Why hello, friends! Fancy meeting you here! This is going to be a long one, I’m warning you now.
I watch a lot of YouTube. Probably too much. But whilst taking a break from my evening writing last night I found this video by Discovery News that gives a lot of the background science(yay science!) that I use to help understand what being a berserker means. Note: most of this is my own theories and experience, mixed with stuff I’ve read from elsewhere, but it’s built on top of actual science, so it has some credibility, if slim.
Quick disclaimer: I’m not a neuroscientist. I probably sound like an idiot when I get into the technical stuff, but here goes nothing.
The video explains, among other things, the “panic” response and the “relax” response. I have a lot of experience with the first, and a little less with the other. (Anxiety disorders are a bit of a bitch.
Pardon my french.) So, I know the difference between the OMGWTF PANIC and going into the gangr(going berserk) because I’ve done both. Yay!
So if you’re following along at home, Trace starts out the video explaining adrenaline(or epinephrine. If you’ve ever been really allergic to something, you’ve heard that word before) and the effects it has when it’s released, including allowing the body to do some pretty impressive stuff, like turn carbs into glucose, strengthen the skeletal muscles, and throw itself across a room in an instant. If this all sounds like the crazy, superhuman strength talked about in the legends of berserkers, it’s because that’s where that part comes from. Trace doesn’t talk about it in the video, but adrenaline also causes the bronchial tubes to open up and blood pressure to rise, which lets muscles get even more oxygen than they’re used to getting. Which is why epinephrine is used for some asthma patients. I would know. I used to have asthma and chronic bronchitis. More on that later.
Trace goes on to explain a method used by people who, in their line of work, need to learn how to control their fight-or-flight response. He mentions breathing as a bridge between the sympathetic nervous system, which we already talked about, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of digestion and repairing tissue damage. Your healing ability goes way up when you’re relaxed, and that’s important to take note of. We’ll come back to it. Trace describes how forcing yourself to breathe activates the vagus nerve(don’t piss it off. What happens in the vagus doesn’t stay in the vagus.) and calms down the entire system. Basically, breathing is a way to switch from all-out panic, to much less panic, very fast.
Now, knowing all this, the difference between life-shattering panic and going berserk is rather easy to grasp, in theory: Panic activates one set of responses, the gangr activates all of them. Let me explain.
First, panic. I’ve had a few panic attacks in my day. I suspect I’ll have more before I’m done. They suck. With my panic attacks I usually end up going into “flight” mode, followed by a swift mental shut-down into what I call “freeze” mode(which I’ve since learned is something I accidentally trained myself to do to avoid hurting people). Rather unhelpful in crowded social settings, but fleeing is awesome if I’m getting attacked by something and need to get away fast. Which, believe it or not, that’s actually happened to me too. I wasn’t in any real danger at the time, looking back, but boy did it feel like it. The gist of it is that I’m friends with another berserker. He didn’t know he was one until I accidentally tagged his forehead while we were sparring, in a pretty safe group setting. He flipped. It was bad. I panicked, backed well away, and asked my other friends for help. I panicked, but in my panic my reaction time went up and I actually managed to block his punches without feeling a thing. He calmed down after he realized he’d just tried to bash my face in, and apologized profusely. He didn’t go full-on berserk, but he did have a very strong “fight” reaction to my hand grazing his face. I think he must have almost gone berserk, though, because he had spit flying everywhere when my other friend tried to calm him down, and generally the mouth goes dry in panic mode. (He’s toned it down a lot since then, but he’d never been smacked before, whereas I’d had years of martial arts training leading up to that. So I was used to taking hits, he wasn’t. I didn’t expect that, given that he’s a big, strapping, hulk of a guy. He fits the “classic” description of a berserk.)
