If aliens exist and by happenstance were to glance down on our tiny planet, I think they would be shocked by the order of things. We humans are the dominant species on this little blue planet. Not lions, tigers, or bears, but us. Relatively small with inferior muscle mass compared to other predators and generally mediocre protection from the reality of violence. And yet, we rule this planet with no challenge from any other predators.
Some eco groups like to argue we are magically custodians of this planet due to our opposable thumbs and intelligence and whilst yes, those do help, I think the core difference between us and base animals is our innate tenacity and fear. We humans, we fear a lot. We fear the unknown, the things we do know, other people, the lack of other people, and quite honestly, everything in between. As a species we have harnessed our fears, using them to push through, adapt, evolve, and ultimately become the ultimate predator.
No matter what the odds or the environment – you can never count a human out. We are truly the most adaptable beings on this earth, all of this despite being glorified meat bags with a relatively puny endoskeleton (thanks for the correction Tadas). We don’t even have horns.
What Fear Feels Like
When discussing fear, it’s important to go back to our roots and understand that it has a purpose.
We fear the idea of being afraid, but practically speaking the moment you feel true fear your body shuts down non-vital functions (digestion etc.) and alters your mindset (whether you like it or not) to survive.
I was musing about this a few days ago after thinking about my first clear memory of a fight. I was maybe 5 or 6 and the only distinct memory I hold to this day is how I felt. That icy feeling washing over me and my arms feeling like they were made of lead. Blood pounding in my ears and my eyes darting everywhere frantically. Sensory overload for the first time in my life.
This was just a playground brawl, I don’t even remember who won, but to be honest, I imagine it’s likely that this kid and I just screamed at each other whilst pushing and pulling.
In hindsight, it’s a pitiful demonstration of combat, but this story will be familiar to most of you. It’s unlikely you grew up without ever getting into a scrap as a kid, and this sensation I speak of with endorphins flooding your body will be familiar to you.
I am talking about this today because we as a community often discuss the practical application of violence. We are surrounded with books and videos showing you secret krav maga techniques taught by Mossad in glossy adverts, but the feeling and complexity of fear is hardly ever discussed.
Fear is a reaction that floods our bodies with endorphins and ultimately is our greatest ally and worst enemy. It can help you power through extreme pain to perform extraordinary feats, but at the same time can cloud our judgement and leave us an indecisive wreck. At the end of the day, fear is the one constant we can anticipate in a tense situation, and it’s important to accept and understand what will no doubt happen to you instead of ignoring it under the assumption that when the time comes we will just breeze through any conflict – no fear whatsoever. That’s not likely to happen.
To accept fear we have to welcome it. The obvious symptoms are the increase in heart rate and pressure as well as the hyper-visual sensitivity we often feel due to our pupils dilating and the icy feeling we get due to our veins constricting. Couple that with our core muscle groups getting reinforced with oxygen, and it call can leave us feeling like a nervous wreck. That’s okay. What you have to understand is that this is happening to your body to help you.
When you feel the physiological manifestations of fear – know that it’s there for good reason. Heart rate increases to help us keep up in a physical conflict, pupils dilate so we can spot all movement, and that icy feeling? That’s there because our veins are constricting, re-directing the blood to the more important muscles in our body.
When you read it like that, when you understand why fear feels the way it does, it’s not so bad is it?
Fear is our body getting itself ready to survive – into fight or flight mode – and that’s pretty awesome.
The issue is that people don’t accept this fear and instead they are overcome and freeze. I get that because as a former scrawny kid, I would shy away from conflict. The reality, however, is that if you don’t accept the reality of fear and what your body is telling you, you are fighting against your own survival.
Why Mindset Is Important
You know that book, “The Gift of Fear“? Many years ago, I recommended it on our list of best survival books, but I’ve never really spoken about why. No book that is tactical in nature has ever impacted me as strongly. If you are ever going to pick up a security book, ignore the glitzy martial art/krav maga/combative stuff and read this instead. It’s far more useful, in my opinion, than a more “practical” tactical book would be.
How could something abstract possibly be more useful than a practical security book? As I mentioned in my article 5 Things You Should Never Do During a Home Invasion: mindset is the single most important advantage you can have when it comes to security.
Like with wilderness survival, where knowledge and adaptability are more important than any gear you could have on hand, especially since you never are 100% certain you will have that gear on you – mindset, when it comes to security, is much more important than security systems and even, in my opinion, practicing particular actions and scenarios. Because in real life, things don’t happen the way we plan.
