I'll be the first to admit that I enjoy the sheer pleasure of listening to Obama speak, his cadences and crescendos, the optimism I've demonstrated myself when writing self-help books. Yes we can! His speeches stir me like a full-bodied symphony—although I sometimes can't recall his positions on particular issues later. I seriously doubt, though, that I'd swoon if I heard him in person. Some women apparently have at recent rallies.
The nearest I ever got to fainting from sheer excitement was at a Duran Duran concert in seventh grade. But as close as my best friend, Chrissi, and I got to hysterics, neither of us keeled over. I decided to find out more about the fainting phenomenon from neurologist Thomas Swift, immediate past president of the American Academy of Neurology.
Could I really lose consciousness from getting too ecstatic?
Yes. Being extremely excited can trigger a sudden large surge of adrenaline and other stress hormones. Your heart rate speeds into overdrive, sends a "fight or flight" message to the brain, which then sends a message back to slow down. As a result, heart rate slows, blood pressure drops precipitously, and the brain gets momentarily deprived of oxygen and glucose. Standing in one place makes it worse because blood has already pooled in your lower extremities. You might feel lightheaded, clammy, and a bit nauseated before your vision dims and the world goes black.
What's the purpose of fainting?
It's a survival instinct that immediately forces you into a horizontal position in order to restore blood flow to the brain. Most people revive quickly after falling. This fainting instinct can also kick in if a person hears news of a loved one's death or experiences a frightening event like a car crash occurring in front of them. And you see it all the time in church choirs on Sunday mornings. Kids faint while singing, often as a result of being nervous and skipping breakfast, which deprives the brain of glucose.
Is the swoon associated with Obama-like performances purely a female phenomenon?
No. Men faint too, but women do perhaps two or three times as frequently. It could be related to sex hormones like estrogen, but we can't say for certain. The other thing that can occur, especially at rock concerts or in large crowds, is when someone drops in response to seeing someone else faint. Young women are more prone to this epidemic fainting.
In fact, some have accused the Obama rally faints as being staged. When several people faint at once, is that very likely?
Not necessarily. I think most probably fall into a midzone, where they're not quite aware that they don't really have to faint. The power of suggestion from those fainting around them makes them feel as if they themselves are losing consciousness even if they're not experiencing any rapid plunge in blood pressure.
What should I do if I feel like I'm going down?
Lie down flat on the ground. Sitting won't help. You have to get the head and heart at the same level in order to restore blood flow to the brain.
What if I see someone else getting wobbly?
Don't let them fall, of course. But don't hold them up either. A person could experience seizures if her brain is deprived of oxygen for more than a few seconds. The best thing to do is to lie flat on the ground, even in a crowded public place.
How can I avoid that gonna-faint-feeling if I'm stuck standing for a while at a rally or rock concert?
Walk around a bit, or if there's no room to move, bounce up and down on the balls of your feet. That will help get blood circulating up towards your brain.