As Alexis Artwohl and Loren Christensen point out, fear is an automatic physical reaction to a perceived threat that will result in predicable physical, emotional, perceptual and cognitive changes because of high physical arousal.
Some will regard it as a weakness or cowardice. Fear is actually a gift from Mother Nature, but only if you understand it and know how to use it.
Fear is Mother Nature's way of telling you that your life is in danger and you better do something about it. These natural changes compel you to instinctively, and without hesitation, do one of three things to save your life: fight, flight, or freeze.
Based on these powerful instinctive urges to fight like a demon, run like hell, or freeze in place, police officers can find themselves in a difficult situation. You are asked to deliberately go out and look for dangerous situations where your life or someone else's may be threatened. Then when you are faced with a deadly threat, you are prohibited from choosing any of these three options. You can fight but not like a demon, unless your opponent is fighting like a demon as well. While you can use force, even deadly force, you can only use enough to stop the threat. Added to this difficult situation is having to make an accurate threat assessment during these often confusing conditions.
Flight is not an option for police officers. You are not paid to avoid dangerous situations, but to stay and deal with it. Freezing is not considered a good option for police. We just hope we won't freeze when the stuff hits the fan.
Here are some physical changes you might experience because of a high arousal state:
Pounding heart, muscle tension, trembling, rapid or shallow breathing, dizziness, nausea, gut knots, sweating, dry mouth, goose bumps, feeling jumpy, urge to urinate, urge to defecate.
These physical changes are designed to galvanize you into action and give you the extra edge to fight hard or to run as fast as you can.
Perceptual changes from fear - meaning the natural drugs that cause the high arousal state - also cause your senses to operate differently, sometimes altering your perceptions during a traumatic event.
Two examples of perception changes include tunnel vision and hearing distortions.
Tunnel vision is a result of the loss of your peripheral vision. Your field of vision may narrow to mere inches and you may lose your depth perception and your ability to see what is behind the threat.
The most common hearing distortions are diminished sound ranging from total loss to muffled sounds in the distance; inability to clearly hear sirens or people yelling at you.
Here are a few things you can do to help diminish and control fear:
- Understand and totally accept that one day you may have to use deadly force.
- Stay up to date on police tactics and practice them regularly.
- Practice mental imagery of high-risk situations (ambushes) at least once a week.
- Learn what the physiological responses are to fight or flight and understand that it will happen to you no matter how brave you are.
- Develop confidence backed by real skill. Know that your techniques will work when you need them. The more competent you are, the less likely you will feel overwhelmed by fear.
- Review your past high risk situations to determine what was done well and what needs improvement.
- Constantly strive to improve your observation and assessment skills. (Tactical Communications)
- Trust your instincts.
- Develop a powerful will to win and survive no matter what the situation.
- Stay mentally positive.
It is a Thursday about 08:15 Central Time and I am trying to close this article with a summary when another instructor came to inform me that five (5) officers in Jersey City, New Jersey have been shot. I do not have the details yet, but, my first instinct is to pray that they are alright and recover rapidly. Knowing that area in Jersey is a heavy crime area and that luring officers into a hallway knowing what wall they would be on and firing through the wall with a shotgun in my opinion was a hasty ambush. By now we all know what was involved and it should reinforce everything I have spoke to in this article, so rather than close on a summary highlighting key points I ask that you read please read the article twice. I hope and pray that this article will help in some small way the law enforcement community.