The Proper Mindset: Turning Fear Into Anticipation
The jist of dealing with fight or flight is to learn to savour your fear almost.
You need to learn to desensitize yourself up to a point. Fear comes from triggers (sharp movements, threats, etc.), and it’s important to make sure you don’t become overwhelmed.
Our bodies’ fight or flight response is often so extreme that it impairs us rather than helps us. If we learn to accept the possibility of fear, it can turn our reaction into anticipation rather than fear.
This is incredibly advantageous.
An example would be walking past a group of drunken lads who are posturing aggressively. You could ignore them and hope for the best, but should the situation go south, you are very likely to be frozen by fear.
Alternative 2: Learn to accept fear and instead anticipate risk. Get your brain re-wired to see that trigger, think that bad stuff can and does happen, and accept that that’s okay. If it happens, you can deal with it. Anticipate the risk.
The goal here folks isn’t to be ruled by fear and see shadows everywhere, but rather to accept the world we live in as it is, and control our natural biological response to the threats that happen.
How to Deal With Fear
Right, so we accept that fear is ultimately positive and the fight or flight reflex will kick in (most likely), within the context of a violent encounter so now we can deal with it head on and look into what professionals do about dealing with their fear.
1. Don’t let yourself freeze; take even the smallest of actions.
The most important thing is to do something.
By actively taking an action even if it’s small, like breathing in and out 3 times at a controlled rate, you are reigning in your adrenaline and thus allowing yourself to address the conflict. Raising your hands with your palms outstretched can give you time to access the situation and control your body’s fight or flight response.
2. Assess your surroundings.
As you are breathing and adjusting to the situation (we are talking seconds here), take stock of your surroundings and ask yourself two things:
- Is your fear warranted or are you just spooked?
- If the fear is warranted, then can you handle the threat?
If you think you can’t handle the threat (multiple assailants) then look for a way out. Under the effect of the fight or flight response, your abilities to run and dart away will be greatly heightened, adrenaline will allow you to power through discomfort and pain.
Eventually, however, know that you will crash, and when people run from conflict wildly, they often make mistakes and get injured. I would advise to be calm, but I know that’s easier said than done.
3. Go on the offensive.
If you think a physical conflict is inevitable, my advice would be to go on the offensive. Fear can quickly turn to anger. Once you accept that the situation is unavoidable, it’s more constructive to let your inner predator out to play.
I lived opposite a rough pub for a few years and saw many drunken fights. In my experience, the person who won in nearly every situation was the most assertive/confident. Not the strongest or fittest.
No, It’s Not Complicated
Chances are good you knew a lot of what I told you before you read it. Or, if you hadn’t thought about it before, if I’d asked you to think it through, chances are good you’d come to these conclusions yourself.
This stuff isn’t complicated. Yes, it’s important, and yes, the proper mindset and knowing how to control your fear is incredibly advantageous, but does that make it difficult or complex in any way? No.
But that doesn’t make you an expert – having the knowledge is not enough. Being able to change your mindset toward your own fear is a lot easier said than done. You have to re-wire your brain, and that’s just as hard as it sounds to do.
Read More Security Articles
Interested in delving into some of my previous security posts? Check out the following:
Interesting post, Thomas, you really touch upon something that’s been mulling in my mind for a while. In a sense, aren’t preppers even more afraid (or rather less fond of being afraid) since we like to be prepared (and thus less afraid) for a number of bad scenarios?
Also, I’d just like to point out regarding ” despite being glorified meat bags with a puny exoskeleton.” that humans do not have an exoskeleton (external skeleton) at all. Indeed, no mammal has one, even the armor of an armadillo is not by definition an exoskeleton.
We humans will have to be content with our endoskeleton, which is not so fragile after all!
Thomas Xavier says
Fixed that ;) thanks for correcting me- no idea how I let that one slip!
I view prepping as insurance, I have fire insurance incase my home burns down but that doesn’t mean I expect it to burn down. My preps function similarly, I prepare *in case* the worst happens, not because I sadistically want to live life like I am in a mad max movie.
Thanks for dropping by mate!
Ben Leucking says
Another great post!
I used to be afraid of jumping off cliffs, until I learned how to rappel. The point is, if you expose yourself to things that induce natural fear, you will inevitably learn how to overcome them. Those confidence building experiences stay with you, and enable you to take on challenges that you would otherwise never contemplate. Confronting fear changes your mindset and coping abilities – forever.
