I think it was General Douglas MacArthur who said, If bravery is a quality which knows not fear, then I have never seen a brave man. For the courageous man is the man who, in spite of his fear, forces himself to carry on.
Everybody fears fear at one time or another. At the risk of telling war stories, I can recall one particular night in Vietnam very vividly, like it was yesterday. I was dug in at a solo ambush position: it was just me, my M-16 and a very annoying rat that was heavily focused on some old C-ration cans the previous troop had left there. I was also very conscious of the sounds of the creatures around me the four-legged kind, insects, a few night birds and other assorted wildlife that inhabited the Pleiku area of Quang Tri Province.
Suddenly, everything became eerily quiet, and even the rat stopped moving around. Within seconds, I began to hear the most thunderous sounds one could imagine, boom, boom, boom. At first, I thought it was B-52 s dropping heavy bombs some distance away. But it was too sequential in time for that. This was a steady, deep, loud noise in my ears every second or so.
After passing on the thought of signaling my fire teammate dug in a few feet from me, I quickly realized I was hearing the beating of my own heart. The sudden cessation of all the environmental noise had awakened in me the fear that Mr. Victor Charlie was slowly creeping up to our position. Unfortunately, I soon found I was right the deafening silence was quickly interrupted by a massive mortar attack.
I can only remember a few times since then that I ve been that afraid. Most were on the job, and a few were in my personal life. But the moral of the story is, whether we re experienced cops, ex-GIs or just every day folks, we all experience fear. But what separates us from every day folks is that officers have to learn to control fear, or it will eat us up just like a cancer. So, here are some tips for combating fear.
7 for Controlling Fear
The first step in controlling fear is to admit you re scared. Believe it or not, admitting you re afraid can actually help you control it. A lot of folks, experienced cops among them, think admitting you re afraid of something means you can t cope. Not true. Simply acknowledging the fear and accepting its presence might actually help you think better, work through the danger and respond according to your training. In other words, acknowledge it, accept it, admit it and move on.
Next, avoid dwelling on the fear, the danger or the prospect of failure. If you re constantly preoccupied with fear or obsessed with the danger you face, you can t focus on success or winning. Your objective should be to formulate a plan of action and fight to get through the problem.
The mind and the body aren t separate entities; they work as a team. So, our third step is to gain control of your mind so you can take control of your body. Most tactical officers and competitive shooters know all about autogenic breathing. Take deep slow rhythmic breaths, inhale through your nose for three or four seconds, hold it for another three or four count and then slowly and steadily exhale out of your mouth. Even a minute or two of deep breathing can have an immediate calming effect on your body and help clear your mind. Autogenic breathing slows your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure and pulse rate, and may actually help you think better. You need to get your mind focused on safely getting through the mission, which is step four.
After you ve calmed your mind and body, you want to concentrate on completing the task you re facing a high-risk vehicle stop, a search warrant execution or a nighttime prowler call. Example: In the Kevin Costner movie For Love of the Game, there s a great scene where Costner, who plays an aging major-league baseball pitcher, works to get his mind back on striking out batters. He refers to it as clearing the mechanism. It s total and complete mental focus on what you need to do at that precise moment. For Costner, it was completing a no-hitter. For those of us who wear the shirt, it may be surviving and winning a life-threatening confrontation. It may also mean going over tactics in your mind, anticipating danger, reading cues, identifying and evaluating cover or looking for possible escape routes. These thoughts must take priority in your mind.
Step five is to expect the unexpected. Although this seems more tactical than psychological, it can also help us control our emotions. By constantly reinforcing in your mind you have the necessary skills and abilities to deal with any unexpected problem, you won t let panic set in when the defecation hits the oscillator. You ll instantly go into if/then (or when/then) thinking mode and implement that predetermined plan of action.
Here s number six, but first, let me go back to General MacArthur for a minute. His second sentence, which read, The courageous man is the man who, in spite of his fear, forces himself to carry on, calls for turning fear into a motivator. I m not talking about tombstone courage or Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! I m talking about harnessing fear or anger and directing it towards your attacker, obstacle or issue. And it means you do so with conviction. To put it another way, you must believe in your heart you will succeed.
And lastly, step seven: You must accept there s a certain element of fate in every call. Bad things do happen to good people. The events of Sept. 11 proved that to all of us. As we know, life isn t always fair.
The final step in controling fear is to accept that and still do what needs to be done. I was reminded of this when I looked at a photo hanging in the World Trade Center Memorial Museum next to FDNY House #10, across the street from Ground Zero. It s a photograph that somehow survived the collapse of the WTC towers. It shows an FDNY firefighter heading up the emergency stairway as a mass of people headed down.