Going berserk is altogether different. It activates both the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems at the same time, or one right after the other. In a simplified form, going berserk is like going into a panic and then falling asleep immediately after. It’s like a nightmare in reverse. Your body knows it’s in trouble, but the mind is relaxed. My reaction to the above situation acted more like a mild gangr than a panic, in hindsight, because of how clear my response was to being attacked. I didn’t shriek, I didn’t try to run, I stood my ground and saw where he was punching before he punched. I’ve gone berserk on my boyfriend a few times before, once purposefully, and only to test where my threshold was. I intercepted his punch with another punch(we spar a lot. We’re both classically trained. Iz all gud.) which, while it didn’t even leave a bruise, stopped his motion before it even started, and we stopped the experiment. The other time we…well, we weren’t fighting. That one was on accident, but it was the first time I’d ever gone all the way gone. Speech becomes almost incomprehensible, time slows down, and everything seems much more vivid. The mind takes in detail in rapid fire, knowing what a thing is even in the split second of looking at it for the first time. I memorized half of the stuff sitting on Bran’s nightstand before the crystal-sharpness wore off and I slid into the, “everything is warped,” portion of the berserk state, where it was mostly gone but the adrenaline was still tinkering with everything. That one was a “nice” gangr, where I wasn’t in danger, just under a lot of physical stress, and wasn’t angry or anything. I’ve also had short, intense, Hulk-type gangrs where I’ve just wanted so bad to smack something, as well as drawn-out almost-gangrs that mostly keep my mental faculties intact. Those suck.
Several things are different from a normal danger response when a person goes berserk. What happens is that for whatever reason, after the adrenal glands dump All The Stuff into the system(which is another difference between normal people and berserkers: we don’t have real great control switches on those things and they do tend to over-react), the hypothalamus gets all flustered and tells the body to stop and relax before All The Things get ripped up and screwed up by the flood of so much epinephrine. So, the brain basically sends both signals in rapid succession, and then gets itself into a big clustercluck of, “wait, which one?” because the body keeps sending back signals of both “we’re in danger, we need the big guns,” and “we’re hurting, please send the medic.” The compromise is staggeringly beautiful. All the normal sympathetic stuff happens, but then because of the strain on the entire body from just trying to deal with that much adrenaline, the brain sends out hormones for healing stuff as well, so all of the immune and repair responses get boosted as well, and carried along by all that adrenaline! The result is someone who, in one of these states, can heal so quickly after getting cut it was like it wasn’t even there, withstand burns to an inhuman degree, react fast, strike fast, hit harder than the body should be able to hit, lift far more than that body should be able to lift, and keep going for a freakishly long time. Because of all that, the brain is processing sensory information much faster than it’s used to, and much more of it, so it tends to shut off the parts responsible for things like, making rational decisions,understanding language, and decisive planning(but not intuitive planning, interestingly enough). Because of this weird, animalistic state, a lot of berserks report feeling like they “became” an animal, or were possessed by one, after they come back into full rationality again. I, for one, get the feeling of a wolf, or a werewolf, which is why I call myself an “ulfhedinn.” (wolf-skin[I think?]) Someone who feels like they become a bear might call themselves a “bjorn-stark.”(bear-strength) There are a lot of different variations on interpretation, depending on the mind of the berserker. It’s rather astonishing actually.
(Side note: Seidhr is very similar to this state, but with the stress being on the mind and emotions, rather than the body and emotions. Also, the Witcher 3 actually did suitable justice to the concept of an ulfhedinn and I had to laugh when I saw that they were in the game.)
