Physical & Mental Toughness to Survive a Life-Threatening Situation

You’re watching the news and you see a gunman indiscriminately shooting at people in a crowd…

You come upon a car crash as a police officer risks their life to pull the driver out of the flame-engulfed automobile…

You’re stopped one evening while walking your dog by a large man demanding your wallet or purse…

What would you do?

Now, these events are all situationally dependent, but for some of us — based on previous training and experience — the answer in instinctual. However, for most folks reading this, the answer is anything but clear and immediate.

Stress Management

The stress we experience when confronted with a serious life-threatening situation is entirely different from the stress we experience on a daily basis.

Physiologically, here’s what happens: A part of the brain called the hypothalamus triggers the release of stress-response hormones, including adrenaline, into the bloodstream.

Another stress-response hormone that is released is the steroid-like cortisol, which is produced in the cortex of the adrenal glands. This hormone increases energy and metabolic efficiency and helps regulate blood pressure.

Simultaneously, blood is being diverted away from the brain and skin to the muscles to maximize the chances of survival.

Your brain now has “tunnel vision,” focusing on nothing but doing what it must to survive. You are a rocket ship on the launch pad — what’s next? 

This is where physical and mental preparation pays off. You must learn to utilize this acute stress response instead of being overwhelmed by it.

Although heightened stress levels are a natural reaction to emergency situations, it is important to manage these levels. If you allow them to elevate too rapidly, your body will quickly go from a ready-to-respond mode to a worthless state called “lockup.”

Combat Breathing

One of my insider tricks to stress-management is called combat breathing. It’s as easy as counting to four.  If you need a reminder just say to yourself “4Patriots.”  It is something many combat veterans have used and continue to use in crisis situations.  It’s a simple four-second inhalation followed by a four-second exhalation.  Then repeat. In addition to properly regulating the body’s oxygen and CO2 levels, it will also decrease the heart rate and help clear the mind. And again, because it is such a basic technique that requires only breathing and counting, it will reduce stress and sharpen focus.

Fight, Flight, Freeze

Humans have three acute stress responses when confronted with a potentially life-threatening situation: fight, flight or freeze. These survival tools are found in all species, from spiders and cockroaches to primates and people.

How you react is totally based on the situation. If I’m robbed at gunpoint and I’m by myself, I’m probably going to fight. However, if I’m with my family or there is a larger group of shoppers in the immediate area, I’m going to attempt to de-escalate the situation and hand over my wallet to prevent any injury or death to bystanders.

Take It From Me

I really can’t make a stronger recommendation than for people to go out and learn basic first-aid and medical skills. I became a Nationally Certified EMT several years ago and you wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve actually used these skills.

I recently came upon an intersection where a pedestrian had just been run over by a car. A small crowd had formed by the time I approached and everyone was just staring at the seemingly lifeless, bleeding body. No one was moving — they were all completely frozen.

I immediately began pointing at individuals and giving them very simple tasks, “You — call 911. You — stop traffic. You — get me a shirt to stop the bleeding.”

Suddenly, the spell was broken. People set about doing their tasks as I worked on the injured pedestrian. Long story, short: He left the scene with a pulse and breathing.

The actions I took were actions anyone in that crowd could have initiated — but didn’t because their untrained instinct was to freeze. But with terrorist attacks occurring around the world every day — OUR FREEZE MINDSET HAS TO BE DELETED!

So here’s my verdict on the three stress responses:

  • FREEZE is no longer an option.
  • FLIGHT all depends on the situation and can be a very smart response.
  • FIGHT is something you MUST be capable of if the situation warrants it.

CITIZENS, we now live in a world where taking the situation head on and with what we in the SEAL teams call “violence of action” (150% effort) is often NECESSARY.

This is what you need to physically and — perhaps more importantly — mentally prepare yourself to be willing to do.

Be a survivor… not a statistic!

Cade Courtley
Former Navy SEAL / 4Patriots Contributor

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