Fear is a feeling induced by perceived danger or threat that occurs in certain types of organisms, which causes a change in metabolic and organ functions and ultimately a change in behaviour, such as fleeing, hiding or freezing from perceived traumatic events. Fear in human beings may occur in response to a specific stimulus occurring in the present, or in anticipation or expectation of a future threat perceived as a risk to body or life. The fear response arises from the perception of danger leading to confrontation with, or escape/avoidance (fight-or-flight response), which in extreme cases of fear (terror) can be a freeze response or paralysis.

Psychologists suggest that there is only a small set of innate emotions, with fear one of them, but which also includes acute stress reaction, anger, angst, anxiety, fright, horror, joy, panic and sadness. Fear is related to, but should be distinguished from, anxiety, which occurs as the result of threats that are perceived to be uncontrollable or unavoidable. The fear response serves survival by generating appropriate behavioural responses, so it has been preserved throughout evolution.

Fear is a vital response to danger; if people did not feel it, they could not protect themselves from legitimate threats. But often people fear situations that are far from life or death, and thus hang back for no good reason. In humans and animals, fear is modulated by the process of cognition and learning. Thus fear is judged as rational or appropriate and irrational or inappropriate. An irrational fear is called a phobia.

Fear of the unknown (irrational fear) can be defined as false evidence appearing real and is caused by negative thinking which arises from anxiety, and it can branch out to many areas. Being scared makes people anticipate and aggravate of what may lie ahead rather than plan and evaluate. The ambiguity of situations that tend to be uncertain and unpredictable can cause anxiety and other psychological and physical problems, especially in those who engage it constantly. Ambiguous and mixed messages can affect self-esteem and self-confidence. Developing a sense of equanimity to handle various situations is often advocated as an antidote to irrational fear and is an essential skill.

People develop specific fears as a result of learning, called fear conditioning in psychology. Fear can be learned by experiencing or watching a traumatic accident. There are studies looking at areas of the brain that are affected in relation to fear. When looking at these areas, such as the amygdala, it was proposed that people learn to fear regardless of whether they themselves have experienced trauma, or if they have observed the fear in others. Fear is also affected by cultural and historical context. There are consistent cross-cultural differences in how people respond to fear. Display rules affect how likely people are to show the facial expression of fear and other emotions.

Although many fears are learned, the capacity to fear is part of human nature. Studies have found that certain fears are more common than others – a phenomenon known as preparedness. Because early humans that were quick to fear dangerous situations were more likely to survive and reproduce, preparedness is a genetic effect that is the result of natural selection. From an evolutionary perspective, different fears may be adaptations that have been useful in an evolutionary past. Some fears, such as fear of heights, may be common to all mammals. Other fears, such as fear of snakes, may be common to all simians. Still others, such as fear of mice and insects, may be unique to humans. Fear is high only if the observed risk and seriousness both are high, and is low if risk or seriousness is low.

Signs and Symptoms

Many physiological changes in the body are associated with fear. An innate response for coping with danger, it works by: accelerating the breathing rate (hyperventilation) and heart rate; constricting the peripheral blood vessels, leading to blushing and vasodilation of the central vessels (pooling); increasing muscle tension, including the muscles attached to each hair follicle to contract and causing goose bumps (piloerection) to make a cold person warmer or a frightened animal look more impressive; sweating; increasing blood glucose; increasing serum calcium; increasing white blood cells called neutrophilic leukocytes; heightening alertness, leading to sleep disturbance; and creating a feeling of ‘butterflies’ in the stomach (dyspepsia). This primitive mechanism may help an organism survive by either running away or fighting the danger. With the series of physiological changes, the consciousness realises an emotion of fear.

In violent confrontations, everyone feels fear to some degree, even experienced officers. Fear in violent confrontations can take many forms:

  • fear of getting harmed or harming others
  • fear of harm to fellow officers or bystanders
  • fear of legal litigation or procedural inquiry
  • fear of judgement after the fact
  • fear of issues relating to religious beliefs.

These fears can exist simultaneously, clouding the focus of what needs to be accomplished. When dealing with violent confrontations, officers do not need these mental distractions to cloud their judgement and cause hesitation.

Fear manifests itself in people in four main ways – those who have no fear (no time, caught by surprise) and do the job, those who have fear and no one knows it and they do the job, those who have fear and everyone knows it, but it does not matter because they do the job, and those who have fear and everyone knows it because they failed to do the job. Humans usually vacillate between all four stages, with a propensity towards one or another.

The key to managing fear is stress inoculation training, which places an obvious fork in a person’s survival psychology pathway at the point of ‘harm’. If officers are conditioned to stop when they are harmed, they program an undesirable and potentially self-destructive action into their mind. Giving officers the experience of losing in a simulation actually begins to condition a risk-aversion pathway in the brain to which they may turn during similar experiences in the future – they may actually stop and give up as they were programmed to do in training.