A state like that can be entered at will as well as on accident, but it takes a lot of practice, even if you’re someone with a natural talent for this kind of thing. It also takes a massive amount of emotional awareness, and an ability to remember specific emotions in full and be able to bring them up at any given point, at any given internal trigger. It also requires an awareness of the body and how it functions, and an ability to manipulate that function through things like the breathing technique mentioned in the video(followed in rapid succession by hyperventilating) and specific, repetitive motions that activate a wide range of muscles, like running, leaping, dancing and…well, other things. To say the process is a bit complex would be an understatement. That’s a follow-up post for another day, maybe. Now, because of everything that happens with the body, I actually do recommend people who were born with the tendency to go berserk to try and figure out how to use it, because it actually does help some health problems. More adrenaline in the lungs more often means that things like asthma and bronchitis start to go away(thank the gods, because I was a sick little puppy when I was a kid), increased immune response means that illness and allergies become less and less intense if/when they happen, brain chemistry tends to stabilize as a necessity to keep the body in homeostasis when not being crazy, emotions become easier to identify and deal with, though no less intense(and we feel things, All The Things, very intensely), but this may be a function of practice rather than the gangr itself, and there’s an overwhelming sense of, “ah, yes! That’s what’s going on here,” that replaces the, “omg why am I so angry/sad/restless/hyper/upset all the time?”
But the berserkergangr puts a massive amount of stress on the body and mind. It necessitates a lot of changes to the body if someone has been going berserk for a while, or even started out that way. (Some people are born with it, which is not helpful when you get smacked by the bullies in elementary school.) In my observation there seems to be two main ways the body copes with the strain, and both work equally well, but for different reasons. Any and all chromosome setups and genders can be berserkers, by the way, not just cis guys. They tend to be the most common, for reasons unknown to me, but women are terrifying, and actually a lot better at making the right decisions when they are in the midst of a gangr. And they aren’t set off by blood as easily(I’m a trans-guy, I’ve seen both sides of this equation). I’m not going to get into skin saturation or other cosmetic variations because when you get right down to it, the only requirement is that the person in question has a body that functions like a human, aside from the addition of crazy-overactive adrenal glands. With that in mind, the human body, regardless of hormones, tends to do one of two things, though there are probably other variations:
- Classic tank: where the person is tall, kinda bulky, with very broad shoulders and a big chest. This build is more common with a Y-chromosome present, but it doesn’t need to be. With untrained berserks, this ends up looking more like, “long and lanky,” than anything else. Someone who uses their muscles often will obviously, have bigger muscles, and someone who goes berserk often will have really big muscles, since that’s what the focus is on here. [For instance: my boyfriend, who is a classic berserker(though he controls it very well) went from being 130 lbs or thereabouts to 145 in the space of the summer before we started dating, to nearly 180 now, three years later, and all of it is muscle. He bulked up rather fast for someone who doesn’t work out!] This seems to work by being imposing enough that threats tend to run before trouble happens, thus saving the berserker from having to go berserk in the first place. They also tend to go more toward the superhuman strength side of the spectrum, since, as a physical law, more mass means greater force, and more padding means that they can take an incredible amount of punishment without risking broken bones or even bruises. Longer legs also mean that the body can cover more ground faster than a shorter person can, which is handy for escaping. The downside is that a larger body needs more resources to keep it going, and it is rather expensive to keep up a diet that can sustain a body like this in a gangr for a long period of time. The aim of this game is to hit hard, hit them so that they can’t get back up again, and be able to take a sword or six without stopping to flinch. This is the kind of body that evolved to get up close and personal with things like mammoths and cave bears, and be able to take them down. (Aside: I can’t speak for sure on this one because I have no personal experience, but that’s how it seems to work from observation. If you’re a classic, let me know what you think!)
- Smart-car: which is what I am. Short, slender, wiry, but still with a slightly larger ribcage to make room for bigger lungs. This is more noticeable in an XY body than an XX body, just because XY’s have bigger ribcages already, but I have two x’s and I can measure the difference with a tape measure. Someone who doesn’t work on their figure, and is this build type, is usually a bit emaciated-looking, even if they aren’t, and looks kinda spindly. Alternatively, this is where the, “short and stout,” model comes in, and weight gets put on a little more easily. Someone who goes berserk often will have a bit more muscle, but everything is compact, so it’s not easy to tell unless you ask them to take their shirt off and flex. More weight, of course, means more muscle. This build works by being more efficient to run, easier to cool, and less likely to overheat due to having less surface area exposed to the sun. Smart-car berserks tend more toward being quick on their feet and stress reaction time and sensory input over strength and healing. They can also go for a longer period of time before having to give up, as long as they have enough carbs in the spare tank to burn when they run out of readily available fuel. Again, the body stresses efficiency with this kind of shape, and I suspect it evolved as a response to the massive caloric intake needed to maintain the other type. The downside here is that less mass means less force, so not only do they not run as fast, they don’t hit as hard. But with the senses boosted out to space, it means they don’t need to. They can see your punch coming before you know where you’re trying to hit! Bob and weave is the main style of combat here.
