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Stress and Adrenaline In Sportfishing

Adrenaline: How and why we react the way we do. How it can effect your boating experience.

The human body is preprogrammed with a variety of physiological and psychological responses designed to deal with an adrenaline dump.  Some of these responses will aid in achieving the desired outcome. Others must be overcome. Understanding how your body reacts to an emergency or a rush of sudden excitement is the first step in managing your reactions.

One of the first reactions to a stressor is the release of adrenaline, or epinephrine. Designed to aid in our “fight or flight” response, the release of this hormone causes a number of physical changes in your body. These changes can include an increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, heavy respiration, an enlargement of the pupils and the redirection of blood to major muscle groups.

These reactions can manifest themselves in a variety of ways:

Tunnel vision – As we have evolved, the body has learned to exclude external stimuli and focus your attention on the threat. Think of a caveman facing off against a saber tooth tiger. The threat is the tiger, not the surrounding jungle.   Peripheral vision is not as valuable and visual resources are directed to those that are most needed to survive the threat. This is not always helpful. If a tractor trailer crosses in to your lane on the highway, tunnel vision may prevent you from seeing an escape route. Tunnel vision from the adrenaline dump caused by a marlin on the teaser might prevent an angler from seeing the other marlin working the left flat. We can combat this by physically turning our heads and scanning our surroundings. The physical act of turning your head can help reduce tunnel vision and allow you to see things you might have otherwise missed, like a tournament winning fish or an escape route.

Loss of fine motor skills – Moving major muscle groups becomes the body’s primary focus in an emergency situation. This is most easily seen when an inexperienced boater runs into trouble while docking. They misjudge or overcorrect as they approach the slip. The problem can be fixed with a little bump on the throttle. Just a little nudge. The fear of embarrassment or the potential for damage from a collision causes an adrenaline dump. The novice boater grabs the throttle with white knuckles and drops the hammer. Way too much power and now his predicament is even worse. Major muscle groups are great for running, fighting, shoving and yanking. They are not very good at nudging. This loss of fine motor skills can strip you of the ability to fine tune anything. Think of the tournament angler on the winning fish that tries to adjust the drag “just a hair” and ends up pinning the lever and losing the fish.

Diminished hearing or auditory exclusion – The mate is giving instructions to an angler fighting a tournament winning fish and the instructions aren’t followed.  The captain is giving instructions to the crew during an emergency but the crew does not respond.  It isn’t always a conscious decision to ignore instructions during a high stress event.  It may very well be the result of the body’s reaction to adrenaline.  This can interfere with a person’s physical ability to hear.  Every brain cell can become so focused on dealing with the stressor that it can’t allocate the resources to process incoming data.

206498_1024974106331_6559_nTime distortion:  Many anglers describe seeing a giant fish jump as if it were moving in slow motion.  Boaters that witness, or are involved in a violent accident may experience the same phenomenon.  Of course, time doesn’t really slow down but laser-like focus on a particular threat or event forces your body to rapidly collect information so that you can determine how to react.   Processing this rapid influx of data can make it seem as though time has slowed.  When your next decision could mean the difference between extinction and survival this can be helpful.  However, it can also lead to temporary amnesia.  This is especially true for ancillary details that are not tied directly to dealing with the stressor.  What was said, who was there and subsequent events immediately afterwards are likely casualties.  Some of these details may return after you have had time to process the event but immediately recalling them could prove difficult.

Summary: Adrenaline isn’t a bad thing.  Big game anglers look forward to that adrenaline rush.  The tricks to overcoming the negative side effects and harnessing the power of the positive side effects are preparation and inoculation.  Simply stated, practice makes perfect.  The time to figure out plan of attack is not when the plan is needed.  Contemplate worst-case scenarios or situations when you know your body might react by releasing a shot of adrenaline.  Plan out your response to these scenarios.  An example is the experienced angler mentally rehearsing the physical act of hooking up on a fish.  Just like the angler, you can mentally rehearse your response to on-board emergencies.  Exposing yourself to situations that induce an adrenaline rush in small doses will condition your body to function more normally when larger doses are introduced.  Being aware of how your body will react to an unexpected event will make it easier to manage your response and prevent “bad” from becoming “worse”.

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