Sunday, August 30, 2009

Fear and Trepidation

Some disjointed thoughts on fear:

Dealing with fear, terror and trepidation, all the little variations on an emotional reaction to a bad thing is more complex than I would like it to be. Trying to explain to K the other day that I haven't felt real fear (if you define fear as the monkey in your brain screaming, "Oh my god we're all gonna die!!!!") in a long time. It's more trepidation- something else, definitely not a monkey and not screaming- giving a long suffering sigh and saying, "This is not going to end well." And then you get to work.

Here's the question- is there really a difference and if so, where did it come from?

Little background. I'm a believer in the James-Lange theory of emotion, which states roughly that we make up the emotions after the fact. Not:
1) See the bear
2) Get scared
3) Run
More like:
1) See the bear
2) Run
3) Realize that you were scared

There are a lot of subtly different flavors, but there are only a handful of basic hormone cocktails that your body dumps into your bloodstream in times of stress. Your palms sweat, your knees shake, you forget to breathe, there's a rushing sound in your ears... If you just saw a bear, you know you were afraid. If you just saw a beautiful stranger, the same symptoms can seem like love at first sight, or at least infatuation*. The emotion, in the sense of the label, how we explain it to ourselves, comes well after the chemical reaction.

So, when people talk about dealing with fear, dealing with adrenaline, what are the tools? What are we really talking about? The chemical or the label?

There was a long space where I was almost completely burned out. Getting trapped upside down in a kayak in icy water was annoying. Good odds I was going to die and pretty sure it would be an embarrassing way to die, but the hormone cocktail trickling into my veins really didn't rise to the level of fear.
That's different, though. It wasn't some trained skill or even being inured, there was a physical issue- my body wasn't producing a normal dose of adrenaline. It allowed me to think more clearly, which worked out fine. But it wasn't a good thing. Not healthy at all. Plus most of my hobbies quit being fun.

Normal times, I still feel the symptoms, if I have time. If I know things are going to go bad, there's a little burning sensation in the back of my head and it feels like my ears are trying to stand up like an alert dog. Sometimes the palms get sweaty. My voice doesn't get squeaky like it used to (except for the first few seconds public speaking). I haven't got the shakes, even a finger tremor, in years. It doesn't feel as intense as when I was a rookie, but how do you tell if there is less adrenaline in your system of if the level of adrenaline just doesn't seem unusual? Do I not get the shakes because my body doesn't want to, or because I have more practice controlling it? Is there a difference? Functionally, maybe not, but if there is a difference in mechanism it means different ways to achieve the condition (assuming you would want to.)

Emotionally, what adrenaline there is, doesn't feel like it used to. It used to be heavily based on a fear of injury or death or (and this is huge, but almost never explicitly stated) helplessness or impotence: If I hit this guy with everything I have and nothing happens; if he destroys me without breaking a sweat like I am nothing, then what am I? What did all this training or working out really mean? It's a very sub-surface thought and very, very common. Most of the fear in a fight, especially a one-on-one, is social, not physical. Subconsciously, I think that this fear drives a lot of training and gear collecting and other types of macho posturing. (Not all training is macho posturing, but whether it is or not depends on the student, not the training.)

That social fear of helplessness doesn't seem to enter into it much anymore. If I think about the hormones beyond just noticing them hit my system, it usually translates as performance anxiety- what if I look stupid to the officers I have been teaching? It's less personal, less about my health or identity and far more about their faith in my teaching.

One piece of that is huge- 'just notice the hormones'. There really isn't any need to label them. Most of the time I don't, and that seems to work fine. How much of the cognitive deficit in stress situations is because the human monkey is trying to come to terms with an emotional state instead of just feeling it and moving on?

* And you can reliably trigger this in another person, consciously inducing the feeling that often gets translated as 'romantic love.'


jks9199 said...


There's definitely something there. I remember being piss-my-pants scared many years ago; I can't remember the last time I felt that way. Even stacking up for entry on a search warrant or prepping for a TVI, my thoughts are more on "what are my responsibilities" than "oh shit!" even when things go wrong and we're making it up on the fly. Hell, more often than not, I've been pissed that I'm in the back car or stuck handling the idiot from the first room.

I haven't had a martial arts student really push me for a while -- mostly because, bluntly, they haven't seen me with that switch flipped to "FOR REAL."

I've been uncomfortable in some situations... but, again, not what I'd call "afraid." Just aware of the pressure to succeed or that I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be doing.

My son was born at 25 weeks gestation, via emergency c-section several months ago (he's doing great now). Even during that entire experience, I wasn't "scared." Concerned. Worried. But I had things to do and had to be calm and functional. So I was.

I haven't been shot at. Don't know how I'll handle that. I've handled pursuits, TVIs, unexpectedly dynamic entries, and assaults, and more.

I think some of it is a result of the profession; we learn to ride the emotional/hormonal rollercoaster and it doesn't effect us the same way anymore. I think we adapt to a certain level of that stress in our lives -- and the times without it seem rather flat. (I know, I'm parroting some of Kevin Gilmartin's ideas. And also some of the stuff that Dave Grossman has pointed out. Not claiming to be very original...)

The worry to me is when that state of high arousal/stress becomes normal -- what's it doing to us when we aren't at that level? And what's it doing to our bodies and minds in general?

I also think there's a lot of truth to Lange's ideas. The same chemical cocktail gets a different name depending on the context.

Anonymous said...

Don't adrenalin junkies feel the same way? Rarely-to-never feel any actual fear? If so, wouldn't this be a learned state?

James said...

I'll tell you what happens when you retire and the adrenaline re-up. At least I did. Apparently 25 years wasn't quite enough. Reading you and jks9199 is really cathartic. Try explaining this crap to a civilian. Just be prepared for a blank stare.

The last felony arrest where I got injured was a couple of years ago. I was a half step behind and he slammed my hand in a door as I reached for him. I didn't get hurt, or worried, or scared...I got PISSED. But, again, it wasn't a white-hot, out-of-control, red-in-the-face anger - it was cold, and very, very focused. It was probably the exact same hormone dump that makes people feel fear, I just didn't interpret it that way.

I think the national stats on long-time cops show that we die a few years earlier than normal and it's probably due to the constant wear-and-tear from our endocrine system. But can you imagine doing anything else? I can't.

At least when I die there'll be a few people who are alive who otherwise wouldn't be. And I'll have a shitload of war stories to tell St. Peter.

I forgot where I read it but I've always liked the quote " All men die...not all men truly live".

Kai Jones said...

Try explaining this crap to a civilian.

You don't know the right civilians.

James said...

Yeah, I'm probably a little jaded. At this point, my friends are all martial artists, cops, firemen, or military. I didn't plan it that just happened.

Vaughn said...

Do martial artists count as civilians or something else?

Mark Jones said...

Unless a martial artist is getting into frequent violent encounters, I'd guess that they count as civilians. I suspect even some cops--the ones I've heard referred to as 'lops'--would count as civilians. If you're not getting these huge adrenline dumps frequently enough to come to see the situations as routine, I doubt you're going to see the effect Rory and others are discussing.

One of the things that fascinates me is that Rory has written about this lack of (typical) adrenaline response in situations he was accustomed to, but then being made the 'shooter' for the CERT--and having it all come back because _that_ wasn't what he'd become habituated to. Makes me wonder how widely this sort of "I'm annoyed/angry" instead of "frightened" response to the hormone response translates.