- Commonalities: Both types of berserk are able to take a huge amount of damage without going down, though they’re not totally invincible. Both are fast, agile, strong, and really really good at knowing things like where that spear is headed or how to turn just so to get that punch to graze instead of shatter. Both types are prone to emotional issues and stress-related injuries of both the body and mind, especially if they use the gangr all the time, which it was never meant to be used for. Also, in terms of facial structure, berserks tend to be slightly less attractive than someone of the same chromosome makeup might be, with rougher features. I, for instance, am pretty cute for a guy, but when you consider my two X’s, I’m kinda rough around the edges.
So if it’s so awesome, why isn’t it more common? Weelll…
- The afterparty. It’s a real drag. After all that stress, strain, and hormone-dumpage, the body is basically left empty and pretty beaten-up, even if there wasn’t any fighting involved. Crashes tend to involve headaches, muscle cramps, chills, hunger(because a lot of calories are burned, which is part of the reason I’m a twig), thirst(because sweating happens), and overall fatigue. It’s like the unfortunate lovechild of a migraine and a hangover, and it gets worse the more intense or drawn-out the gangr was. I suspect this is why it doesn’t happen elsewhere in nature, since there aren’t that many natural communities that have an instinctive drive to look out for their own injured members. Being in a close-knit community means that even in the after-party stage, berserkers are well looked after. Probably gratefully so; see above comment about the mammoths.
- The physical danger. Going berserk is dangerous business! Not only because it does usually happen when Peril Is Imminent, but because of the much, much higher potential for torn muscles, massive injuries, and heatstroke(the fever is real). The potential for heatstroke, actually, is one of my main problems, since I’m also usually wearing one more layer than I should on any given day. Binders aren’t that breathable, sadly. That’s why the term “berserk” could be translated/interpreted as, “bare of shirt.” Nobody in their right mind would want to go into a gangr while wearing a chainmaille shirt. You’d die from the heat before you stepped onto the field! That’s also why I hate summer. Hate summer. Also, going berserk just plan hurts. Before the medic brain kicks in, the pain is incredible, and that split second or two(or more) turns a lot of people off to trying to go deeper.
- The mental effects. The brain does some weird shit when the rational faculties are shut down. Not the least of which is jump at every little shadow that could be something dangerous. Also, because the gangr tends to pull out the worst in people, a lot of people who try it once never go back ever because of having to face their worst, worst aspects. Those things that you stick on the back burner when your brain can’t deal with them? They all come flying into your face. Rage, hatred, dysphoria, embarrassment, despair, fear, and lust are huge ones. Shadow-work is a good thing, my friends. There’s also a disturbing lack of control that happens, because you don’t really know what your body is doing until after the fact, which is a bit(understatement) hard to deal with for a lot of people.
- The sheer craziness of it all. This is one of those things that falls squarely into the Weirdshit bin, at least in my book, so I imagine an average Joe that has this happen to them would rather just, you know, try their best not to get angry, and hope it goes away. (That was me for a long time.)
I think that’s about all for today, class. If you have any questions, you know where to find me. Sorry if this was a little long, a little rambly, and a little weird, but I feel like this is becoming a bigger thing as people start becoming more aware of themselves. I might do a follow-up at some point with the spiritual implications of all this, I might not. I’ll probably to a , “care and feeding of your berserker” post later on. Let me know what you think.