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Part One: Dissecting Fear and Our Built-in Response to It

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” - Sun Tzu


“The greatest enemy will hide in the last place you would ever look.” - Julius Caesar


These two quotes are inseparable within the scope of this article.


We’ll discuss why at the end of it.


Until then, let’s talk about fear.




How many times have you heard that you should “conquer your fear,” “ignore your fear,” or “face your fear?”


How many times have these mantras actually worked for you in a dangerous situation at the moment when you experienced it?


If you feel like you need to do something about your fear when you’re already in danger, this really means only two things:


  1. You’ve overlooked the nature of fear as a complex emotional state, and you’ve overestimated your psychological capacity to handle it.


  1. You haven’t invested enough time and effort in conditioning your mind, both conscious and unconscious, to experience this emotional state in an effective manner.


No matter what some self-help literature might tell you, there’s no easy fix for fear. You can’t just switch this emotional state off by recalling a good quote about fear in time.


As protectors, we can’t afford to let fear dictate how well we respond to life-threatening situations and operate in high-risk environments. We must develop a superior ability to manage this emotional state.


This brings us to two important conclusions right away:


  1. No matter how much training we put into improving our combat skills, no matter how good the weapons we choose to carry are, and no matter how confident we are in our ability to put both our skills and weapons to use when the need arises, we must never overestimate our ability to handle fear. We must instead accept that we’re just as vulnerable to this sophisticated emotional state as anyone else regardless of our physical readiness for combat.


  1. We should invest a significant part of our training in our ability to minimize the influence of fear on the effectiveness of our response. Doing so will serve as a force multiplier when it comes to both our skills and our weapons of choice.


Let’s take a look at an example that we can all observe in this day and age.


There’s no shortage of self-styled gurus in the world of self-defense who demonstrate all kinds of fancy disarming techniques with training knives and guns. They do so with a great deal of confidence as long as:


  • They remain in the controlled environment of their training venue.

  • They practice with the “opponents” who they know for a fact are not going to harm them.

  • They deal with weapons that pose no actual threat to them.


What happens to this confidence the moment they face an actual aggressive opponent with a real sharp knife or loaded gun? It usually flies right out of the window. It’s scary. No one wants to get stabbed or shot. 


As soon as fear takes over, it renders all those fancy disarming techniques ineffective. The body quickly regresses to gross motor skills that are able to support only simple movement patterns and becomes incapable of any sophisticated course of action.


The moral is simple. More often than not, we don’t magically rise to the challenge in a dangerous situation - we miserably fall to the level of our training. And the gap between one’s response to “danger” in a training environment and that in an actual life-threatening situation can be stunning.


But there’s good news. This gap can be minimized with the help of psychological conditioning. It just takes some dedicated practice like any other skill set.


That’s exactly the practice that we’re going to cover throughout this series.


Let’s start from the basics, though.


What exactly is fear? How do we experience it?



Know Your Enemy: Fear 101


There are many different definitions of fear out there.


For our purposes, we can define fear in the following narrowly focused way:


Fear is a negative emotional state that we experience with varying intensity in response to a perceived or real threat of getting physically harmed.


That “varying intensity” part is key to understanding our response to fear.


There’s no fixed universal pattern of experiencing this emotional state.


Instead, we experience fear along a certain continuum. Its intensity from person to person may range from feeling slightly insecure or concerned to being alarmed or scared to entering a state of panic or terror.


Where our reaction to fear lands on this continuum depends on a variety of factors. They include our own unique psychological makeup as well as our daily lifestyle choices such as our sleep and mental health habits.


Taken to an extreme, fear can send the sympathetic nervous system into overdrive, triggering the deeply unconscious stress responses known as “fight,” “flight,” and “freeze.” Honed by Mother Nature herself, these stress responses are to be expected in life-threatening situations.


Let’s take a closer look at them.



When Nature Pushes the Red Button: “Fight,” “Flight,” “Freeze”


Facing a life-threatening situation, or believing you’re in one, can provoke a massive release of stress hormones in the body. This oversupplies our limbs with blood, causing a shortage of blood supply throughout the rest of the body, especially in smaller muscle groups and the head.


As a result, our ability to rely on fine motor skills and conscious mind becomes severely restricted. Gross motor skills and unconscious mind take over, making it difficult for us to engage in any kind of sophisticated response to a dangerous situation.





Each of the three stress responses has its own unique features:


“Fight:”


  • Intense violent anger that feels next to impossible to manage.

  • Feeling an uncontrolled drive to intimidate or physically harm the opponent.

  • Aggressive voice, facial expressions, and body language.


“Flight:”


  • Strong desire to stop experiencing the dangerous situation.

  • Feeling trapped and having the urge to run away or hide.

  • Anxious voice, facial expressions, and body language.


“Freeze:”


  • Inability to start either confronting or evading the opponent.

  • Feeling stuck and unable to respond in any effective way.

  • Difficulty speaking and rigid facial expressions and body language.


When it comes to “fight” or “flight” stress responses, the person maintains the ability to use gross motor skills to either confront the danger or get out of the dangerous situation. In the case of the “freeze” stress response, something different happens.


The oversupply of blood takes place so quickly that a loss of control over those big muscle groups in limbs occurs. Blood circulation and muscle coordination become impaired, the heart rate rapidly decreases, and the person starts to move very slowly or even faints.


There’s nothing wrong with any of the three stress responses. All of them have appeared as a result of our evolution as a species, and each type of stress response offers its own emergency exit from a life-threatening situation.


As protectors, we are not required to understand all the technicalities involved in each type of stress response. We should, however, make the effort to understand which one of these stress responses is our own body’s go-to mode in a dangerous situation.


We cannot condition our mind to react to fear effectively until we do this.


There’s a simple yet very useful exercise waiting for you in Tribe 13 Psychological Readiness Center that will help you do just that.



So What About Those Two Quotes?


The greatest enemy is our vulnerability to fear. Most people go about their lives without even thinking about how much fear controls their lives. When the proverbial wolf comes to the door, it’s too late to do anything about fear.


This enemy will always hide in the last place we would ever look - our own mind. Most people have the societally conditioned habit of thinking that they and their mind are the same. We are more than just our mind, and our mind should be our faithful servant, not our master.


The supreme art of war is to subdue this insidious enemy. This has to be done before we find ourselves in a dangerous situation where we have to do something about our fear. It’s too late to fight fear when you have to fight for your life or the lives of those you’ve chosen to protect.


Just imagine how much more powerful you can become as a protector if you can condition your mind to approach a dangerous situation with fear having no stake in how well you respond.


It’s well worth the effort, isn’t it?


In the next parts of this series, we’ll walk through the key principles and practices that can help us prepare our mind for combat by keeping fear on a leash.

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2 Comments


This is so important to know. Should be said from the beginning in every self defence, or hand to hand combat school. Thank you for other great article and waiting for next parts :)

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Thank you for the article. Looking to continue.

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