‘Somehow we’re still here’: one parent’s shocking story of survival

That day, we were running behind. We were running late that day, three months into parenthood. It seemed like time was always against us. A constant struggle against the clock to get baby fed, changed, and out the door.
We were all meeting up with friends to have lunch on Saturday afternoon, the first Saturday after pubs in England reopened. The streets of southeast London were bustling with people. The streets were crowded with people, with wriggly tables and trays filled full of pints spilling onto the pavement. Friends hugged, they were reunited after so long.

We tried and failed to find a table as we walked around. The baby was getting grizzly. A walk or coffee seemed to be the best option. Maybe wine? A friend suggested that we get a bottle of wine from the place and go to the park. I'll pay you, another friend said, while searching for a mask. Quick, get your wallet out! These are ordinary, but extraordinary decisions that could have been our last.

A nauseating crunch of metal followed by a shriek from the tyres was heard seconds later. A car was less than 5 m away from us when it lost control and climbed onto the pavement, hitting a wall head-on. Panicked, the driver pressed the accelerator and pulled the steering-wheel in opposite directions, causing the car's wheels to spin in the opposite direction. The car then crashed into a wall, hitting the pavement in front of us.

The car rattled through the shops next to us, before jolting towards our baby and the pram.

I stopped moving and froze. As a friend pulled my safety line, I felt the sensation of falling forwards and sideways. The car was right beside us, close enough for me to touch it. I watched as the car glided past us, along the pavement, and then stopped at 50m ahead. The driver sat still, his hands resting on the steering wheel. Broken shop boards and mangled bikes were scattered in the driver's path. My partner had moved the pram with our crying baby aside and it was now leaning against a parked car.

I felt a steadying hand from strangers as they wrapped their arms around me. It's time to get down. You would like a cup of tea? You want something stronger?

We huddled at the curb, trying to figure out what had happened. Our memories were hazy. We clung to our luck instead. What if we had arrived sooner today or later? What if we were just centimetres from the pavement? Millimetres? We were somehow still here. We had miraculously managed to escape unscathed. How did it happen?

According to Dr Sarita Robinson, a survival psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire, the brain is driven to survive. It works every day to make sure we don't die. A sudden, severe incident can cause immediate panic. The survival instinct kicks in and redirects resources to our brains to help us get through it.

Robinson speaks from personal experience. Robinson was also once subject to a similar threat. Her son was just one years old when an oncoming car sped past her, its number plate touching hers. Other than the expression on the face of the other driver, she says she doesn't remember much about the incident. It was a pivotal moment in her life that changed the course of her entire life. When I returned home, I thought, "You only live once." She says that today could have been my day. This was the reason I chose this career path.

I thought of my family when I returned home. This is why I chose this career: Dr Sarita Robinson, also known as Dr Survival. Photograph by Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Robinson, now known as Dr Survival, conducts research on people's responses to emergencies. She examines why some people are more likely than others to survive and what we can do in order to increase our survival chances. There are three main responses to a potentially life-threatening situation, according to Robinson.

The first one is based on your existing skills, knowledge, or behavior. Robinson cites the example of a senior firefighter who was called to respond to a fire at a nearby structure. He quickly realized that the heat source was not the ground floor as reported by 999. Robinson calculated that walking on the floorboards would weaken them further, which would lead to the floor likely collapsing. His team was safely evacuated by him. He could stay calm and be confident that his instincts were right.

Second, you can return to your routine or habits after you are in danger. People working in New York's Twin Towers were aware that they were in a life-threatening position. Some put their milk in the refrigerator, while others went and got their coats. They were too busy to think about their next steps so they acted in a familiar way.

Cognitive paralysis is my third category response. My brain couldn't process the events fast enough to freeze me. Dr John Leach, a University of Portsmouth psychologist, says that this is how most people respond to a danger. He suggests that fight-flight–freeze should be reframed as freeze-flight–fight. This would, cognitively, be considered a more normal sequence.

Primitive primates had to freeze. But that doesn't make sense now. Although we were not prey, our brains still believe that we are Dr John Leach.

Leach says that predators were our greatest threat as primates. They would wander around with sharp teeth and ready to attack us. Predators can detect movement in prey very easily, so in order to survive, we had no choice but to freeze and not move at all. This makes no sense in modern times. Although we were not prey, our brains believe that we are.

Memory loss is one of the hallmarks of cognitive paralysis. Memory loss is a condition where we can recall past events in flashbacks. The environment is heightened and our senses are overwhelmed, which increases engagement with it. I was particularly disturbed by the car hitting the wall. The sound of skidding brakes traveling at a higher pitch seemed to be reflected in the car's crash. My brain was unable to process the events and time seemed to slow down. This is when the brain adjusts to what has happened and affects memory.

