Saturday, April 22, 2023

Why do warriors feel fear only after the threat has passed?

Recently, there have been a number of posts on Facebook from martial arts authorities that have focused on explaining emotion in relation to threats or asking questions about emotions in relation to threats in order to invite comments. The book that I am currently working on, Fear and Fight: Understanding Our Natural and Learned Responses to a Threat, is intended to deal with these issues in an authoritative way so I have decided to share some titbits from that book. This post concerns the issue of warriors only experiencing fear after a threat has passed.

Some of the following, including references, are taken from Fear and Fight and therefore the entire reference is not provided in this post.

Fear was selected for in nature because it conferred a survival advantage on an individual when their survival is threatened. Why then do warriors sometimes/often only experience fear after the threat has passed?

I regularly catch up with a friend who is a retired high-ranking police officer during which we often discuss material from my book. I once asked if he had experienced fear in a life-threatening situation in the line of duty. He didn't answer that question directly but instead asked a question of his own in relation to specific instances where his life was threatened in the line of duty but he didn't experience fear (overwhelming fear) until after the threat had passed. 'Why,' he asked, 'did I only experience fear which was selected for in nature because it conferred a survival advantage on an individual, after the threat had passed?' (or words to that effect).

Is this a common experience for warriors?

In a book that is promoted as representing a definitive collection of the most current theory, research, and practice in the area of combat and operational stress management (Combat Stress Injury: Theory, Research and Management, edited by C.E. Figley and W.P. Nash), William Nash, a former U.S. Navy psychologist who served in Iraq, provides the following description of warfighters’ combat action experience:

Before a planned combat action, most warfighters experience a period of uneasiness and agitation because of the unknowns they face and because, before the action begins, there is little they can do to actively master their stress. With the commencement of combat, however, the pre-action dread dissipates quickly, especially for veterans of combat. Most warriors then quickly get into a groove – a period of exceptionally low perceived stress, during which their thinking is clear, perceptions are sharp, and emotions are calm. The ‘in the groove’ period may last the duration of a combat action, if it isn’t too long or too overwhelmingly stressful. Once the action ends, however, perceived stress shoots back up as warfighters emerge from their emotional and physical numbness and review in their minds and perceive in their bodies all the dangers and horrors they may have experienced. The veteran warfighter quickly masters this rebound stress, however, and perceived stress returns to baseline. (2007a, 47)

Nash explains that many definitions for the word 'stress' has been offered but none has encompassed all the usages of the term even in the scientific community. I refer to this as 'the ambiguous concept of stress,' and as Hans Selye, the 'father' of the stress concept, famously said, 'Everybody knows what stress is, but nobody really knows.' In the case of the warfighters' combat action experience described above, stress is anxiety-fear.

The warfighters’ combat action experience can best be understood by dividing the experience into three temporal phases: before, during, and after a combat action experience. In emotion terms, the pre-event phase can be described in terms of anxiety (future anticipated threat) and the during-event phase in terms of fear (real or perceived imminent threat). In chapter four in Fear and Fight, we see that emotion is evolutionarily designed to promote homeostasis: ‘For example, running from a source of threat reduces the threat and tends to reestablish the condition that existed before the threat occurred’ (Plutchik 2001a, 120). The reestablishment of the condition that existed before the threat occurred describes the post phase of a threat event. This is our principal natural response to a threat, however, anxiety-fear-return to homeostasis phases do not describe the warfighters’ combat action experience as described by Nash above (although he did implicitly refer to the pre-event emotion of anxiety with his reference to uneasiness, agitation, and dread pre-action).

In terms of emotion phases, the principal natural response to a threat is anxiety-fear-no fear; the warfighters’ emotional response to a threat described above is anxiety-no fear (during phase)-fear (post phase)-no fear (return to homeostasis). What’s going on here? 

In the chapter on PTSD in Fear and Fight, I refer to Friedman et al and Friedman:

[Friedman et al] make specific reference to military personnel: ‘Trained military personnel may not experience fear, helplessness, or horror during or immediately following a trauma because of their training. They may only experience emotions after being removed from the war zone, which could be many months later’ (2011a, 756). Friedman expands the identified personnel who may not experience an emotional response at the time of a traumatic event to include, ‘military, police, and firefighter personnel who often report that they felt nothing, but that their professional training “kicked in”’ (2013, 551).

Warfighters experiencing no fear during the event/combat action phase is explained by Friedman et al and Friedman in terms of their training (see above), however, why do warfighters experience fear after the threat has past given that fear was selected for in nature because it conferred a survival advantage on an individual when their survival is threatened? 

The answer to that question lies within the learning aspect of PTSD discussed in Fear and Fight. In summary, a major feature of PTSD is the re-experiencing phenomena. When proposing his evolutionary theory of PTSD, Cantor suggests that the ‘re-experiencing phenomena of PTSD represent higher order memory and learning experiences. … Simply put, if ancestral individuals have had seriously threatening experiences, their long-term survival might be promoted if their lessons were not forgotten (re-experiencing symptoms)’ (2005, 123-124). Before Cantor there was Silove who suggests the same thing when exploring whether PTSD is an ‘overlearned survival response’:

automatic repetition of trauma memories once the survivor has withdrawn from the situation of danger ensures that memory traces signifying life threat are maintained in a highly active state and that they are rapidly retrieved when cues signifying the salient danger are encountered. Although the repetition of traumatic memories by the rehearsal mechanism triggers subjective distress in the survivor during the acute phase after trauma exposure, from an evolutionary perspective, the priority of survival learning overshadows the organism’s need for emotional stability. (1998, 186-187)

According to this view, the re-experiencing symptoms of PTSD are nature’s way of instilling and/or reinforcing the lesson that the traumatic event was dangerous and should be avoided in the future. 

In answer to my retired police officer friend's question, while his training produced a no-fear response during the life-threat event, nature still wanted him to learn the lesson that what he did was dangerous and it should that it should be avoided in the future (Don’t do it again!). Nature teaches this lesson in this case through fear being experienced after the threat has passed. It is still a survival response as it’s evolutionarily designed to avoid such life-threats in the future.

PS: My friend was happy to learn that this was a warfighter's combat action experience when I shared Nash's extract with him. While the previous sentence was designed to add levity, it does also show that knowledge about our natural and learned responses to a threat does alleviate stress, distress, confusion, etc, and which is why 'stress exposure training' that is used to better prepare military personnel for operational deployment, and most treatments for PTSD commence with a psychoeducation phase.

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