When properly structured, reality-based training can provide officers with those essential experiences necessary to ensure a high level of survivability, but things can take a negative turn if trainees are given the experience of losing, even in simulated encounters. It also creates neurological deficiency that can be difficult to overcome.

Consequences on Operational Performance

There are four levels of physiological performance. There is no specific heart rate associated with Condition White and Yellow; the difference is more psychological than physiological. However, as the level of arousal increases, the ‘conditions’ can be associated with specific heart rate levels.

  • Condition White is the lowest level of readiness, unfocused, unprepared, helpless and vulnerable and in denial.
  • Condition Yellow is the level of basic alertness and readiness, psychologically prepared for combat.
  • Condition Red is the level of optimal survival and combat performance (115–145bpm), where complex motor skills, visual reaction time and cognitive reaction time are all at their peak, but there is a price – at about 115bpm, fine-motor skills begin to deteriorate.
  • Condition Grey exists at accelerated heart rate levels (145–175bpm). For most officers, 145bpm represents a level at which performance begins to break down, but for some this is the optimal level of arousal, enabling extraordinary performance, a process called stress acclimatisation.
  • Condition Black is when the sympathetic nervous system arousal induces a heart rate above 175bpm, and cognitive processing deteriorates as the midbrain takes over from the forebrain.

There is a tremendous difference between the performance impact of heart rate increase from fear and heart rate increase from physical exercise. This data is for hormonal induced heart rate increases resulting from sympathetic nervous system arousal. Exercise-induced increases do not have the same effect. Hormonal-induced performance and strength increases can achieve 100 percent of potential maximum within 10 seconds, but drop 55 percent after 30 seconds, 35 percent after 60 seconds and 31 percent after 90 seconds. It takes three minutes of rest to ‘recharge’ the system. Any extended period of relaxation after intense sympathetic nervous system arousal can result in a parasympathetic backlash, with significant drops in energy level, heart rate and blood pressure. This can manifest itself as normal shock symptoms and/or profound exhaustion.

Effects of Fear-Induced Heart Rate Increase (bpm)

For those who do not push the envelope through physical fitness and repetitive training, Condition Grey is generally a realm in which complex motor skills begin to break down and bilateral symmetry begins to set in, meaning that what an officer does with one hand he is likely to do with the other.

Bilateral symmetry can have grave consequences for an officer in a tense situation where he is holding a firearm on a subject. Say the subject attempts to flee and the officer grabs him with his free hand. The accelerated heartbeat causes bilateral symmetry, so that as the officer grabs a fistful of the subject’s shirt with his support hand, he has a convulsive clutch response in his dominant hand, which may cause an unintentional discharge of the weapon. Bilateral symmetry can also happen when a person is startled. If a person is under extreme stress and adrenaline has been introduced into the system, the resulting startle response contraction (of the hands) can generate as much as 25lbs of pressure. That amount of force is approximately twice the amount needed to discharge a double action handgun.

There are many safeguards to prevent this convulsive clutch response. One is to keep the finger off the trigger until it is time to engage the target, a technique that has become the standard for firearm training. Even that is not a guarantee, since the clutch response can sometimes be so intense that the finger will slip back into the trigger guard causing an unintentional discharge. Another safeguard is to ensure muzzle discipline. The best safeguard, however, is for an officer to not allow his heart rate to get too high. Calm people are much less likely to make these kinds of mistakes. To remain calm, and control heart rate, officers should engage in tactical breathing.

One tool to control physiological response is autogenic breathing, a technique that can be used in a stressful situation to control sympathetic nervous system reactions. The more an officer practises it, the quicker the effects kick in. It can be used before, during and after a combat situation. When used before, it quickly calms and prepares an officer to function at his best in a hostile environment. After a critical incident, it is a highly effective tool to help delink the physiological arousal from the memory of the event. Once an officer starts using it, he should keep tuning it until he gets to the level that works for him.

Statistics show that over a third of all officers killed on duty did not defend themselves. The solution lies in training that includes preparation for the possibility of being shot at and preparation for the possibility of being hit. It is about being prepared ahead of time for operational reality.

Mental conditioning is extremely important. The brain must decide before the body can act. The best equipment and training in the world cannot make up for the officer unprepared to use available assets. Officers must mentally prepare themselves to deal with any situation at any time. A poor survival mindset leads to indecisiveness that can jeopardise all parties involved. A strong survival mindset helps instil the confidence and commitment necessary to survive and prevail.

Officers do not rise to the occasion in operations; they sink to the level of their training. Whatever is drilled in training comes out the other end in operations. There must be a continual effort to develop realistic simulations training so that officers develop skill sets that transfer to reality. Everyone has good and bad days. Do not let officers destroy themselves because of a bad day, and do not destroy others because they had a bad one. Take pride in the good days and strive to constantly improve. While it is acceptable to have a bad day, it is unacceptable not to train and improve and to not use available resources to make sure that the bad day never happens again.

Richard Kay
Richard Kay is an internationally certified tactical instructor-trainer, director and senior trainer of Modern Combatives, a provider of operational safety training for the public safety sector.