By Kevin -, CC BY 2.0,

Kernel Panic!

I want to stick with my operating system analogy for a little while longer. Regardless of the kind of computer you are most familiar with you have probably experienced Kernel Panic.1 In the Windows world we call this “The Blue Screen of Death.” Kernel Panic is the result of your machine finding a fault during start up that, if it were to continue to boot up, might cause irreversible damage to programming instructions or memory. In short the system locks down and won’t do anything else while the problem exists.

Our operating system does the same thing when we face a threat to our Acute needs. If you are drowning your brain doesn’t invest energy in thinking about anything other than breathing. If you are being shot at your brain is often going to tell you to make yourself as small as possible. It might also tell you to run away.2 When we perceive a threat to one of Acute Needs – a perception that is often unconscious and implicit – our bodies switch from our resting state3 to a state of threat response.4 A full treatment of how our nervous system does this will take significantly more space to cover than this post. However I’ve detailed this out some in my book The Combat Position: Achieving Firefighter Readiness and I cannot say enough about Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s book On Combat. There are volumes of scholarly articles out there as well. I expect I will sit down and put together a more academic paper on this at some point; if so I will come back and link that here.

TL;DR Version

The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is our “Fight or Flight” programing. It is our evolved mechanism for surviving. Hence the SNS is said to govern The 5-Fs; our needs to Fight, to Flee, to Freeze, to Feed … and to Mate. The odds of our survival (both physical and genetic) is a constant condition our nervous system checks for. In the human operating system the presence of a threat to our Acute Needs in an untrained individual often elicits a Kernel Panic. Apply a sufficient strain to tax the nervous system to it’s maximal capacity and our mental Kernel Panic causes us to freeze – the same kind of fatal exception that can crash your computer. If we are going to minimize the chance of Kernel Panic we must do two things: 1) understand what is physically happening with our bodies and 2) acclimate ourselves to facing threatening situations.

Featured Image Credit: By Kevin –, CC BY 2.0

  1. Properly this is a Unix based OS term.
  2. Unless you are trained to respond actively humans generally flee or freeze in the face of violence.
  3. Where our Parasympathetic Nervous System is running the show.
  4. Sympathetic Nervous System activation.

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