Guest Shot: Fear is your Friend

A part of learning to control fear, the stress reaction to the unknown, can be training in simulators -- working corners and doors, not knowing what is coming up. Rich Grassi photo taken at Gunsite Academy.
I recently saw the movie Acts of Valor on cable T.V. You may have heard of it because it was filmed using real life Navy SEALs. It is a pretty good action movie, but what caught my eye was just before the closing credits, a list of all the SEALs who have died in combat-related incidents since 9/11 showed on screen—and it was a long list. Although some of you will argue about which special operations unit is best, I think all can agree the Navy SEALs are one of our nation's best fighting units. Millions of dollars are spent training each one, yet they're killed with alarming regularity by combatants far less skilled. How could this be? Because, my friend, in conflict shit happens. Let me make this perfectly clear: Anytime you enter conflict you run the risk losing regardless of how well trained you think you are. Remember: Murphy is alive and well, has a huge sense of humor and likes to drop in whenever possible. Bottom line: No matter how skilled you may be, there will always be circumstances that will work against you. Fear in Combat A person's ability to perform in conflict is a product of several factors. But the primary reason a person folds in the face of danger is fear. Fear comes in many forms, but is commonly defined as a sense of anxiety due to potential or real danger, pain, etc. While teaching a class in Florida, a student came up to me and asked, "Are you afraid of what people say about you on the Internet?" He was referring to a bashing I took on several gun forums as a result of a blog I wrote on the Blackhawk SERPA holster. A sizable number of people attacked me on a personal level, calling me a "mouth piece" for Blackhawk. In one case, I had a scheduled class cancelled because one of these detractors convinced students to drop out. Here's what I told the student: "No, words cannot hurt me. Real fear should be reserved for situations in which I face serious injury or death. Fear is your friend. Don't waste it on things or situations that are unnecessary." Fear is situationally dependent. In the situation above, I may not like hearing myself trashed -- and I will probably get irritated -- but I'm not afraid of it. Too often fear is irrational because we don't know what we're afraid of. We need to keep the concept of fear in context and know how to properly apply it to our real world of work and play. Can fear of the unknown be unreasonable? Maybe… but maybe not. Fear can raise situational awareness, and since awareness is the key to personal security (not gear, no matter how much one would like it to be), apprehension of what we don't know, can't see or understand might be justified. At the same time, we need to keep our fears relevant and not let them run amok. What fun would life be if we're constantly in fear? There will always be a natural resistance to engagement. "Is-This-Happening-to-Me?" syndrome plays a role even in the minds of the highly skilled. But even though this question might be in the mind of a citizen, it shouldn't be in the mind of a law enforcement officer. After all, the cop's job is to seek out and confront law breakers even when their life is in jeopardy. They're trained to do this with as much safety as possible, but the job will never be entirely safe. That's why they have firearms and other protective gear and are allegedly "well trained" in their use. Fear of conflict, especially armed conflict, is reasonable — good actually — because the potential of serious injury or death that could accompany a fight is real. In many cases, the "winner" of a gun fight is the one who goes to the hospital instead of the morgue, so don't make it something it's not. Armed conflict should be avoided at all costs. Again, anytime a person enters such a situation they run the risk of losing, regardless of skill level. I've never understood people who look for a gunfight, knife fight or fist fight just to get a "notch on their gun, belt etc." At the same time, there are certain things worth fighting and dying for. We must all decide for ourselves what those are…a line in the sand, as it were. When we decide to cross that line, it's important to be able to control our natural fear of injury or death so that we'll be able to perform at the level required to prevail. Make no mistake, fear is your friend. Anyone who says they're never afraid is one of two people: a liar or a fool. Fear is there to make you better prepared to take action, but you also need the right tools to control it and use it to your advantage. Managing Fear How do you control fear? The most obvious action is to turn fear into anger … a controlled anger …. uncontrolled anger, some call it "rage," can result in deadly mistakes. The physiological effects of fear and anger are similar, so it would seem to be an obvious and easy transition, right? Not necessarily. Some can make the transition easily while others are overwhelmed by fear, shutting down and accepting injury or death. But if you're prepared for conflict and have a good understanding that bad things can happen to each and every one of us, you'll be ready to take action and not be inhibited by fear. Autogenic breathing, what's also called "combat" or "rescue" breathing, is the primary method to keep you from becoming overwhelmed by fear. By breathing in for a count of four, holding for four, letting out for four and then holding again for four, the heart rate can be lowered substantially in 10 repetitions or so. When you lower your heart rate, you'll have a more rational mode of thought. I've used this technique for everything — from a promotion interview to being shot at — and it works. Knowing the physiological effects of combat stress and fear (pounding heart, muscle tension, trembling, rapid breathing, nausea, "gut knot," dry mouth, tunnel vision, etc.) and understanding they're naturally occurring phenomena will make you better prepared. Developing the skills needed to meet the threat and knowing that these skills have worked in combat, will add confidence and help you manage fear. Also, once you truly understand what the pandemonium of conflict entails (not what's portrayed in Hollywood films), you'll be less willing to enter it — and that's not a bad thing. Bottom line: Once you understand fear, you can use it to your advantage. Final Thoughts In the end, confidence and mastery of needed skills (including a realistic understanding of fear) is the primary factor in whether you can transform fear to anger, defeat to victory, life instead of death. Knowing your skills will work in the pandemonium of armed conflict gives you a huge advantage over your opponent, but nothing is absolute … nothing is guaranteed. However, would it be better to enter conflict with no skill at all? Remember: "Right now, someone is training so when they meet you, they beat you. Train hard and stay on guard." Dave Spaulding is a retired law enforcement officer with 36 years of law enforcement and private security experience. A graduate of many of the nation's premier firearms training courses, he is also the author of over 1,000 articles that have appeared in news stand gun magazines and law enforcement trade journals. He is the owner and chief instructor for Handgun Combatives LLC, a training concern that focuses on "the combative application of the handgun."