When Things Go “Bump” in the Dark

If you are going to be involved in a violent confrontation, chances are that it will occur at night or in low light conditions and when you least expect it. The confrontation will be "up close and personal" and you will have little or no time to consider your options. The confrontation is likely to be over in just a matter of moments and what you do during those moments will be critical to your survival.

When you recognize a threat that could result in death or severe injury — whether perceived or real — your body reacts automatically as it prepares for intense activity. You will have two basic choices — "fight" your assailant, or "flee." This hard-wired "fight or flight" response is part of our physiological make-up that has existed since mankind first appeared. It is part of our basic survival instinct that kicks in whenever we are confronted with a potential threat.

When our "fight or flight" response kicks in, several physiological and psychological changes occur in our bodies as a result of a sudden influx of adrenaline and other stress hormones into our bloodstream. Our respiration (i.e. breathing rate) increases, the flow of blood is diverted away from our digestive tract and increased in our muscles and limbs, our heart rate and blood pressure increases, our pupils dilate resulting in "tunnel vision" as we become focused on the threat, our sense of awareness increases, our perception of pain diminishes as endorphins are release into our system, and our body prepares itself to fight or flee.

We may take on an aggressive stance as we prepare to fight. Some of the other things that occur to us may include:

  • There is an accelerated conversion of fat or glucose to fuel muscle activity.
  • Reflexes become faster.
  • Skin pigmentation may be altered (paling or flushing) due to changes in blood flow.
  • Spatial awareness may become altered.
  • Our sense of time may become altered (i.e. things appear to speed up or slow down dramatically).
  • Tear and saliva production may be inhibited.
  • Our sense of hearing diminishes or is lost altogether.
  • There is a loss or distortion of memory.
  • Muscles in the extremities (i.e. arms and legs) may shake.
  • We may experience a loss of bowel/bladder control.

Our sense of fear becomes exaggerated and our thinking becomes distorted. The manner that our mind normally operates in is altered to increase our chance of survival. Making clear, rational choices becomes impossible. Our ability to perform functions requiring the use of fine motor skills decreases or is eliminated entirely and we perceive everything in our environment as a potential threat. This can result in us overreacting to some perceived threats. Thus, even seemingly innocent encounters can rapidly escalate to violence.

Our conscious ability to control these physiological and psychological changes our body undergoes instinctively will be limited at best. No amount of training can totally overcome these changes, but repeated and reinforced training can mitigate them and further improve our chance of survival.

It is important to remember that these physiological and psychological changes are affecting both us and our assailant. As a result, body language can be an early indicator that the situation is about to get out of hand.
If you are aware of your surroundings, then you have the potential to spot threats so you can avoid them rather than getting involved in a confrontation.

The most important tool available to you in avoiding a violent encounter is your "situational awareness." You need to be constantly aware of what is going on around you and be on the lookout for potential threats in your environment. It is very easy to let your guard down when you are in familiar surrounds — your home, your neighborhood, your hometown, etc. Yet these are the very places where an unexpected violent encounter is most likely to take place because these are the places you spend most of your time in. You also need to listen to that "inner voice," that part of your subconscious that tells you something just does not seem to be right. Indeed, this should be your first signal to increase your "situational awareness." While the best option is to avoid the encounter in the first place if you think it might have a chance of becoming violent, this is not always an option. If you cannot avoid the situation then you need to try to defuse (i.e. "de-escalate") it if you can before it gets out of hand.

If you carry a firearm for self-defense, avoiding a confrontation is important because if you perceive a threat exists you are more likely to use your gun, even if it might not be warranted. Indeed the use of a firearm is not the appropriate response except in the most extreme of circumstances. Yet when under stress we are likely to jump right to using one. The reasons for this should be obvious from the discussion above about the physiological and psychological changes that take place when someone is under enough stress to invoke the “fight or flight” response. Since our ability to use reason and judgment declines, we may not even realize that using a gun is not appropriate and worse, we may use our gun on someone that is not really a threat at all.

While you need to be prepared to use your gun if you must, you must also train yourself to resist resorting to it until it becomes absolutely necessary. Often this means you need to exercise a lot of restraint if you become involved in an encounter that could become hostile. Thus, the paradox — on the one hand we train and equip ourselves to use lethal force, but at the same time we need to do everything possible to avoid using that training and equipment.

Gary Evens is an NRA-Certified Instructor and Range Safety Officer.

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