by Katie Goldin
Editor’s note: It’s not exactly a secret that Brian Brushwood gets injured on The Modern Rogue videos, roughly once every 2.4 seconds. We’re careful to not show gross stuff, but just in case we let one slip, we thought you could use some reassurance:
You’re the toughest, meanest, spitoon-spittin’est person alive. You punch fear right in its stupid face, some of your best friends are spiders, and when the Babadook sees you coming he leaves a Baba-dookie in his pants. Yet you see one drop of blood, and you faint like a Southern Belle at the suggestion of holding hands before marriage. Are you just a hopeless, cowardly weenie, forever at the mercy of papercuts and misleadingly splattered ketchup?
Relax. What you most likely suffer from is called “vasovagal syncope,” which may sound like a B-list Pokemon, but simply means fainting as a result of overstimulating the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve controls the lowering of the heart rate, which translates to a drop in blood pressure and possible fainting. The loss of consciousness is due to a lack of oxygen to your brain, not some kind of wuss-otonin being released when you’re scared.
"Have you tried not being a huge wuss?"
In fact, it’s ambiguous whether fainting at the sight of blood is even based in fear. While it’s definitely linked to hemophobia (fear of blood), the causality is less clear: people suffering from blood phobias are also more likely to have medically induced vasovagal syncope. The key is that vasovagal syncope can be caused by stimuli other than blood, such as standing for too long, standing up too fast, heat, pain, the sight of a needle, heightened emotion, or even straining on the toilet (hello, everyone reading this while straining on the toilet, I see you).
Researchers strapped some people with blood phobias to tables and tilted them at a 70-degree angle. We prefer to think they did that for no reason at all, because scientists are weird, but it turns out that tilting a subject on a table can also cause vasovagal syncope in predisposed individuals. Of the blood-phobic subjects, 82% had pre-syncope responses to being tilted, and the tests had to be halted so they wouldn’t faint. This suggests that vasovagal syncope comes first, and the hemophobia is a result of learning that every time you see blood, you faint. That is, unless everyone with a blood phobia also has a deep fear of tables, which would be reasonable because just look at them, standing there on four spindly legs, all gross and chairy.
If you’re still feeling sheepish about fainting, remember you’re in good company: about 25% of the population suffers from some form of vasovagal syncope. If anyone is to blame, it’s your parents, grandparents, and all those other jerks down the line who decided to continue your lineage.
But before you whip out a piece of stationary to pen a strongly worded letter of complaint to your grandma, the blame may start further back: researchers have found that vasovagal syncope is present in other animals, so may have some sort of evolutionary advantage. So you’re going to need to write a letter to monkeys, too.
There are various theories about what could possibly be beneficial, seeing as fainting seems to leave you as a helplessly convenient flesh bag full of giblets for predators. Interestingly, animals very rarely lose consciousness even during vasovagal syncope. Humans likely lose consciousness because of our annoying habit of walking upright, meaning the heart has to work extra hard just to keep blood flowing through our stupid bodies.
As pictured in this medical illustration.
One theory is that vasovagal syncope helps wounded animals prevent blood loss by slowing the heart rate and blood pressure. Other theories include it being a last ditch effort when a predator has you cornered, a “playing dead” response. It could also be a method of protecting the heart from stress.
So what can you do about fainting at the sight of blood? First, you’ll want to check with your doctor to make sure it’s not a sign of an underlying heart issue. Also, one of the main risks with fainting is hitting your head or falling on top of (and subsequently bending) your wookie action figure, so if you feel faint you should lie down, or at least sit with your head between your knees to increase blood flow.
Here’s the good news: it’s possible to lower your chance of fainting at the sight of blood by tensing your muscles, squatting and bending over in exercises that, to the untrained eye, look like a long-distance pooping competition.
Yes, you may appear to be an alien worm creature who has inexplicably found his consciousness transported into the body of a human. But a case report found success in preventing fainting when they had the individual, “cross and contract his legs for the leg crossing maneuver and to tense the muscles of his arms, chest, abdomen, and buttocks, without holding his breath for the muscle tensing maneuver.”
The exercises are designed to increase the heart rate to make up for the lowering of blood pressure associated with fainting. They are not designed to make you look sexy or cool. Also, these exercises were done in a clinical setting, with plenty of nurses to prevent the patient from fainting and cracking his head open like a Kinder Surprise. So we wouldn’t recommend pricking your finger and trying them out at home (especially alone and surrounded by coffee table corners and Ginzu knives).
Still, it’s encouraging that there are therapeutic techniques available to help prevent your body from going into noodle mode around blood. If all else fails, remember: blood is more afraid of you than you are of it, and you can always imagine your blood in its underwear.