The Psychology Of Survival: Controlling Your Emotions And Thinking On Your Feet

By Brian M. Morris

Photo by Pavel Danilyuk

Life is not an action movie.

Actors use the magic of Hollywood to make themselves seem invincible, but the reality is, in the real world there are no stunt coordinators, bats and clubs are not cardboard, rocks are not paper machete, and guns shoot real bullets. In a real, potentially dangerous or life-threatening situation, running away is not always a bad option. I have personally been in situations where I had to run as fast as I could toward the sound of (enemy) automatic gunfire, and I can tell you that counter-intuitive is an understatement. If you sense danger, and your mind tells you to run, then either you are not trained and conditioned to react to that particular situation or the threat is just so overwhelming it is beyond anything your subconscious thinks you are prepared to deal with. This is not to say you should not stand and fight if you are ready and able to do so. Personal courage, emotional connection, training, and motivation are all factors that can override the freeze and flight parts of the response and propel you forward to engage the danger, whatever it may be.


The acute stress response—also known as the fight, flight, or freeze response—is hardwired into the human psyche. This is how our ancient ancestors were able to act appropriately when facing a dangerous animal or when fighting an enemy. In the moment of danger, blood on the surface of the skin reduces so that blood flow can increase in the arms, legs, shoulders, eyes, brain, ears, and nose. This physiological change heightens all of the senses, making you extremely alert, and it transfers blood flow to the arms and legs so you can fight or run. While fighting and fleeing are possible choices to make, freezing, or simply doing nothing is—while not always a good choice—still an option.


These are some other physiological and psychological signs of the fight, flight, freeze response that human beings may experience when faced with a threat:


  • Trembling out of anger
  • Increased heart rate
  • Hands in fists, desire to punch, rip
  • Flexed/tight jaw, grinding teeth, snarl
  • Fight in eyes, glaring, fight in voice
  • Desire to stomp, kick, smash with legs, feet
  • Feelings of anger/rage
  • Knotted stomach/nausea, burning stomach
  • Feeling like a volcano is erupting inside of you
  • Bursts of above-average strength compared to normal ability


  • Trembling legs
  • Holding breath/shallow breathing
  • Screams of fear
  • Terrified look on face
  • Sweating profusely
  • Loss of use of small muscle groups
  • Able to quickly move out of the way or run away


Humans are uniquely designed with all the physical potentials and psychological instincts needed to either club a wild boar on the head, thrust a pointed stick into a woolly mammoth, run up a tree to escape being eaten by a saber-toothed tiger, or outrun a tribe of Neanderthals trying to crush the skull with rocks. That said, in today’s modern world of precision weaponry, fighters are often required to maintain steady breathing and body position and make slow, calculated movements requiring the use of small motor skills.

The problem is, that along with these feelings and displays of behavior, comes a loss of fine motor skills needed to react quickly and lethally in response to the threat in order to provide a tactical advantage. The fight, flight, freeze response can also result in a surge of adrenaline that can, in turn, result in tremors affecting the stability, surefootedness, and accuracy needed to neutralize any threat(s) you may come up against. Finally, the natural fight, flight, freeze response can result in a severe decrease in spherical awareness as the mind becomes fixated on the perceived threat, as if in tunnel vision.


The threats today are no less real than they were to our ancient ancestors. How is it that we can control our physiological and psychological responses to danger in such a way as to be able to overcome some of these natural reactions to danger and perform the actions necessary to eliminate the threats that we are faced with?

The answer is, stress inoculation coupled with repetitive training techniques. This allows us to turn specific motor skills into natural bodily movements requiring little to no conscious thought. In the Special Forces we called it “muscle memory.” Obviously, muscles do not have actual memories, but by engraving a specific motor task into memory by way of repetition, you will eventually gain the ability to perform that task without any conscious effort.

Think of what happens when a child runs out into the road in front of your vehicle while you are driving. You immediately take your right foot off the gas pedal and place it on the brake pedal. Unless you are brand new to driving, chances are this action required very little thought. By using repetitive training techniques, it is possible to achieve this same level of muscle memory or Zen in any of the lethal arts.

When I first began learning the Special Forces way of fighting, I started by simply learning how to draw my pistol. It was almost two months before I actually fired a live round. I wore my rig, consisting of a pistol belt, spare mag pouch, and a drop holster that was attached to my pistol belt and strapped to my leg. I had my F92 Berretta 9mm service pistol with a magazine of dummy rounds, and I spent hour upon hour and day upon day practicing drawing my pistol from the holstered and secured position, running it up my side, then joining my firing hand to my non-firing hand at my sternum. I then picked up a sight picture on a target and fully extended my arms, either into a completely extended fighting stance, or by placing my finger on the trigger and simultaneously extending my hands, pulling the trigger so the hammer would fall at the exact moment when my arms were fully extended. Next, I would put the weapon on safe and then back onto fire in order to de-cock the pistol. I would re-holster the gun and start the process all over again. I’m not sure how many thousands of times they would make us do these drills, but I can tell you they helped build a muscle memory foundation that I would have for the rest of my life. This was, of course, just the foundation of our training. After advanced rifle and pistol training, we would learn to use a whole arsenal of other weapons from sniper weapon systems, recoilless rifles, mortars, and even Naval gunfire, to learning how to fight with a knife or simply with our bare hands. The Green Berets pride themselves on being able to conduct precision operations where threats are neutralized with surgical precision and collateral damage is minimal to nonexistent. This requires each member of the team to be trained to perform their duties flawlessly under enormous amounts of stress in the most arduous environments.

The only way to do this is to first train in individual tasks until you are at a point of muscle memory, and then train with your other team members to not only complete your own tasks to perfection, but also be able to step in and complete the tasks of other team members if needed. To accomplish this elite level of training, it is imperative that the conditions are stressful enough so you will eventually become inoculated to the stress and physiological changes that take place when facing danger. These will be kept at bay to a point where you can still function and accomplish the mission. It is good to have a little bit of fear in dangerous operations. The fear will help by making you hyperalert to any potential threats, and can be quite beneficial in a combat-like scenario.

I always say, “Never get in a foxhole with someone braver than you are.”


So, obviously it is not realistic to expect to be able to train yourself to the elite level of our Special Operations Forces. That kind of training costs millions of dollars and requires a specific type of person who must be disciplined and committed enough to spend years of time solely dedicated to training in order to achieve the level of mindfulness required to override the body’s natural response to run or freeze when faced with overwhelming danger and extremely high risk of loss of life. Soldiers are able to do this successfully through intense and prolonged training and rehearsals coupled with every man on the team taking part in the extremely detailed planning process. The fact that each man knows every plan intimately and has rehearsed and trained ad nauseam on standard operating procedures and contingency plans is what allows these elite fighters to mitigate risks from a suicidal level down to an acceptable level of risk.

The good news is that you don’t have to train like a Green Beret or a Navy SEAL to prepare yourself to override the natural desire to run from a threat.

You simply need to think outside the box in order to create an environment that will allow you to practice under enough stress to achieve the focus to execute under duress, building skill and confidence, ultimately making you better at whatever it is you are trying to learn to do. No matter if it is shooting, mixed martial arts, or any of the lethal arts, if you are willing to put in the time, energy, and dedication, you can train yourself to a level where you can confidently and effectively stand and fight or get up and run toward the sound of bullets when duty or obligation calls.