Understand Combat Stress in 5 Minutes

Why do we struggle to remember the name of a childhood friend we sat next to every day for an entire school year, yet the memory of a single moment we got into a fight is so clear? Animals have an intriguing ability to remember important survival situations far better than normal everyday activities.

Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor

Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) has been scientifically proven to help our neurons grow. Essentially when BDNF is available, our memories can be created much stronger than when BDNF is not available. This is a very useful survival mechanism, allowing our bodies to prepare for a life-threatening event without us even having to think about it. It's no wonder that while we can't remember what kind of car we drove behind today, we can easily remember the details about an accident we were in ages ago.


Why Our Brain Should Change in Combat

This story combines the recent scientific discovery of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, with the philosophy of how this may have aided in human survival.

Using a common scenario in combat today, such as vehicles driving on a dirt road when an explosion happens (IED), we can identify these triggers in the Caveman Story:

People We Don’t Know

We are no longer fighting an enemy in uniform, but we still watch everyone - not knowing who has a weapon or the explosive. We trust no one. This doesn’t change in our brains just because we take a flight back to the U.S. We are uncomfortable in crowds. The constant anxiety of society often sends us into isolation.


For hundreds of thousands of years, humans have needed a team to survive. Everyone that was comfortable being alone died. Those who had something in their brain telling them they needed to find a way to stick with the team survived. Therefore, we are no longer ok with being alone. When we isolate ourselves we are telling our brains that we are going to die. Isolation is directly related to depression and suicide.

The Harmless But Scary Effects

Difficulty Focusing

The “human thinking” brain decreases operation to allow the primal “reptilian” brain to take over. Our reptilian brain is responsible for basic survival instincts, breathing, and our heart rate. It becomes very difficult to read or gather complex thoughts.

Increased Breathing and Heart Rate

Adrenaline tells our heart to beat faster and harder and our reptilian brain to breath heavier. This increases our ability to escape the threat or fight it off.


As the body prepares to dissipate heat during the fight, we begin to sweat.


The kidneys release a surge of sugar to help our muscles perform. Then retract this sugar just as quickly. The rapidly changing sugar levels cause our muscles to shake.

Choking Sensation

Muscles all over our body can contract during a fight-or-flight response. Just like tense muscles causing cramps in the chest, it can make us feel like we are choking. However, this feeling is not cause for concern, our bodies will continue to allow oxygen to our lungs during fight-or-flight. Relax your chest and breathe slowly from the stomach, literally pushing your abs in and out. Once your neck muscles relax, this feeling will quickly fade.

Chest Pain

Combined with other symptoms of a panic attack, this can convince us we’re having a heart attack. However, the pains of a panic attack are harmless. There are multiple causes:

  1. Hyperventilation - Rapid muscle contractions and contracting blood vessels can cause severe chest pain. Relax the breathing to remove this pain.
  2. Cramping - We often have tense chest and shoulder muscles when anxious. Relaxing your muscles or a shoulder/back rub from a person we trust can quickly dissipate this chest pain.
  3. Bloating - Anxiousness and fight-or-flight removes blood from the digestive system. This causes gas and bloating. Gas and bloating can also cause chest pain.

Beneficial symptoms of fight-or-flight:

  • Increase strength
  • Little feeling of pain
  • Heightened senses
  • Increased energy

Other Normal Symptoms of Fight-Or-Flight Response:

  • dizziness
  • tunnel vision
  • tunnel hearing
  • loss of control
  • fearing the worst

Understanding these feelings are supposed to happen helps ease the mind during a panic attack and can drastically shorten the panic. For more explanation as to why your body decided to enter fight-or-flight, view The Caveman Story.