This Mom Lifted A Car Off Her Trapped Child. And So Can You.

It’s called ‘hysterical strength,’ and it is 100% not made up.

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Associated Press | The Springfield Union (Springfield, Mass.), April 14, 1982, Page 25

Picture it: Lawrenceville, Georgia, 1982. You’re a middle-aged mom and grandmother, and you’re just doing your thing on a Friday afternoon. You’ve got some housework going, your teenager, Tony, a junior in high school, is out in the driveway tinkering under his 64' Chevy Impala, and you’re wondering if anyone will complain if you throw together a casserole for dinner. Everything is going ok until you hear a sickening crash outside. You run to see what it was, and you see your child lying unconscious under a car that has just fallen on top of him.

What do you do?

Well, if you were Angela Cavallo, you summon the strength of ten men, and you lift that car four inches off the ground, enough to drag your son to safety. Except, she couldn’t rouse him from his unconscious state and so a neighbor, an 11-year-old boy, ran to grab help from others. Quickly, hands are pulling on your sweet boy and replacing the jack that slipped and fell out of place, causing the accident.

Your boy is rushed to the hospital where, miraculously, doctors find no brain injuries, and he is released back to your loving but absolutely freaked out arms. You saved your child’s life by lifting a car with your bare hands.

If this sounds like a made-up story, it one hundred percent is not. Angela Cavallo experienced a rare but fascinating phenomenon called ‘hysterical strength,’ and the science behind it is mind-boggling.

What is ‘hysterical strength’?

Hysterical strength is a spontaneous event that occurs when a person faces extreme distress such as the threat of peril. Like when a mother sees her child trapped under the weight of a Chevy Impala.

Researchers don’t know a lot about how hysterical strength works. The working theory is that a human can experience a hyped-up version of fight or flight that causes a surge of the hormone adrenaline. Since the phenomenon is so rare, scientists can’t exactly study it when it happens. Furthermore, hysterical strength can’t be recreated in a lab setting because not only would that be incredibly dangerous, but it would violate ethics. So, scientists must rely on the growing number of well-documented cases that exist in the world, like the story of our heroine, Angela Cavallo.

What happens in the brain during fight or flight?

The human brain is an endlessly fascinating thing to behold. During fight or flight, the human brain undergoes an intriguing chain reaction that can turn a regular, middle-aged grandmother like Angela Cavallo into the Hulk.

Here’s a quick look at what happens:

  • The amygdala, which is the part of the brain that deals with fear, grabs the hypothalamus’s attention.
  • The hypothalamus then opens the flood gates for three potent hormones; adrenaline, cortisol, and endorphins.
  • Adrenaline rushes to the heart and lungs, making them work faster and harder, thus bringing more oxygen to muscles to increase strength. It also helps to bring your attention to razor focus as it intensifies hearing and sight.
  • Cortisol then rushes to the body’s glucose stores to quickly release energy to boost the muscles’ efforts.
  • And finally, endorphins join the party by helping the body to perceive less pain than it might otherwise so that the fighting or flighting can happen.

Pretty rad, right?

So, what happens next?

Once the threat is gone, the body will calm down. All those adrenaline, cortisol, and endorphins will stop flooding your brain and body. No one can be the Hulk all the time, thankfully, because when the body calms down, the fatigue and pain will set in.

Speaking of the Hulk, Jack Kirby, the creator of the famed Marvel superhero, The Hulk, once told an interviewer that the inspiration for his beloved character came from an instance of hysterical strength. In 2011, Kirby was interviewed by Gary Groth for Comic Journal when he explained the origins of his inspiration.

“The Hulk I created when I saw a woman lift a car. Her baby was caught under the running board of this car. The child [had been] playing in the gutter, and he was crawling from the gutter to the sidewalk, and under the running board of this car,” Kirby told Comic Journal. “His mother was horrified. She looked from the rear window of the car, and this woman in desperation lifted the rear end of the car.”

Kirby described how the mother’s actions inspired him to realize that anyone can do anything superhuman if given a chance, including knocking down walls and lifting cars.

“You know what happens when we’re in a rage — you can tear a house down. I created a character who did all that and called him the Hulk,” Kirby said.

Hysterical strength might be an exceedingly rare phenomenon but it’s not outside the realm of possibility no matter who you are. And sure, not all of us could summon the strength to lift a car but when faced with a serious threat, anyone can reach inside of themselves and be surprised by what strength they can find in order to endure the unimaginable.

Everyone has the potential to be a superhero. Even you.

Essay Hustler | Book Writer | Rep’d by Folio Literary Management — Sign up for my newsletter here

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