The “Fear” Factor: How Fear Factors Into Performance

By Matt Smith
Retired US Army Special Forces Green Beret

The first time I ever stood in the open doorway of an airplane while it was flying at 13,000 feet above the ground I can tell you it was surreal. The view of the earth and the horizon in front of you gives the sensation that you are looking out at a massive postcard with incredible clarity. I can still see it perfectly in my mind.
But fear?...Not even a little. I felt no fear, dread, or apprehension.
Make no mistake, I was deeply focused on survival and the tasks at hand. Heck, the only thing I saw on the way down the first skydive was my altimeter. I don’t think I took my eyes off of it for more than a second to look around. I just didn’t want to lose track of how close I was to the ground. It feels like you’ve been shot out of a cannon and the wind coursing past you sounds like a freight train. You are doing everything you can to focus.
As Ferris Bueller stated “If you have the means to try it I highly recommend it”.
As I approached the ground for my first landing something changed. There it was. That feeling of dread, apprehension, and full fledged FEAR. Rightly so, I guess, as it is never the fall that kills you but the impact with the ground that causes issues. Only after deep reflection later following several more jumps did I realize why the act of skydiving was surreal and the end was frightening to me. You see I had spent more than a week training for the moment I would step outside of a perfectly good aircraft. All the jumpmaster cues, my form, what was expected of me on the way down, and how to pull the ripcord were all rehearsed over and over. Hours upon hours of practice for every contingency. What if the chute deploys early? What if the lines are tangled? What if I start to flip uncontrollably?
I prepared for every one of these things but the landing was a mystery. And there was an instructor with me every step of the way until that parachute opened. But then all the noise goes away and you are left alone, in the quiet, for minutes just thinking about the inevitable. The closer the ground gets the faster it seems to come at you. Fear builds as you encounter the unknown. I did have a plan but I had no experience. That was the key difference between jumping and landing. In one case I was able to replicate the experience and in another I was left to wonder.
So it was apparent. If we have any hope of controlling fear it is through what we in the Special Operations community have come to call “Stress Inoculation”. The more repetitions you have at inducing fear and understanding what to do, the less likely you will be to experience debilitating fear in a stressful situation.
When faced with a life-threatening emergency, fear and stress can have a profound effect on our decision-making abilities. These two emotions can cause us to feel overwhelmed, anxious, and uncertain, making it difficult to think clearly and make rational choices.

Fear is a natural response to danger, and it can trigger a "fight or flight" response in our bodies. This means that when we are afraid, our bodies produce adrenaline and other stress hormones, preparing us to either fight the danger or flee from it. While this response can be helpful in some situations, it can also be detrimental in an emergency. When we are in a state of fear, our minds may become clouded, and we may struggle to think clearly or make rational decisions.

Stress is another emotion that can have a significant impact on our decision-making abilities during an emergency. When we are under stress, our bodies release the hormone cortisol, which can help us to regulate how anxious, irritable, and overwhelmed we feel. Many studies have shown that individuals who regularly take part in stressful or risky activities have higher levels of cortisol. A study from the Yale School of Medicine (2003) found that Special Operators produce the highest levels of cortisol when exposed to stressful situations and those levels return to normal faster than the general population. The consistent Special Operations training environment and calculated stress inoculation actually changes operators physically and gives them a distinct advantage in nearly every stressful situation.
The good news is that the same results can be achieved by nearly anyone who trains consistently.
To combat the negative effects of fear and stress during an emergency, it is important to remain as calm and focused as possible. This can be achieved through deep breathing, mindfulness, and other relaxation techniques. It is also important to have a plan in place before an emergency occurs, so that you are prepared to make informed decisions quickly and efficiently.
All this can be applied to your self defense training (c’mon, you knew I was going to tie it into self defense. This is a Sheepdog Response blog after all). Simulate stress and inoculate yourself in a safe environment and your performance in real stressful or dangerous situations will be much more predictable. As cliché as it sounds the Spartans had a saying for this “treat your training like bloody battles and bloody battles will go just like your training”.

In conclusion, fear and stress can have a significant impact on our decision-making abilities during a life-threatening emergency. By staying calm and focused, and by having a plan in place, and inoculating ourselves to stress we can improve our chances of making informed decisions that can help keep us safe.

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