Understanding how fear works. Ok, imagine this situation; You’ve been out with friends, or you stayed late at work. It’s getting late. The streets have emptied, and the darkness has set in. You’re alone, walking that short distance to get home. You`re feeling in no danger, right? Suddenly…
You hear footsteps behind you. You can feel someone’s presence. You speed up. So do the steps, almost like an echo of your own steps, but this time it`s not, this time you’re are being followed for real.
We’ve been taught from a young age what that sound means. Danger! And it`s coming your way tonight!
You reach into your pocket or bag for anything you could use. The steps are right behind you. Your heart is beating faster. The beads of perspiration form on your brow. You turn your head slightly, just in time to see someone lunging at you. A wave of panic draws up through your chest.
It’s time to fight! Or run!
But that’s not what happens. Instead of getting a punch in and momentarily stunning your attacker, or turning and running down the road to safety, you freeze. You can’t yell. You can’t even move. You can`t do anything!
We’ve all heard of fight or flight. What you probably don’t know is there is a third response — freeze. Your worst nightmare is your body shutting down and being unable to respond when you are in danger.
Afterwards people feel shocked. Powerless. Ashamed they reacted the way they did.
To stop your risk of freezing, you need to know how fear works, and what it does to your brain. Then you can train your body to instinctively fight back.
The magic of the panic button
Fear is a primal response. We all experience it. It has an important evolutionary role in keeping us alive, by priming our body to respond to danger. So, it’s important to know how it works.
When we sense something is wrong — from what we see, hear or smell — the information shoots straight to our brain. The amygdala (in the brain) collects this information and hits the panic button.
Your heart starts racing. You start to sweat. You become hyper alert. The adrenaline is flowing, and your body is primed to respond.
But here’s the important bit
It takes twice as long for this information to reach our frontal lobes — the part of our brain responsible for problem solving and rational thought — as the amygdala. It’s the frontal lobe which decides how we are going to respond.
This means the panic button has been activated. But your frontal lobe hasn’t kicked in yet. You have no idea what to do. Your body is frozen. All you feel is panic.
By the time your brain is able to respond, you’ve lost precious seconds. The seconds where you’re trying to convince an attacker you’re a harder target than they first thought and actually they should leave you alone. Or where you break free of their grip and do the fastest sprint you’ve ever done, powered by adrenaline.
Your frontal lobe has received a surge of ‘panic’ chemicals. This impairs our cognitive functioning and capacity to reason.
Why can some people work through this and fight back, while others are frozen in place?
The secret to controlling panic
As an example, we`ll use Frank. Frank is a lanky, slightly built guy, who is a really great guy. For some reason, random thugs decide to attack Frank all the time. They’ll try to rob him in the middle of the day when he is travelling on public transport. They’ll try to beat him up while he is going for a run.
I say try, because Frank has a black belt in Jiu-Jitsu, a form of Japanese martial arts. It never ends well for his would-be attackers.
Frank never freezes when he is attacked. Even when he is assaulted by a group, or the men are much larger than him or are armed with knives.
When you unpack it, Frank has three things going for him. This is the secret to controlling panic and being able to put up a decent (or in Frank’s case devastating) fight:
1. He is fit, strong and flexible.
This is good! The more strength exercises you do, the more capable and confident you will be in your ability to respond. But it’s not enough. Not when you’re outnumbered, or your attacker has the element of surprise.
2. He knows what to do.
At some point in his life, Frank has learnt how to get out of a wrist hold, where the body’s pressure points are and how to put someone in a headlock. To get to black belt, he probably revised these techniques thousands of times.
It’s a huge head start. But knowing what to do and being able to do it in a pressure situation are not the same thing.
3. His response is instinctive.
Frank hasn’t just learnt what to do. He has done it hundreds of times in training. He has put competitors in headlocks. He has wrestled them to the ground.
When he sees a fist coming at his face while he is standing at the bus stop, he doesn’t freeze and get hit in the jaw. He isn’t waiting for his frontal lobe to kick in. He is responding instinctively, because he has practiced what to do. And when his frontal lobe does kick in, it’s not overwhelmed with stress. It knows exactly what is going on, and how to keep fighting.
This is why doing a lone self-defense class probably won’t cut it. It’s better than nothing. It increases your confidence and shows you what to do. But it’s no guarantee your response will be instinctive (and your body won’t freeze) when the time comes.
You don’t need a black belt to protect yourself
Luckily, you don’t need to spend years earning a black belt to ensure you won’t freeze when you face danger. Here are four steps to help make your fight response instinctive.
1. Tell your amygdala how it is
Support your frontal lobe to stay in control, by telling yourself you are going to make it. Using positive words can help override the fear signals coming from the amygdala. This will stop you being overwhelmed.
When you are starting your trip, tell yourself: “I need to walk through the park to get home. I know the route. I will make it home”
If you hear someone behind you, and you are starting to get nervous, tell yourself: “I can deal with this, I know what to do. I’ve got this.”
If you are attacked, tell yourself: “No fear, no fear, no fear.”
2. Practice makes perfect
When you get into your car, you don’t think about how to start it, or how to change lanes. You just do it. This is called habit learning. Perform routine daily activities often enough, and we don’t have to think about what to do.
Habit learning is a massive edge when it comes to reacting to a dangerous situation.
That’s why military training is demanding and repetitive. You practice firing a weapon and fixing weapon stoppages over and over, so when you need to do it in combat, you will be on autopilot.
That’s why Frank can knock out a guy twice his size and continue with his day like nothing happened. Even if he didn’t go back to another Ju-Jitsu class for 20 years, he’s done enough training to make it muscle memory.
It’s why going to one self-defense class is a start but going to ten is much better.
To really guarantee you will control your fear and respond on instinct, you need to practice how you will physically respond to an attack enough times that it becomes muscle memory.
So do some sparring with a friend. Rehearse responses in your self-defense class. The more practice, the better. And if you do it enough times, it’ll be locked away for life.
3. Prepare for the worst
You’ve done some physical preparation. Next comes the mental preparation. Negative visualization has been used since the Stoics. It involves preparing yourself for a bad event, by visualizing it occurring.
Picture walking through a quiet, dark road, and being followed and attacked from behind. How big is your attacker? Do they have a weapon? What do you do? What moves do you use? What is your goal — to fight back? Put them off balance while you run?
Think carefully about how you will respond, and how it will feel. Will you break a bone? Will there be blood?
By continually running through something in your head, your response will come more naturally if it happens for real. You will have less of a stressful reaction and will be able to stay in control.
4. Get the oxygen going
When you feel the panic start to rise, focus on your breathing. Deliberate slow breathing, with long exhales, gets more oxygen to the brain, which makes it perform better.
On its own, breathing won’t be enough. Once the amygdala has hit the panic button, the response is so powerful you’ll find it hard to get your breathing under control. So, you need to combine it with the other techniques.
When your safety is threatened – understanding how fear works – there’s nothing worse than freezing. To have your mind go blank and your body seize up, just as you need it most. To be stuck, glued to the spot, completely defenseless.
You’ll never be that person. Because there is one thing no one can take away from you. You’re prepared for this.
You know what to do. You’re not overwhelmed by fear or panic. You defend yourself instinctively, before your mind has processed what is going on. “I’ve got this” you tell yourself.
None of this will stop you getting harassed or threatened or attacked one day. But understanding how fear works might just save your life.