It’s a routine day. Your fridge is empty, but you need something for dinner. Grudgingly, you get in your car and run to the convenience store on the corner.
You walk in, grab a few items, and get in line at the register.
Suddenly, without warning, 3 masked men walk in waving guns, and they head straight for the cashier – the one you’re standing 3 feet away from.
She starts screaming, and soon the other customers join in. Pandemonium ensues.
What’s the first thing you do?
First and foremost, the most important thing you need to do is to stay calm.
Easier said than done, though, right?
Why Some People Freak Out When Faced with a Threat
It’s human nature to freak out when you sense danger. But what, exactly, occurs?
Let’s take a look at what typically happens to your body when a threat arises:
Instantly, the thought of “Danger!” triggers your brain to release a flood of hormones into your bloodstream.
These hormones reach every cell in your body within milliseconds, so your heart starts beating fast, your breathing becomes shallow and quick, your pupils dilate, your immune system stops making the molecules needed for healing and renewal, you’re your blood gets diverted toward the muscles and processes that are necessary for either running away or fighting.
As a result, the body stops sending blood and nutrients to all those immediately-unnecessary processes like digestion and healing. And more importantly, those hormones and the ensuing cascade affect your brain.
When you sense danger, the lower parts of your brain are the first to receive the signal from your 5 senses. The amygdala (in the temporal lobe) responds immediately before the higher, “thinking” rational areas even have a chance to weigh in.
Also, cortisol gets released in large amounts. This hormone actually inhibits neural activity in your pre-frontal cortex, which is the area of the brain you need to think rationally and logically.
Therefore, most people are not able to stay calm or think clearly. The lower brain has taken control. I’m sure you’ve been around people who have done really stupid things and even INCREASED their risk simply because they were scared and couldn’t think clearly. Maybe it has even happened to you.
Did You Know?
When your heart beat reaches around 140 beats per minutes, you lose your fine motor skills.
At around 160 beats per minutes, you lose your complex motor skills.
At around 175 beats per minutes, you lose your gross motor skills.
If you panic and your heart races near 175 beats per minute, you’ve lost all your motor skills. At that point, all you have left is large movements, like running. However, at that point, you’re working at around a 30% strength level.
Staying Calm Gives You an Edge
You can train yourself to go against the normal physiological process, however. You can learn to automatically stay calm and focused whenever a threat arises.Acquiring this skill is, hands-down, the best thing you can possibly do.
Several years ago, a researcher took a Navy Seal and an average person and then hooked them up to monitors to measure their physiological responses to threats. As expected, when presented with danger, the regular person’s heart rate increased, his breathing became quicker, and the normal fear-induced physiological changes occurred.
The Navy Seal, however, had some very unexpected test results. When danger presented itself, his heartbeat actually slowed down. His breathing was deep and regular, and his blood markers showed none of the telltale signs of distress. He was calm, focused, and in total control of his mental faculties.
You don’t have to undergo the rigorous training of a Navy Seal to train your mind, however. Monks do it quite well. And so do a lot of normal, regular people – just like you.
What advantages does staying calm and composed offer?
It allows you to think clearly and find solutions to the immediate threat. If fear overtakes you, you probably won’t be able to.
People take their cue on how to act from those around them, and this is especially true for children. If you can remain calm and in control, others are more likely to calm down and do the same. It’s in the serene state where solutions can be found.
You boost your own self-confidence. If you make it through a tough situation with aplomb, you know deep down inside that, no matter what life throws at you, you can handle it. That knowledge is priceless.
Staying calm may very well save your life. What happens if you your boat sinks and you’re suddenly tossed into the middle of the sea? If you panic and flail your arms and legs wildly, you will tire yourself out pretty darn quickly – and drown. But what will happen if you remain calm, relax your muscles, breathe deeply, and lean back into the waves? You float! Staying calm saves lives.
Ways to Train Yourself to Stay Calm Under Duress
There are many paths that lead to the same goal: staying calm under pressure. Implement these tactics into your daily schedule, and you’ll gain control of your mind and emotions.
- Manage Your Thoughts
Thoughts start the chain of events. You see something, then you have a thought about it. If your thought goes something like this, “Oh my God! I’m going to die!”, your brain reacts immediately, releasing that flood of hormones that we talked about earlier. Train yourself to use empowering thoughts, like “This is nothing. I got this!” or whatever statements enable you to calm down.