The brain works hard to keep the plates turning during the emergency's impact phase. The amygdala, which is responsible for emotions storage and processing, receives information as soon as there is a threat. The threat is confirmed by the hypothalamus, one of three brain areas responsible for memory recall. This triggers the physiological systems that help us survive. The prefrontal cortex, located at the top of the brain and responsible for anticipating future events and planning, is already jammed to ensure that we can deal with the immediate threat. Our brains are at maximum capacity so there is no room to store memories.

After the brain has begun to work to mitigate the threat, it tells the body's systems to get into gear. The heart beats faster and blood circulation increases when there is adrenaline. The lungs' airways expand and carry oxygen and glucose to the brain, muscles and other parts of the body. To absorb and process information faster, the pupils dilate. This is when the body prepares to fight or take off.

Robinson decided to do a standup comedy show shortly before her 40th Birthday. She says this event was the closest she's come to understanding the impact phase of the brain. I can still remember running up and down the stage, and the man at the end encouraging the crowd to cheer me on. She says nothing else. She said that I didn't know where I was, who or what I was doing.

Within 20 minutes of an incident, adrenaline begins to fade. The HPA axis replaces it with cortisol-releasing systems. Cortisol then circulates the body searching for glucose stored up and injects it into our bloodstream. This allows us to sustain the fight/flight response as long as the threat remains. For example, cortisol is retained in long-term hostage or shipwreck survivors until danger passes.

It is striking to me and still a constant reminder of how different our responses were. My friend and I were caught in the path of the car and froze. Our partners were at the other side of the road and had to wait a few seconds to pull us safely to safety.

Robinson says that individual differences play a large part in how we react to life-threatening situations and how likely it is for us to survive them. Robinson learned how important it is to have a positive attitude in order to achieve success during an underwater helicopter rescue exercise.

People who refuse to engage or quit before starting are less likely to survive in an emergency. We see lower levels for people with an optimistic outlook and who are confident in their abilities. They are less likely be anxious and remain calm, collected, and cool. People who are too optimistic or confident think they don't need any training. To survive a disaster, we need to find a happy middle.

Although it is well-known that gender plays a part in how we respond to emergencies, the mechanism is not clear. Research has shown that women tend to be more protective than men and can respond quickly to an emergency. I therefore covered my baby with my body when I was convinced that there would be an attack. On the other hand, men are more likely to think things over. Robinson and Leach found that women are less likely to survive the crisis phase, but they have higher survival rates because they can adapt faster. Leach cites the example of women who survived shipwrecks more often than men, and prisoner-of-war camps where women were seen working together to ensure that the whole unit survives.

Research also shows that our ability to survive major incidents is affected by our age. Our cognitive flexibility starts to decline around 40. This can negatively impact our ability to quickly think through alternatives and make decisions. Researchers interviewed 350 people aged 10 to 86. They found that memory performance improved over time, with a gradual decline starting at age 30 and continuing through old age.

Life-threatening situations reveal what is already there. How someone gets out of an incident is dependent on how they took it in Dr John Leach

However, children are resilient in emergency situations. Most children will imitate authority figures until they are around 10. They will imitate the behavior of people in uniform, or their parents more often. Leach claims that our baby cried because he saw me do it. He was aware of the shaken state of one his primary caregivers and knew something was wrong. Children develop their own survival mechanisms once they reach the age of dependency. They can scan, scan, and pay attention to visual information, as well as effective task-switching.

How does the brain deal with trauma? Robinson says that social support can be a great buffer. This can be done by sharing the information with family and friends, professional support or simply talking to witnesses and passers-by. A diary can also be a useful tool. Both of these methods allow the prefrontal cortex re-engage. Sometimes it takes days, while in others it only takes a few hours.

I was furious for days after the car drove towards me. I reached out to bars and shops to speak to people who witnessed the accident, determined to understand what had occurred and gather as much information as possible. My partner experienced vivid nightmares in which he was trapped and unable protect his family. All of us felt more cautious driving on the roads and less hesitant about using them.

Leach says that when you are faced with a threat to your life, it tends uncover the truth. The way someone deals with an incident will depend on how they take it into their lives. Only after the incident is incorporated into a person's life, can they move on.

Between 5 and 10% of people experience long-term psychological or physiological changes. Those who suffer from traumatic events will develop PTSD. Robinson says that while everyone believes the brain is stable and does not change, it is actually quite flexible. Because the brain is plastic, it can change quickly. You can get the hippocampus back.

Even though it's been three months, the anxiety, fear, and anxiousness are still creeping up on us. My partner and me often talk about how easy-going and carefree our lives were before realizing that it could all end in seconds. As we huddled, I asked, while we watched the car move further down the road. We were reminded of our purpose by watching our little boy grow in awareness, develop his senses, and widen his eyes as he did.