It is something that is ingrained into our DNA as human beings. It is the biggest driving factor for our actions and all other creatures for that matter. Fear. The emotion is generated in the oldest most primal part of our brain that makes us choose between fight or flight.
Unlike animals though we have an advantage in that we can rationalize the fear and choose how we direct the natural reactions our bodies have when experiencing that fear. On the flip side of that coin we could let it consume us and destroy all rational thought and paralyze us in the moment of truth where action is the difference between life and death.
The first thing you need to do is understand the physiological effects of fear. Your built-in a way that when faced with life threatening fear that your body responds giving you capabilities you can not fathom without it.
It is an automatic response involving activation of your sympathetic nervous system in which adrenaline and noradrenaline are released. Oxygen is delivered by blood and is needed to prepare you to move and increases respiration so the heart pumps faster to get the oxygen to the major limbs. Since blood is going more to the arms and legs, other areas not needed for immediate survival, like the skin, hands, feet, and the gastrointestinal system, shut down. Which is the reason some people urinate when faced with fear. When there is less blood flow to these areas cold, tingles in the extremities, and numbness may be experienced. Which can explain someone can endure very painful injuries and still being able to function normally until the threat had passed. When you heat up due to increased oxygen and heart rate, sweating occurs. Your Pupils dilate to increase the visual field, producing visual changes that some people misinterpret as a sign of something wrong.
As the body gears up to fight or flee (or to engage in high activity) an imbalance is created when the high activity does not take place. The oxygen is in excess of what is really needed, producing symptoms of lightheadedness, dizziness, feeling unreal, and blurred vision.
That’s what experts research conclude but few can really understand fear until faced with it and see how they react. Flight is a perfectly normal reaction. As a soldier it is not an option. If you freeze someone else can pay the price with their life. Show me a combat veteran that says they weren’t scared in the worst of it all and I will show you a liar. I will be completely honest with you, the first firefight I was ever in, I froze. Now it only lasted about 4 seconds because luckily I had a more seasoned team leader that grabbed me by the chinstrap and “helped” me get out of the grips that the fear a 20 year-old kid feels when they hear the snap of gunfire breaking the sound barrier as it passes by your now very fragile body. I did not direct the fear in a productive way so for those 4 seconds I was overwhelmed and useless.
Afterwards I felt so much regret that I almost let my buddies down I really had to think about fear and came to some conclusions that led to me not just conquering fear but figuring out how to use it to my advantage.
As time went on and I was able to identify the benefits of fear and use them to my advantage. Fear became the spinach I used like Popeye to make decisions and become superman. The key was to remain calm. To remain calm when the fear took over my body I would stop and take a long deep breath. For whatever reason it allowed me to focus. Later on after reading “on combat” by Ret. LTC Dave Grossman, which should be mandatory to read for all service members, I found out it was called a tactical pause.
Combat is chaotic and all around confusing but I found after this tactical pause I was able to apply the physiological response and use it to my advantage. The adrenaline made me stronger and faster able to push well beyond my perceived limits. I often looked back and had to ask how in the fuck did I pull that off? It also let me think quicker and make decisions with a clarity I wish I could find in my every day life after combat. I could see my surroundings in perfect detail and noticed the smallest movements allowing me to identify the smallest threat. I could hear incoming fire and identify where it came from but for some reason I did not notice all the friendly gunfire that should have been deafening. Time seemed to speed up like fast forwarding a DVD at the highest speed. Every battle drill, medical training, and class on anything pertinent to the situation was immediately accessible in my mind.
Fear turned into a high. A high I still yearn for today. I was superhuman when I wad engulfed in fear. I was what my enemy feared when they slept at night. I was fucking lethal and it felt good.
There is a cost however. Most that have read this far laugh at the thought of taking a tactical pause to be able to harness your fear. The truth is that after that first firefight I came to some other realizations that made it possible for a tactical pause to work. First thing you have to accept is that you are going to die. You have to look at yourself and come to terms that to survive you have to convince yourself that you are going to be killed.
So what does it matter if you take that chance? At the end of the day war is a game of chance….anyone can roll craps. So play like there is no tomorrow. I rationalized it by saying if I die in this fight then whatever I am doing when I die will save my friends.
Then I realized the most profound thing I have ever realized in my life. I was terrified to die but suddenly it dawned on me. It was so simple. “why the fuck should I care? I’ll be dead, I won’t give a fuck when I’m dead.” The pain of it may be terrible but it’s gonna stop when I expire. With that thought I was free.
The freedom I felt was me giving up my humanity. Compassion and empathy went out the window and I was born again an angry, cold, killer. For the time I spend as a war fighter it was perfect. I was a warrior. I was one of the enlightened ones who could go into the pits of humanity and come back unscathed with blood on my hands and no regrets. I was alive because I was already dead. Nothing could surprise me.
So what do you do when the fight is over and you have mercilessly suffocated your humanity?