This is NOT a Drill

How Catastrophic Messaging Impacts Our Nervous Systems

The recent emergency message to Hawaiians about an incoming ballistic missile strike sent many people into a panic, creating, according to some sources, near-pandemonium across the islands. People reached out to loved ones, ready to say their goodbyes, and others prayed, took cover, and hid in bathtubs, closets, and other shelters. Others, still, raced through red lights and sped down the roads attempting to get home to their families for one last contact.

For those of us who didn’t receive that cell phone message or see it on a television screen or on a highway warning sign, how do you imagine you would respond?   One man, apparently a golf lover, continued to play his way down the links, choosing to spend his apparent last moments doing what he loved. When the alert was lifted, people apparently spoke to and connected with total strangers, much in the same way that Americans bonded in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks.

As the leader of a stress-resilience training company, I can’t say that I can help you prepare your nervous system for an emergency warning of the magnitude of the January 13th Hawaii broadcast.   What I can share with you is the intensity of the brain and body’s response to threatening information. The human fight-flight system is remarkably powerful, as it gears you, literally, to run or fight for your life.

If you check in with what that means, the implications for the nervous system are pretty enormous. Think about it: running from a threat in abject terror, knowing that failure to escape = death or serious harm OR fighting for your life, knowing that failure to repel the attack = death or serious harm. Fight or flight is a BIG DEAL. So is the freeze mechanism, the third threat response pathway that kicks in when the fight or flight mechanism is thwarted.

When a threat abates and we emerge alive on the other side of it, many human beings will be flooded with both dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters strongly linked to learning and well-being. The contrast between being intensely fearful then having the relief of safety or at least the threat subsiding is in some ways similar to what soldiers in combat feel when they narrowly escape death. Any way you slice it, the Hawaii alert was immensely activating to the nervous systems of nearly 1.5mm people on its six main and smaller islands.

It will be interesting, in the coming days, weeks, and months, to see how people respond to the threat, even though proven to be a false alarm. After 9-11, many people in New York City remained in a traumatized state for many months and even years. To this day, there is still substantial residual impacts from the attacks. Not that I’m comparing the two, but I want to make an important point here.

The brain doesn’t easily distinguish between what’s REAL and what’s imagined, so the story, the alert, and the message created a very real impact inside of people across the islands. While a few might have been skeptical or not believing the “official story”, most likely reacted as human beings do to their government telling them that they are under attack and potentially about to die. The impacts on Hawaiians and visiting tourists alike were and are profound.

Mothers nearing birth could easily go into labor, and those with heart issues could have a major problem. People with panic disorders could get triggered into a full-on attack. Certainly those with trauma histories of any significance could get pushed into the freeze response, the immobilization of the nervous system and lock up of the fight and flight pathways.

At the end of the day, the Hawaii alert created a serious impact on the people of that state and island archipelago. The island people had their nervous systems put “on alert” for the foreseeable future. In this era of fake, false, over-stimulating and otherwise ‘curious’ news, what I want to bring to your attention is that many of us live with a hyper-responsive internal warning system, no matter what SEEMS to appear in our environment, including inside our own brain.

Is your emergency warning system going off every day? While there may be good and valid reasons for you to have an emergency response, many people have over-reactive brains and nervous systems that can turn the smallest stimulus into a catastrophic response. It’s one thing to hear and see “THIS IS NOT A DRILL” and quite another to respond to something minute by perceiving major threat.

For example, you go to the car in the morning to leave for work. You have an important meeting first thing to get to, and you turn the key or push the button to start the car, when the car fails to start. Suddenly, within the span of a few seconds, you visualize missing the meeting, followed by a dressing down from your boss, leading to the loss of your job, your spouse leaving you, your kids losing all respect, and you ending up destitute and homeless on a street corner holding an “anything helps” sign.

This catastrophizing is happening with ever increasing frequency in our culture. While there may be implications to missing a meeting, it’s probably overblown that you’ll end up on a street corner as result. At the same time, our brains are wired for negative response at a 2:1 ratio of negative to positive, meaning we register the negative easily, naturally, and powerfully. That model fits into our survivability and makes sense, as loss in the primitive world quickly could equal death. It’s not hard to see how we can get there, AND it’s important to reign in the brain’s runaway freight train tendencies to make mountains out of molehills.

When you’re emergency warning system goes off and runs amok – outside of obvious potential actual threats ala Hawaii – how do you turn off the alarm and redirect your attention to something useful and grounding?   One of the skills we teach in our program is called “Name It and Tame It”, which incorporates naming an emotional response to down-regulate the amygdala and mid- or emotional brain.

How do you do that? The next time a powerful emotion starts to sweep you away, for example, when you’re in traffic and start to get frustrated or irritated, stop and observe it. As the emotion comes up, notice it and say, “frustrated” or “irritated”, either out loud or in your mind. Tap your head or where you feel it in your body. Rather than getting swept away by the emotion, you observe it, recognize it and name it, putting you in the driver’s seat of your response.

What happens in your brain – and we know this from fMRI scans of this skill – is that the blood flow and sugar demands get shunted from the right amygdala (the rapid response unit in the right hemisphere that responds to images and sensory inputs that convey threat) to the left frontal cortex (LFC) and to Broca’s area, centers of higher thinking and language. Your brain appraises things, puts a name on it, and signals through the LFC to the amygdala that there’s no need to react.

In today’s world, this kind of skill is not only useful, it’s vital. For more approaches to managing your brain and body, please visit the Catalogue Page at, which contains this and many other skills to regulate and optimize your response to threats – real or perceived.  The next time your brain presents you with your version of “This is NOT a drill”, use self-regulation to change the impacts inside yourself.