Dealing with Fear, Part Two: Trust Your Fear

Dealing with Fear, Part One: Living in the Moment

In part one, we discussed the nature and mechanism of fear in almost adversarial terms: fear as an enemy or obstacle that we must confront or circumvent rather than something to be trusted or valued. Those are important skills to have, and they reflect the lessons learned by warriors and warrior cultures around the world since the dawn of time. We have to take fear into account while training and developing our self-defense/survival mindset if we want to stay effective when the balloon goes up.

However, there’s another side to fear: the useful, nay necessary side borne of evolution. Fear exists for a reason—to keep us safe—and when channeled properly it can do just that. Let’s talk about how to best use fear in order to help us survive.

Trusting your gut, and other cliché truths

A cliché becomes a cliché for a reason: it’s a truth, lesson, or experience we encounter so often that its almost not worth talking about. We’ve all be told since youth that we should “trust our gut” and at least pay attention to what our instincts and intuition tell us in a given situation. And while with practice this works pretty well with everything from business negotiations to romantic encounters, fear and other high stress situations muddy the waters a bit. The adrenaline dump and the resulting switch to fight-or-flight mode disrupt emotional clarity and make it a bit harder to trust our gut, as it were.

In part one of this article we talked about some strategies for dealing with fear, and by bringing it under control via those techniques we can offset some of the fog that extreme emotion throws over our instincts, intuition, and judgment. With that in place, we’re in a better position to examine our fear objectively, as strange as that might sound, and to make use of it as a tool for self-defense.

While many of the mechanisms which cause fear are still poorly understood by medical science, we know quite a bit about how humans experience fear and what outside factors trigger fear in humans. As a result of our peculiar evolutionary history, the human brain is really good at picking up on subtle danger cues. The trick is learning to identify, interpret, and act on those cues in an an appropriate manner.

Reading fear

As we’ve said, fear is often triggered by external factors which the brain interprets as a potential threat. When you’ve trained your mind and emotions such that you can distinguish between “real” fear and fear based on unsubstantiated internal anxiety, the next step is learning how to identify what events around you triggered your fear.

Let’s use robbery, mugging, and similar forms of crime as an example: more than one expert has pointed out that these forms of crime follow a fairly predictable pattern:

  • Intent: the criminal displays a willingness and ability to engage in crime and violence.
  • Interview: the criminal evaluates a potential victim and makes the decision as to whether or not to attack.
  • Positioning: the criminal sets themselves up in advantageous position to execute the attack.
  • Attack: the criminal engages with the victim with either force or the threat of force in order to attain their goals.
  • Reaction: Marc MacYoung defines this as “how the criminal feels about what they have done”, while also incorporating the victims reaction. I would suggest that the reaction stage is determined by how both parties participate in the attack and its aftermath. Either way, this is the resolution in which everyone involved transitions into what comes next.

The fine art of it is learning to read the cues that criminals use in setting up their victims and the places in which this is likely to happen. On both an instinctual and social level, most of us have absorbed these to some degree in our unconscious mind. Your fear, all other things being equal, is that subconscious coming to the realization that there may be a threat and trying to let your active mind know. Ideally, you take that gut feeling, marry it to your situational awareness and your observations/interpretations of your surroundings, and then take an immediate and effective course of action.

How to get there

I wish I had a secret technique or trick of the trade that would let you accomplish all this quickly and easily, thus keeping all of you safe forever. Sadly, I don’t—and neither does anyone else. The only way to achieve a state of emotional control, an understanding of fear, and an ability to handle potential dangerous or violent situations is via training and practice. There’s an old saying among boxing coaches that fights are one by the fighter who put in the work in advance. While there’s a world of difference between a sport and assault, this lesson from the ring holds true for all of us. Train hard, train regularly—both your body and mind—and you’ll be in a much better position to handle whatever life throws at you.