Thomas Xavier says
Aye, when you face your fears, you realise that the only thing to fear is fear itself. Thanks for dropping by Ben, always appreciate it.
Bob Amato says
Paragraph 2, first sentence, correction to be made:
Opposable thumbs, not disposable.
Elise Xavier says
Thank you, thank you! Fixed!
Fear is something that can only be overcome with becoming familiar with it. In the forces I became fearful for my life in perhaps two or three occasions in ten years. I then became a prison officer for the next ten years after that, and can honestly say that I have lost count of the times that I was in fear for my safety. I eventually got used to the violent situations, assaults not just on myself but against other officers and inmates, it became normalised. I developed a sixth sense for trouble, you can become so in tune with it that you can sense it, anticipate it. You notice things that most people do not pick up on. Many people I am sure would like to have this enhanced situational awareness, it it comes at a price in that you are constantly on edge in crowds of people. I have left the prison service now but I still carry the memories. I always sit with my back to the wall in resteraunts, I always check for a quick exit in buildings, and I always sit where I can see the door, because any initial indication of danger usually starts at the point of entry. You learn to spot irregular behaviour that is a prequel to trouble. Working in an environment full,of the most dangerous, deceptive, deceitful and violent people in the country tends to teach you the give away signs. One big give away is excessive yawning, this is a subliminal display of fear and stress. Dogs also do this when they are frightened or under stress.
I often wish that I didn’t have this sense of awareness, as most people who,are oblivious to the inherent dangers on society seem to be the happiest. Ignorance is bliss as they say.
You can read all of the books and go to all of the self defence classes you want, but you only really know how you will deal with a SHTF situation when it happens. And in my experience 9 out of 10 people freeze when it happens for the first time, nothing to do with bravery it’s just the way it is. I have seen some really big guys freeze when things get hairy, and they have been pushed out of the way by a female officer who reacted like lightening, just because she was used to it going pear shaped.
The best advice I have ever had is this;
1 if you have to fight, go in first, go in hard, and go in fast.
2 if you are going to run, run first, run hard, and run fast.
Whichever choice you make, you have to commit to it 110%.
This ethos has never let me down. But of course the best form of defense is by not being there in the first place.
I am now a behavioural therapist, no-one has tried to kill me in this job, which is nice.
Although I still sit facing the door.
Thomas Xavier says
Man, I cannot imagine being a prison officer- at least you are out now. What does your family and/or people around you think of your heightened awareness/spidersense?
It is likely to be more than just fear.
We need to accept the fact (not assumption) that in the first few moments of any unforeseen circumstance, our brains must FIRST analyze what is happening prior to our taking action.
Ever see someone react to a firecracker going off behind their back? Yeah. They jump first, and then they figure out what just happened. It’s how we’re programmed…in fact, every animal on the planet reacts the same way. That is when “fight or flight” is assessed as you comprehend what has just happened. Flight is safest, and generally the correct process to follow. In the case of gunfire, though, running away in a straight line “may” get you eliminated.
Everyone reacts differently AND everyone reacts according to prior experience. The first time you hear a gunshot, you’ll likely think: “firecracker” because fireworks are much more common and that is what comes to mind when you hear an explosion.
Experience aids in sound recognition.
An AK variant sounds different from an AR rifle. A shotgun sounds totally different from a 9mm and a 9mm sounds different from a .22, and a .38 sounds different from a .357 or a .45. Barrel length also affects the sound output…a shorter barrel will likely sound louder (and produce more “flash”). Put yourself inside a room with a gun going off vs. being outdoors and you’ll hear unbelievable differences in sound levels and intensity. Your ears will likely be “ringing” if shots are confined by the walls of a room.
There is no substitute for experience. Hearing gunfire in a movie (or a video game) will not be close to the real thing. Visit a rifle or pistol range to confirm this for yourself.
If you’ve heard gunshots before, you’ll react differently than if you’ve only heard fireworks. Get all the experiences you can (without endangering yourself or others) and perhaps you’ll gain that razor-thin margin that allows you to react appropriately to save your life. The time element is your friend if you have appropriate life experiences.
Thomas Xavier says
Yup, experience is the ultimate teacher and your examples with regards to sound recognition are a great point. If you have seen/heard something, your brain will identify it and have a general idea of how to deal with it rather than something wholly new.
Ben Leucking says
Well said. I was going to make the same recommendation – that people gain the experience of identifying (and becoming comfortable with) the sound of gunfire. By all means, spend some time at a rifle range. Learn how to identify the different sounds between firearms.