What happens when panic becomes fuel for inspiration

Dan Antopolski

To err is human. And sometimes when you mess up, all you can say is “err…” But if you are the sort of person for whom panic is fuel for inspiration, you can rise to great heights in response to crisis. If you trust your body and brain to look after you at key moments, you may temporarily attain not only enhanced speed and strength but even invisibility. The following is not science fiction.

In the late Nineties I lived in west London, near the Portobello Road. My girlfriend at that time was due back from a work trip abroad. We arranged to meet in the swimming pool at our local gym, a routine we were trying to keep up even though January was nearly over.

I went to the gym, got changed and lowered myself into the pool. I was a few minutes early but I could see her already at the other end wearing her usual goggles and swimming hat and a new swimming costume, doubtless purchased on her trip. She hadn’t seen me though – and an evil plan formed in the huge space between my ears. I would scare her, hilariously!

I sank low in the water and started stealthily crabbing towards her, laughing with my customary foolish cunning, my crown just above the waterline, my nostrils spluttering occasionally against the meniscus.

She would really enjoy being frightened, I reasoned. How we would laugh. My prey was still some distance off but I could approach no nearer without revealing myself, so I took a deep breath and sank beneath the surface like a crocodile. I slinked along the pool floor, detectable only from the trail of bubbles that arose from my underwater sniggers. In a few strokes I was upon my unsuspecting victim and I reared out of the water, a mighty Godzilla, roaring terrifyingly!

Unfortunately, it wasn’t my girlfriend but another woman with Eurasian skin tone. My terrible claws froze in mid-air, my roar died away and I stood before the woman: a dripping, racist, giggling tyrannosaurus.

Swimming pool rules include prohibitions against running, bombing and heavy petting. There is no explicit clause dealing with this type of unsolicited dinosaur visit but it was definitely a form of assault and I needed to deal with it – and fast.

To say I reacted is simplistic. My amygdala reacted, triggering a neural response in my hypothalamus and activating my pituitary and adrenal glands almost simultaneously via the sympathetic nervous system – releasing the hormone epinephrine which bound to my liver cells, producing glucose and giving me a sudden burst of energy. Chemical messengers triggered the production of cortisol, which increases blood pressure and blood sugar, suppresses the immune system and turns fatty acids into available energy, all of which in combination with the adrenaline prepares muscles throughout the body for rapid response – often accompanied by an accelerating heartbeat, alternate paling and flushing, paused digestion, dilation of the pupil, and the loss of hearing, erection and peripheral vision. In my case it also turned me French.

My whirring brain moved down the priority list from physical escape to sensory escape

“Pardonnez-moi!” I said, in the impeccable accent of my A-level.

I heard myself say it but I had no idea why. My best insight into that instinctive decision is that I was so mortified at attacking an Asian person in the guise of Godzilla that my autonomous systems interpreted my predicament as a physical crisis. Over the subsequent nanoseconds, as my body prepared for fight or flight, my brain evaluated the case for each and presented its solution, which I implemented.

Fight was out: the woman was not a threat, I was the aggressor – at least from her point of view. From my own, the threat was that I might explode from embarrassment. I certainly would have fled but the water was too dense – I simply could not leave the field quickly enough that way. My whirring brain moved down the priority list from physical escape to sensory escape: camouflage! As an octopus changes colour to avoid detection, my brain reasoned, if I pretended to be French then the woman would not know it was me and I would effectively have disappeared.

You can’t fault the brain there: she did not know it was me. Of course she did not know it was me in any sense, but if she were to describe the creepy dino-pervert to the gym staff they would be hunting for a Frenchman. There are lots of French people in west London. I don’t want to give my brain too much tactical credit but in any event there was no disciplinary follow-up and I remain at large, though I stopped attending that gym soon afterwards, it being February.

Weirdly, the woman I terrorised did not seem to react at all to the attack of a giant prehistoric lizard. Perhaps she was playing dead. Perhaps she urinated a little, I couldn’t see. Perhaps she worked with children and was used to this sort of thing. Or perhaps – and this is my preferred interpretation – she was just glad Godzilla was there, protecting her from Mothra. Well, you’re welcome, madam. And I’m terribly sorry.