About 10 years ago, I interrupted a burglary.
From my office window, I saw two men carrying things from a house in the distance and somehow I knew straight away that they were up to no good. I jumped out of my ground floor window (the door would have taken too long) and shouted as I ran towards the men ‘Burglars, somebody help me” very loudly three times. I have a very loud voice for emergencies. And a neighbour joined me in pursuit. The house being robbed was occupied by two women, an elderly mum and adult daughter and they had been worried about security. I didn’t sit back and think what happens if I confronted the burglars. I just ran towards them.By the time we had almost caught up with the burglars, we were chasing them into the church car park. The burglars got into a car and wildly accelerated their car towards us. We dived out of the way but my heart was racing out of my chest and it felt like a very surreal intense experience.We said to each other “remember their number plate” as the car left. I repeated it to myself two or three times.
But within minutes, I couldn’t remember the number plate at all, we both had vastly differing accounts of how many men were involved and what had happened. We couldn’t even remember what make the car was.
However for a couple of months I would remember the intensity of the chase and still be in shock. Unexpected tears would come. Not surprisingly we had gone through an extreme flight, fight, freeze reaction. The flight and fight reactions are instinctive, it’s a set of survival responses that primes the body to respond to threat, so you go through neurological, behavioural and hormonal changes and its accompanied by negative emotions such as anxiety fear and anger.
I teach lots of scared people to face their fears and to change how they see public speaking. So I’m fascinated by how we as humans react to fear and threat. I think it’s really worthwhile exploring how other groups of people deal with far more intense fear than public speaking so we can learn from them.
So let’s just imagine guns being involved in that story. What would what would have been my body’s reactions then. Last week I read about how American police react in a UOF (Use of force) situation and how the police can work better in high stress situations. (A Training Method to Improve Police Use of Force Decision Making, Judith P. Andersen, Harri Gustafsberg)
And I’m not talking a lot about the politics of their policing. How they react in extreme stress situations is of course very political, because of the amount of people that are killed by the police.
But here I’m just talking physiology.
When there is a real threat, or a perception of threat, our flight and fight reactions can start. Studies show that our perception gets massively affected as our heart rate increases.
We have changes in vision, sense of time changes and we hear less. Vision can be affected in three ways
- Reduced peripheral vision (tunnel vision).
- Distance only eyesight
- And forced binocular vision.
All three have dramatic consequences when you add guns. Tunnel vision is caused by restricted blood flow to the eyes and eye muscle contractions. The eye focuses on the source of threat with increased attention to detail while ignoring near objects.
Peripheral vision can decrease by 70%. And when that happens it takes 440% longer to react. That’s scary. This starts to explain how the police (or anyone) start to make poor decisions when their flight and fight kicks in. The arousal also disrupts monocular vision, so a police person cannot close one eye to aim like they might do on the firing range. They can’t focus on the gun sight because they can’t do near vision. They can’t aim properly. They have slower reaction times.
During fight or flight, heart rate increases, people either hyperventilate or hold their breath which affects the brain areas responsible for our fine motor skills. We lose dexterity, we get muscle tremors and loss of blood to our extremities. So aiming a gun becomes even harder. However the blood flows to the large muscle groups which means we get stronger - ready for the fight so we can kick, punch and run better.
The more you read about what happens at high heart rate the scarier it becomes. For the first time in my life I start to have some sympathy with American police! It’s not surprising that the wrong things happen when we are operating at such intense heart rates and flight and fight reactions. “An officer may even look in the direction of the threat but not actually see what is going on or may repeatedly pull the trigger of an empty weapon, misidentify innocuous items as weapons or not see or hear innocent bystanders in the line of fire”.
So we really need people like Professor Andersen who research approaches to calm the flight and fight reactions and train police in calming themselves down in a use of force situation.. I haven’t been on her courses - I wouldn’t be allowed! (I am in correspondence with Professor Andersen so I will be fascinated to hear more of what she has to say).
The training for the police consists of education about stress, biofeedback and breathing techniques, group instruction about how to use mental focus and visualisation to enhance situational awareness, practise in realistic scenarios, slowly to begin with and then becoming more realistic. I don’t know her work in enough detail as yet but it makes a lot of sense when I compare how I train and what she does. But I don’t hand out guns during my training, sorry if you are disappointed! (I did have a military participant in one group who said "I'd rather fight the Taliban than do public speaking")
What really struck me is their work on focus.
A small but important part of my coaching is to get people to move from a hard fear-based intense almost laser like focus (getting close to the tunnel vision) which is what happens to a lot of people whey they stand in front of an audience (or they can’t even look at people) to a softer wider focus. So although you are still looking at people’s faces you are also getting a wider focus so you are aware of the periphery around them. We’ve known this helps people relax in stressful situations for 17 years. What the police research seems to show is that it’s counteracting what the brain instinctively wants to do which is to narrow focus when we are stressed. So part of the answer to public speaking stress is to relax our vision, with more peripheral looking you can help our natural flight and fight system to calm down.
I’ve just been reading another book called “Deep Survival - Who lives and who dies” by Laurence Gonzales. And that’s all about how we react when things go wrong in the wilderness. He writes:
“Everyone begins with the same machinery, the same basic organism and when it’s threatened whether in pursuit of pleasure, for duty, for honour or by accident, the organism reacts in predictable ways. It is only by managing and working with those predictable inborn reactions that you’re going to survive. You can’t fight them, because they are who you are”
So of course public speaking isn’t as dangerous as police work or the wilderness (it might feel like it is). But we all need to manage, work with and accept our inbuilt reactions. We can think “it’s just me who is broken” and that makes us feel smaller. But it’s important and perhaps liberating for us to understand the big picture about fear. Fear is a human species story we all share. Fear is normal and we need to learn how to handle it better.