Shock is a state of disorientation that arises from serious, sudden change.
Two major definitions of shock exist, and they are both different intensities of the same experience. The first describes the initial response to an intense and sudden event whilst the second explains the ongoing reactions to that event. So the term shock describes primary and secondary experiences to intensely sudden events. Both definitions are described below. If the shock is mild, only the initial reactions emerge. The more intense and sudden an event is, the more likely primary shock will lead to secondary shock.
When trying to understand shock, it helps to know that intense emotions assume more control over bodily processes than milder emotions. Instinctual responses to perceptions automatically express themselves as emotions become more intense. Responses are unconsciously processed from perceptions, and the content of perception is partially formed from imagination. The more intense the perception, the faster this unconscious processing happens. Vivid imaginations create stronger emotions.1 This remains true if the perceptions that have informed the mind are inaccurate or even complete fantasy. If a perception is believed, the associated emotion is experienced. Emotions are idiosyncratically expressed, so individual differences in expression become more erratic with intense emotions. Nevertheless, recognisable themes form the basis of shock.
First, there’s the mostly psychological experience of being shocked. Emotional reactions to sudden and unexpected events are named according to their intensity. Mildly sudden and unexpected events cause surprise, moderately sudden and unexpected events cause astonishment, and extremely sudden and unexpected events cause shock.
Surprise – Astonishment – Shock
These emotions are usually measured in milliseconds or sometimes seconds, and shock can be exempt from this rule of thumb as it’s a reaction to the most intense perceptions. All of these emotions to sudden and unexpected events prepare people for another longer lasting adaptive emotion that follows. In this respect, shock is always intimately bonded to the beginning of another emotion, yet whatever emotion shock morphs into, it will be filled with wonder.
The eyes, mouth and lungs open in synchronisation with each other. A fluid motion that raises the eyebrows and opens the mouth wide whilst a sharp audible breath is drawn and held.
Shock is instinctual. Blind and deaf people show the same emotional expressions, and it’s also seen in many animals. Eyebrows are raised, as the eyes open wide, removing them from obstructing vision and letting more light onto the pupils. The posture becomes very erect as the lungs take a sharp deep breath. Muscles around the inflated torso, the neck, back and hips are tensed. The body is firmly poised to run away from danger or evade a blow, yet as if to attempt not to be noticed by a dangerous creature, the body may be rendered motionless. The breath is held to reduce noise that could be noticed and to improve hearing. Senses are primed to detect any sign of a threat.
Owing to the intensity of the event, the breath may be held so tightly that people turn faint or choke, for the heart rate increases rapidly. Dizziness can occur through lack of oxygen which compounds the overall feeling of being dazed.
People often push hands out in front, as if to prepare for a fall, although they’re stationary. Although people are already standing, hands are sometimes thrown down and backwards as if to break a backwards fall, or perhaps to push the body up quickly from a seated position. Arms may lift up over the head as if to protect it from a falling or flying object, yet there’s no such threat. Often people motion as if to push something or someone away although nothing or nobody is there. These expressions are not expressed in a uniform manner between people, for they’re individual to the person concerned, stemming from instinct, learnt environmental dispositions, and from epigenetic responses.
These are commonly experienced instinctive reactions to sudden and intense events. In these initial moments there has been no decision made as to whether the sudden event is positive or negative. Shock prepares the body’s posture to adapt to either outcome, and part of that process is readying the body for activity just in case it’s needed. All the preparatory motions, such as keeping quiet by holding the breath and freezing to prevent attracting attention, are enacted in case they’re needed. As early humans evolved, their shorter lives were occupied with continuous physical labour. Life-threatening events would have been common. These instinctive preparations would have given precious life-saving seconds in a life-threatening emergency.
When such a shocking event turns out to be positive, the expression morphs into joy or elation. The eyes reduce in size, lowering the eyebrows, while the open mouth widens into a smile. The exhale, of pent up breath, may sound like screams, or cries of pain, as the muscles are so tightly contracted around the rib cage that laughter is rarely heard even when the event is elating. Instead deep breaths and erratic cries of joy with strained, fluctuating facial features are often the result.
When the shocking event is negative, the expression morphs into terror (or horror if there’s an element of disgust). The blood drains from the face and hands, leaving them cold, as it’s redirected to the legs that are prepared to run. The limbs may even twitch as they ready for movement. If the perceived danger passes, then immediate relief is felt, and often resulting in a massive sigh from forced exhalation of pent-up breath that lunges the body forward.
These are instinctive initial reactions of shock that are dependent on the intensity and suddenness of a perceived event. Shock is an evolutionary reaction that’s neutral. It prepares the body and mind for an additional emotion that’s appropriately adaptive to perceived events. Elation, terror, horror and relief are emotional reactions that act as extensions to shock.
Second, shock is an intense reaction that shuts body systems down, so that resources can be focused on something else that has suddenly become a priority.
This is commonly experienced when people fall or land on a hard surface in an awkward position. Consciousness can literally shut down as people faint or drop off to sleep. This is an instinctive attempt to stop activities that are not vital. It prevents movement in case of a serious physical injury. Shock can occur if an injury has happened or not. A serious jolt can send people into shock. When believed, a fantastical perception of a serious injury is enough.
The shutdown is to assess injuries. It is an instinctive safe guard that could be compared to a spinal-board that ambulance crews strap to people. When people have been in an accident, they’re strapped down to keep them from moving. It’s a precaution against an unseen injury inadvertently paralysing injured people when paramedics move them.