- Focus on Your Breath
If you’ve ever tried to learn meditation, the first thing you learn is to focus on your breath and perform controlled breathing. You can count as you breathe in and out, for example counting slowly to 4 as you inhale deeply and repeating as you exhale.
- Use Embodied Cognition
There’s a field of psychology called Embodied Cognition. It’s rather new, but studies show that the mind follows the body. It was always assumed that the body responded to the mind, but research shows it works the other way around, too.
If you move and act as if you are completely relaxed and in total control, your mind will follow your body’s lead. Move your arms and legs slowly and deliberately. Make a point to slow your eye movements and your breathing. Pull your shoulders back and push your chest out a bit, as if you were boasting about a recent accomplishment. When you act strong, confident, and in control, your mind will become strong, confident, and in control.
It sounds kind of funny, doesn’t it? Who wants to practice being attacked or getting thrown into a life-threatening situation?
Don’t worry! You don’t have to put yourself in real danger to practice, however.
Did you know that the brain can’t distinguish between what is real versus what you imagine? Yes, it knows that one is real and one isn’t, but physiologically speaking, it doesn’t.
That’s why the best athletes often use visualization techniques. They imagine themselves going through their moves over and over before they actually do it. You can do the same.
Imagine yourself in the scariest situation you can imagine. Really see the people and objects around you. Hear the sounds. Feel the heat (or the cold or whatever). Immerse yourself in the experience in your mind’s eye.
Now imagine yourself being calm and in control. What do you do first? Do it slowly….Commanders don’t rush. Take time to think through each action. The more you practice, the more prepared you’ll be when a situation really does occur.
- Talk to Yourself in the Third Person
Many studies have shown the effectiveness of talking to yourself in the third person. Instead of saying “Oh my gosh! I need to go over there and grab that…”, say, “John, take this one step at a time. First, go over there and grab that…”.
Using the third-person point of view gives you distance. It allows you to step outside your head a bit. That gives you an edge. Also, isn’t it easier to give advice to others than it is to follow it yourself? Just try it whenever you encounter a stressful situation and see how much calmer and logical you are.
- Learn About Strong People
The story of Roger Bannister is often repeated, but it’s a great case study in the power of example.
If you’re not familiar with the story, Roger Bannister was a runner in the 1950’s. Up until he came along, it was believed that no human could run a mile in under 4 minutes because no one had ever done it. Then Bannister came along, did it, and showed that it was possible.
After he broke the record in 1954, suddenly lots of other runners could run a mile in under 4 minutes. Was it coincidence? Did people suddenly become stronger and faster?
Of course not!
It’s human nature to disbelieve in the possibility of something – until we see it has been done!
You may think that you’re weak, fearful, and unable to handle tough situations, but that’s just a false belief. Take the time to read about fearless, strong people.
You’ll be amazed to find out how normal and “scared” they were, too, at one point. Once you’ve armored yourself with countless stories of the indomitable strength that is inherent in everyone, you’ll know – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that you, too can handle any tough situation with strength, resilience, and composure.
If you accept that feature as part of your identity – who you are, so to speak, you will start acting like it. People often act to bolster whatever it is they believe about themselves. Arm yourself with information and knowledge that you are able to react with equanimity and ease.
Meditation has a plethora of physical benefits that are far too long to list here (just go to Google Scholar and search “benefits of meditation”!). But nonetheless, meditation is an excellent way to train and control your mind. It’s usually difficult when you first start out, but just commit to practicing some meditation 5 minutes a day, then gradually add more time. There are plenty of meditation apps that can help you, too.
- Train Your Muscle Memory
At Advanced Fighting Systems, we really focus on developing your muscle memory. Muscle memory is when you’ve done something so many times that it becomes automatic.
For example, if you type all the time, you don’t have to think about choosing which finger goes on which key. It just happens automatically, because you’ve done it so many times. It works that way with training, too. If you train your muscle memory, you react automatically when a threat arises. You don’t even have to think about it. Your muscles move and you strike and defend automatically.
Get Started Right Now
There are many ways to train yourself to remain calm in the midst of a sh**storm, so take the time to find the training methods that intrigue you the most. Then, practice them every day.
If meditation intrigues you, schedule it on your calendar. Practice it 10 minutes a day, to start with. Whatever method you choose, make sure you work on it! Don’t just say you’ll do it. Do it!
What are you waiting for? Right now, grab a paper and list 3 ways you would like to work on training your mind. And get started…