Jump to content

High stress situations- what's the deal?

By glhsystemson - Read 5337 times


This should be a relatively simple question, right? After all we learn them before we even go for our first skydive. Some people find it easy and some very difficult to deal with Emergency situations. So difficult that they couldn’t. It all depends how procedures are thought and consequently perceived. Motivations set goals and goals define perception, therefore instructors, manufacturers and riggers might give you slightly different versions on what would work best. Who decides?  Education is the key, but only the right education! However, different opinions should be seriously considered as things change. This is very important as we have a strong tendency to reject ideas that fail to fit our preconceptions, labeling those ideas as unworthy of consideration— nonsense, irrelevant, weird, or mistaken

“Of the 308 fatalities that were reported between 1993-2001, 264 (86%) were categorized as Human Error, indicating that human error was deemed to be the principal causal factor in the mishaps”, this study was done in the USA. So 264 people executing emergency procedures during this period made a fatal mistake. The same study concluded that- “Within skydiving training and education programs, specific attention should be given to human error, and training should be deliberately aimed at reducing human error mishaps.” This was concluded 20 years ago. What do you think has been done with relation to this? Not much, and in regards to reducing human error things have gotten even more complicated. 

In order to execute the correct emergency procedures, we need to identify the malfunction correctly and perform the correct action from all the available options. 

Here’s an example of one way to teach them:

malfunction flow task compressed.jpg

This is just an example. Looks good and it’s in color too, well presented and not that difficult to understand. There are many different types of these around. Are they the real deal?

They should be, if they are around. And are they what the education needs? This type diagrams are consequence of the typical industrial type of education. The idea with the diagrams is that you learn it and when you need to respond to a malfunction situation- just execute the actions! That’s how computers work. Fast and accurate. But that’s not what happens in our heads. We are organic creatures. Skydiving is a high pace activity and we don’t have time to freeze, bring out the diagram with situations from the library, pick the right one and execute it. According to Adler (1991) and Schramm-Nielsen (2001), the decision-making process is comprised of specific stages including the recognition of the problem, search of information, alternatives, assessment of alternatives, selection of an alternative, implementation, control and feedback. Stress can also have an impact on each stage of the decision-making process (Moschis, 2007). Janis and Mann (1977) conclude that perceived stress in the decision-making process is a major cause of bad decisions and errors. And this is understandable- if we don’t know or understand what’s going on- the brain puts us in the pray response- freeze, fight, flight.

Consequently, the following issues arise from the diagram way to learn emergency procedures- our nervous systems are not fast enough and humans are not “Stimuli response machine” when skydiving, nor while acting under any pressure or stress. This “Stimuli response machine” theory of human behavior was from the middle of the last century and it says that when you are presented with a problem, you consider it, make a decision and act. However, this mechanism is true and works ONLY when everything that happens goes to plan, we have time, we are not under pressure and have enough time to think. This rarely happens in real life, let alone when dealing with emergencies in skydiving.

More importantly, diagrams and words are not how we think in skydiving and in general. What? What am I talking about?

A new study led by Elinor Amit, an affiliate of the Psychology Department, shows that people create visual images to accompany their inner speech even when they are prompted to use verbal thinking, suggesting that visual thinking is deeply ingrained in the human brain while speech is a relatively recent evolutionary development. 

“This suggests that we can’t really go beyond the here and now and think in abstract ways about other people, places, or times,” Amit said. “This is the way our brains are wired, and there may be an evolutionary reason for this [because] we haven’t always been verbalizers. For a long time, we understood our world visually, so maybe language is an add-on.

“That has important implications because if we are truly grounded in the here and now, what does that mean about how we develop public policy?” she added. “Do we need to help people overcome their bias to focusing on the here and now? This is something we may need to be aware of.”
This is relevant to skydiving as when we think about skydiving we imagine pictures, frames, short clips. Human life and behavior is organized around our vision. This is another fact that separates us from animals as they have their life organized around smell. This is very important as it gives us the ability to build images in our heads and run simulations. But this is only possible if the training goes past the diagrams and involves video or photographs. Hey, it’s not really possible to see what’s exactly happening after you throw your pilot chute so we feel and build pictures in our head of the developing opening sequence. If our brain detects any mismatch with what’s supposed to happen- we are alerted to get ready. RAS is activated. 
Visualization is widely used in skydiving. So why did we stop using it for emergency procedures training? I know people that haven’t seen any emergency procedures visual aids since they finished their AFF course 10 years ago. Even worse, it’s actually hard to find updated video of emergency procedures done right in real situation. 

If things do not go as planned, the emotional system- the ancient brain takes over and acts. The systems that are activated in the stress situations have been studied in depth. More details are to be in different publication but one good example is the RAS- reticulate activating system, located mainly in the hippocampus. It keeps track of everything that doesn’t go to plan so we can react. This is the system that wakes you up at night if something wrong is happening- loud noise, anomaly in the environment, etc.  The same system helps you drive your car when you are brain wondering and think about something else, whatever it is. It will alert you and help make a decision when the traffic light gets red so you can stop in response.  What actually happens when things go wrong is – the hippocampus modulates the process there, primes the amygdala in case things go really wrong and it primes the hypothalamus, the part of our brain responsible for exploration /we need to find a solution/. The result is you are ready! The question is how worried should you be? And that depends on how ready you are for the emergency.