Whereas superficial pain has the tendency to create a fight-or-flight response, visceral pain acutely reduces activity and often leaves people dormant.2
In a similar way conscious processes reduce. The shutdown leaves people existing in a shock-like daze where they’re unable to think as they would do normally. Shock can happen without people being physically hurt. It can also be a response to positive and negative news. Hearing about seriously consequential happenings is enough to send people into shock.
How significant an event is perceived to be determines how shocked a person becomes. The ability to use normal mental processes is lost as the mind is focused on something else. The mind is trying to factor in the new information. Consciousness is affected. The ability to attend to detail becomes diminished. In varying degrees of time, higher consciousness vacates its residency. The lights are on but nobody is home.
Shock experiences have a range of intensities that often have considerable overlap with fight-or-flight instincts. A true example of moderate shock with fight-or-flight overlap is the case of Martin. He was riding with his friends on a hire bicycle one night in London. They were on a lad’s night out, and all had one pint before hiring bicycles to travel to a different location across the centre of London. As they stopped and pulled their bicycles up onto the path, they looked at the spectacle of theatres, hotels and shops along the Strand before setting off once again. They hurried onto the road in front of a red double-decker bus. Martin was the last to leave the path and was at the back of the group. He didn’t expect the other bikes in front of him slowing down as they descended the large curb, so he had to brake for a second.
The double-decker bus came to a stop, but it was too late. It consumed the rear wheel of Martin’s hire bike. He was standing on the bike peddles and looking back to see the huge red structure towering over him as it happened. The bike was ripped backwards under the bus as Martin’s body continued forward with his legs getting stuck on the handle bars. In a corner of his mind, a perception of his body being pulled under the bus, entangled in the hire bike, took hold.
London double-decker buses have amazingly good brakes. The bus had stopped on a penny. Martin was now standing on the road with his feet in between the front half of a bike and the red monstrosity lurching inches from his back.
Trying to cheer Martin up, his mates pulled the bike out from the bus and joked of the accident. The bus driver, six foot five inches tall and attempting to control his anger, found his patience being tested owing to a group of lads trying to make the experience funny whilst offering no apology. A passer-by, Jake, had to mediate, and he asked Martin for the hire bike number to diffuse the situation. The bus driver could take the unique code from the back of the bike for insurance purposes. Martin handed Jake the bike whilst gesturing he didn’t want to approach the bus driver himself.
Martin didn’t notice he’d passed his valuables, in a bag on the front, with the bike to Jake. Martin had no physical injury but he had entered into a fight-or-flight process. It had limited unnecessary thinking and primed his instinctive implicit-memory to heighten the speed of his physical reactions. He had natural analgesia – painkillers – flowing in his blood stream and was instinctively focusing on body movements. Yet that was not all. A large proportion of Martin’s attention was being redirected from conscious to unconscious control as it tried to assess what the consequences of the event were. These processes were limiting his higher faculties. Martin couldn’t speak more than a few seconds at a time and kept forgetting what he’d said.
After Jake had aided the bus driver, he went back to Martin with the bike and said everything was sorted. Martin nodded and then went to walk away down the Strand leaving Jake with the hire bike and all his valuables. Neither Martin nor his friends recognised he was in shock. They had no recognition of the neuro-biological process that Martin’s body had engaged.
Fortunately Jake, the passer-by, did. He told the friends that Martin was in shock and that for everybody’s safety he shouldn’t drive or be in charge of anyone else for the next couple of hours. Martin thanked Jake and walked off dazed.
Shock is an experience that people, especially the young, often are unaware they are experiencing. It’s possible to transition in and out of shock and a fight-or-flight state. The experience of different levels of shock over time gives people an ability to sympathise and empathise with others whom they see in a similar situation. People can tell when it’s not possible for someone to think straight. When people are in minor shock, they can often talk and remember, but they’re still preoccupied on a subconscious level with something else.
To determine how vulnerable people are and how safely they can carry out activities is important. A person in shock should not be handling heavy machinery. As mistakes are a common occurrence when people are in shock, they should not be put into a position where a mistake of theirs could harm anyone. Their minds are not fully on the job. Their minds wander off. It may not be possible for people to pay due care and attention when trying their best to do so. Typically, it’s a bad idea that people drive whilst in shock.
No one is immune to shock. This innate mechanism inadvertently shows the limitations of conscious attention. It demonstrates how consciousness gets reduced when high levels of unconscious processing are needed. If people think they don’t experience shock from time to time, it means they are unaware of the times when they do. It’s an evolutionary safe guard – an everyday occurrence that many people understand from direct experience. Shock is one of those reactions that sheds light on the deeper intelligence at work in everyone. It may be called the soul, spirit, the unconscious or core, but there’s definitely something substantial working below conscious awareness.
Old French. Choquer = strike against.
Middle French. Choc = violent attack.
Middle Dutch. Schokken = to push, jolt.
1. Military: the encounter of an armed force with the enemy in a charge or onset; also, the encounter of two mounted warriors or jousters charging one another.
2. A sudden and violent blow, impact, or collision, tending to overthrow or to produce internal oscillation in a body subjected to it; the disturbance of equilibrium or the internal oscillation resulting from this. Also, a sudden large application of energy other than mechanical energy, esp. thermal shock; a shock wave.
3. A sudden and violent effect tending to impair the stability or permanence of something; a damaging blow (to a condition of things, a person’s health or constitution, an institution, a belief, etc.).
4. A sudden and disturbing impression on the mind or feelings; usually, one produced by some unwelcome occurrence or perception, by pain, grief or violent emotion, and tending to occasion lasting depression or loss of composure; in a weaker sense, a thrill or start of surprise, or of suddenly excited feelings of any kind.