Fear, Stress, And The Survival Personality

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You wouldn’t expect a spin-off of National Geographic magazine to have much content related to officer survival, but the August issue of National Geographic Adventure delivers just that in a surprising 1-2 punch.

First is an article about how sudden fear and stress affect perception and performance, which draws largely from studies of street officers in combat situations and quotes some of the nation’s prominent police trainers and researchers.

Then there’s a companion piece on the psychological orientation that seems most helpful in surviving a life-threatening situation, whether in police work or civilian life.

The latter article, “Everyday Survival” by Laurence Gonzales, is available in full on the magazine’s website [Click here to read it.] –along with links to other survival-oriented features.

The first, “Terrorists at the Tea Party” by Amanda Ripley, has not yet been posted online, but you can check www.nationalgeographic.com to keep an eye on when it might appear. You could also check your local library for the August issue of the magazine.


Ripley uses a gun-blazing, terrorist take-down of an embassy in Columbia as a springboard for vividly explaining exactly how fear and stress impact the human mind and body and, ultimately, human performance in a crisis. Step by step, she traces the perception of a dangerous situation through the optic and auditory nerves to the brain–specifically the amygdala– and from there to the various elements of the recipient’s body.

Along the way, she describes psychological phenomena that are familiar to many police-shooting survivors: the dominance of emotion over reason…the “classic response” of time seeming to slow down…tunnel vision and tunnel hearing…the “curious sense of aloofness,” called dissociation, which can cause “numbness, a loss of awareness, memory problems,” even out-of-body experiences, and so on.

“Stress hormones are like hallucinogenic drugs,” Ripley writes. “Almost no one gets through a [life-threatening] ordeal without experiencing some kind of altered reality.”

She cites one officer’s perceptual distortion, as reported to Dr. Alexis Artwohl, the well-known behavioral scientist who sits on the Force Science Research Center’s national advisory board. During a gunfight, the officer “was puzzled to see beer cans slowly floating through the air” past his face, with the word “Federal” printed on the bottoms. They turned out to be shell casings ejected by the gun of another officer firing next to him.

According to a study of OIS survivors by criminologist David Klinger, “94% of officers experienced at least one sensory distortion” during their shootings. “[V]ery few knew what to expect beforehand,” Ripley writes. “So their distortions distracted and even embarrassed some of them.”

Ripley points out: “The best way to negotiate stress is through repeated, real-world training” that as closely as possible simulates actual armed confrontations. “The trick is to embed self-preservation behavior in the subconscious, so it is automatic, almost like the fear response.”

In short, realistic training, coupled with real-world experience, can change the brain so it can more quickly subdue stress and fear and respond in a life-saving manner.

“One of the most surprising tactics,” which can be self-taught, is deep, rhythmic, combat breathing, which “actually alters the typography of the brain,” Ripley says. By consciously slowing and deepening breathing, “we can deescalate the primal fear response that otherwise takes over.”

Ripley concludes: “The idea that we can negotiate our fear response is a fairly radical one.” But as more is understood about the dynamics of armed encounters, that idea is becoming a core component of progressive police training.


Gonzales, who’s written books on surviving against long odds, reports that “After more than three decades of analyzing who lives, who dies, and why, I realized that character, emotion, personality, styles of thinking, and ways of viewing the world had more to do with how well people cope with adversity than any type of equipment or training.”

Although he believes equipment and training are important, the most essential element seems to be the right mindset.

Backed up with fascinating war stories and a variety of research studies, Gonzales itemizes the qualities he believes comprise the heart and soul of the survivor mentality. Among 14 traits that Gonzales says survivors tend to bring to traumatic events are these:

  • Believe they control their destiny.

People who believe their fate is controlled by an outside force or forces tend not to thrive in survival crises as well as those who are “most inclined to have confidence in their own abilities and to take action.” Those who “view themselves as essentially in control of the good and bad things they experience” tend to survive even such things as natural disasters more readily than those who “believe that things are done to them…or happen by chance.”

  • Deny denial.

The “incredulity response”–psychologically denying that something bad is happening to you–is often strong “even among individuals with excellent training.” But failing to quickly recognize a threat can cause a potentially fatal delay in responding. Survivors are more readily able to leap beyond doubt and excuse-making and see things as they really are, not as they wish them to be–and thus “are better able to avoid crises.”

  • Think positive.

“Individuals with a ‘growth mind-set’–those who are not discouraged in the face of a challenge, who think positively, and who are not afraid to make or admit mistakes–are able to learn and adjust faster and more easily overcome obstacles.”

  • Have a Plan B.

When undertaking anything risky, survivors tend to have a bailout plan, in case things don’t work out as hoped. The alternate strategy needs to be as specific as possible, and at least mentally rehearsed in advance. “Then,” Gonzales writes, “when your brain’s not working well because of stress or exhaustion, you’ll still make the right decision.”

  • Be cool.

Survivors of combat situations tend to have “a relaxed awareness.” They may “get upset when something bad happens, but they will quickly regain emotional balance and immediately begin figuring out what the new reality looks like, what the new rules are, and what they can do about it….[S]tress changes the shape and chemistry of the brain, resulting in trouble remembering, difficulty completing tasks, and altered behavior….Practice being calm in the face of small emergencies and you’ll be more prepared to deal with large ones.”

Assessing survivor characteristics as a whole, Gonzales notes: “You can start developing these tools of survival now. It takes deliberate practice to change. But new research shows that if we adjust our everyday routines even slightly, we do indeed change….

“To make these lessons useful, you have to engage in learning long before you need it–it’s too late when you’re in the middle of a crisis.”

[Thanks to Scott Buhrmaster, vp of operations at the Force Science Research Center, for tipping us to these Adventure reports.]

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