The “Stimuli response machine” emergency procedures diagrams have some other inbuilt problems. One is that not all situations that happen are described, so they don’t give you a course of action for them. These should be resolved with the help of autonomous and divergent thinking. In order to do that we need have the necessary information. In skydiving, the necessary information involves equipment education and how parachute systems work. Unfortunately, there’s practically no formal education incorporated for licensed skydivers in this area. In other words, licensed skydivers unless they are riggers, luck the resources they need to deal with some situations. This can lead to developing of negative emotions in skydivers. The chronic overwhelm caused by these negative emotions can also harm the hippocampus, which is crucial for learning: this is where short-term memories, like what we've just heard or read, are converted to long- term memories, so we can recall them later. The hippocampus is extraordinarily rich in receptors for cortisol, so our capacity to learn is very vulnerable to stress. If we have constant stress in our lives, this flood of cortisol actually disconnects existing neural networks; we can have memory loss. We must learn to make our own interpretations rather than act on the purposes, beliefs, judgments, and feelings of others.

So, what should we do? Practice and science show that the more prepared we are, the faster the solution and better the outcome is. How we perceive the situations in skydiving has immense influence on the outcome and the perception depends on our knowledge and experience. The ability to generate and then select the appropriate course of action is based on the decision maker’s “reading” of the situation—in other words, their ability to assess the situation and predict how it will evolve over the next few seconds. If equipment knowledge and understanding the process is in play, then dealing with emergency situations is significantly simplified. “In general, for freefall emergencies they come down to- If your main canopy is out or there’s a reason to believe it can come out- jettison the main and deploy the reserve. If the main parachute is not coming out- deploy your reserve! All these should be done high enough.” Knowing your equipment and how it works also fits the biological reasons to perceive the emergency situations as challenge and not as threat and to get into the competence/ confidence loop which means -less stress. In other words- we perceive the emergency situation as challenge, not threat.

The right education? Well, looks like we need to work on it!  

All the above is just scratching the surface on the subject. It doesn’t explain everything and nothing in our brain does one thing only. Also, there are other factors in making decisions under stress too. However, humans have the necessary response abilities to act in high stress situations. They have been developing in the evolution for more than 300 million years. These abilities are very effective and we use them daily in our lives, in sports and even in skydiving. All these should be deeply utilised in the skydive training, not ignored!

Maybe it’s time the available knowledge to be implemented for updating the skydiving education. Skydivers’ safety depends on that!


1 1
1 1


Create a free account or login to comment on this article.

Sign Up Login

User Feedback


Some elaboration on part I here:

1.       “Practice and science show that the more prepared we are, the faster the solution and better the outcome is. How we perceive the situations in skydiving has immense influence on the outcome and the perception depends on our knowledge, experience and training. “- at first, it doesn’t seem perception matters much for what the malfunction is, however, perception is very important. We all perceive different situations differently.  An example is a Pilot chute in tow situations- different schools and manufacturers have different guidelines. The reason is the different perception for the same malfunction. The way we deal with this situation is usually the way we are thought, but is that the right way of doing it?

2.       “The ability to generate and then select the appropriate course of action is based on the decision maker’s “reading” of the situation—in other words, our ability to assess the situation and predict how it will evolve over the next few seconds. “- The purpose of science is to predict. So, more knowledge- better chance of predicting. It is the same with skydiving, the more knowledge you have of how equipment works- better chance of reading the situation. Knowing what is in the reserve container, what the closing sequence is, how and when the MARD works, why the RSL was invented and implemented, what the reserve pilot chute is, can affect the way we read and PERCIEVE situations. These things are important and being familiar with them could save your life. In emergency, people have reacted in different way depending on how they see the situation. As a result, if you know how all the equipment works and what you have, you do not need to think that much- conditioned response generates acting. Action becomes inbuilt into your reflexes.  Example- you are not thinking where exactly your arms and legs are every second when flying in freefall. You are just flying the whole system towards your goal and you subconsciously control your limbs. The same thing happens when you are driving a car- you are not constantly thinking how much input you should apply to different muscles of your limbs in order to maintain a straight line- it is all done subconsciously. You need to think only when you the situation changes, and you need to decide which way you need to turn at an intersection.

The other scenario is the common one, when you do not know how it all works- you execute only what you are told- pull some handles, hopefully in the right sequence. If this does not go well- you will need a lot of luck because you do not have time! You need time to realise exactly what is happening, what the problem is, to run different simulations and to decide what course of action to take and execute it. In skydiving- we lack time. Unfortunately, the current Skydiving education here simply fails.

3.       “Knowing your equipment and how it works also fits the biological reasons to perceive the emergency situations as challenge and not as threat and to get into the competence/ confidence loop which means -less stress. In other words- we perceive the emergency as challenge, not threat.”

What does this mean?

Well, it means that if you lack the necessary time and resources/knowledge/ and you are to deal with situation that you do not know how to resolve, the “freeze, fight or fly” response takes into action and you forget even the things you knew. Well, again- luck is in play as time is extremely limited!


In contrast, the situation is completely different when knowing your equipment and how it works, because this ensures that you perceive the situation merely as a challenge. Then, the neurophysiology is different. Your whole organism works in synchrony to resolve the issue. In this case your brain knows you have the necessary time and resources, and it does not get you into a pray response so you perceive this situation simply as a challenge.

Share this comment

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I wish Every Jumper would not only read this but understand this and be an integral part of their gear. That's why I say, " Why is this Not the #1 Streaming Video on this Sight.Here is how you Stay Alive my Friends.

Share this comment

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Add a comment...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.