit to this hyper-intense form or recording.  If the individual survives the life threatening encounter, the brain’s ability to record the details of the event with intense attention to detail allows the individual to set up a profile of future events that may be similarly threatening, so that the individual can recognize when they are about to come into the same situation again sooner than they did the first time.  Thus the next time they hear a crackle of breaking twigs behind him, he can jump to alertness before leopard attacks.

Unfortunately, this alarm system is not perfect.  The rush of too much adrenaline—the alarm—can be set off even when a trip wire is only incidental to the life threatening situation.  So, let us say that the individual was smelling a rose just before the attack happened.  The smell of that rose can get wrapped up into the incident and thus become part of the alarm system—one of the trip wires that cause the rush of adrenaline in the body even when no predator is present.  The body has difficulty separating the primary from the incidental clues that danger is present.

In order to cut this trip wire, the individual must be able to convince his body that the sensory detail is not directly related to the chain of events that threatens his life.  This is a difficult process that involves slowly introducing individuals to the threatening stimulus over and over until they become desensitized to it.  If you are suffering form PTSD, a trained psychologist can help you to do this.