It feels as if everything is moving in slow motion while the body is running on autopilot: How soldiers react to combat

”Soren, how does the body react in combat?”

I am often asked this during the Q & A when I speak about Afghanistan.

Reactions in combat are the body’s reactions to stress. Talking about them is often taboo. I had no idea how comprehensive such reactions were before I started studying them prior to my first deployment to Iraq in 2007

In their extreme forms a psychologist would label it ”acute stress reactions”. Such experiences are not limited to soldiers only. Any humans that are exposed to extreme stressors or traumatic events can suffer from acute stress reaction.

Danish soldier during operation panthers claws in Afghanistan


We are not designed for modern warfare

The human organism is designed to mobilise force into a fight or flight mode when a threat occurs. Blood flows to the major muscle groups in the body, the heart rate rises and the body will probably eliminate any unnecessary weight.

That would  probably have been very useful, had the threat been a sabre tooth tiger jumping out of a bush on the African savannah 10.000 years ago. On the modern day battleground some of these reactions might even be dangerous.


What happens to the body?

  • 88% auditory exclusion
  • 17% intensified sounds
  • 82% reported tunnel vision
  • 78% reported they were on autopilot
  • 63% slow motion time
  • 11% paralysis

I have drawn data from the report ”Deadly Force Encounters” by Artwohl and Cristian quoted in On Combat. The report gathered data from law enforcement officers who had been in a firefight.

And I have read elsewhere that:

  • 25% of WWII veterans experienced loss of bladder control


I get tunnel vision and my body runs on autopilot

I can recognise some of the reactions above from myself. I almost always experience tunnel vision. Whilst under fire I might as well use my binoculars to observe through; my broad vision has disappeared anyway. I have to turn my entire body and face people I have to talk to; otherwise I will not understand what they are saying. I will not notice the sound of my own rifle firing; I do no notice the crack of enemy bullets even though I might see ricochets beside me. The orders my section commanders give are clear, even though they might be hundreds of metres away; signals on my radio are also clear.

I have often given orders and taken action without having to stop and think first. Leading troops in battle has become instinctive. The fruits of many hours of battle drills; the body runs on autopilot.

And I have always made sure of relieving myself before going out on patrol.


Managing fear

To counter stress reactions and regain my ability to think clearly I have taken cover and taken deep breaths; inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth. Just two to three times is normally enough to lower my heart rate. Tunnel vision disappears and I am able to consider the next move.


Slow motion

I have a video of a firefight I usually show when I speak on war. In it one of my soldiers is wounded. I remember the episode clearly: I have my platoon in position in a cluster of compounds. The Taliban is attacking and the platoon returns fire. I remember hearing a sound that I am not familiar with. I turn left. A machine gunner falls backwards. It all seems to happen in slow motion. I remember it taking more than half a minute for the medics to get to him.

On the video I can see what actually happened. A rifleman next to him pulls him into cover as he is hit. Eight seconds later the first medic is on him.


Back in the groove

A few times I have seen some of my soldiers hesitate or even freeze. Every time a push has been enough to get them going. The push has been everything from giving the order to move again, to physically pushing him or just simply leading the way and doing what I want the soldier to be doing. Fire my rifle if I want him to fire his. Most often a rifleman nearby or his section commander has managed to get the soldier going again.

It is all about getting the soldier back into the rhythm of the battle drills.


Talk about combat stress

Humans will react to traumatic incidents on the field of battle. Talking about the possible reactions prior to being deployed will automatically remove some of the soldiers’ worries on how they will react in the face of danger.

We will then know and hopefully accept that our reactions are normal and that we are not alone with them. Awareness might also give us a possibility to identify patterns and take action to reduce the impact of stress before it is too late.

Prior to my deployment to Afghanistan I spent time teaching my soldiers about the possible reactions to combat stress. I also made it clear that I would expect everyone to do their utmost and give all while in combat. I explained that one is not a poor soldier because one experiences paralysis and is not be able to fight. An experienced soldier knows how to handle and counter combat stress.

However, we all have a breaking point.

So do I.

8 thoughts on “It feels as if everything is moving in slow motion while the body is running on autopilot: How soldiers react to combat

  1. Dale Wilson

    Very insightful post. Hearing this from someone who has lived it is genuine and quite interesting. Thank you for your service to the Coalition’s efforts in Afghanistan.

  2. Ben King

    Hey, Sir. Interesting Data. I would be interested to hear more about why you think we are not designed for modern combat. Can you also elaborate on that simple breathing technique.


    1. Soren Sjogren Post author


      Thanks for commenting.

      We humans do not handle stress well. In order to function in stressful environments we have change our instincts. That takes a long time and lots of training. Stress also hampers our ability to think rationally. I will elaborate on that in the next post.

      Breathing is a great way to regain control. Any programme on mindfulness or meditation will have focus on breathing. By forcing myself to breathe slowly I would also automatically lower your pulse. Pulse, stress and unwanted reactions are linked. I learned the technique while competing in Biathlon Orienteering and I came across again when I picked up mindfulness.


    1. Soren Sjogren Post author

      Thanks for commenting.

      Slam’s focus is on the soldiers’ willingness to fire their rifles in combat. The conclusion is that weapons manned by crews are much more likely to participate directly in the firefight than a single rifleman.

      Today’s training and focus on unit cohesion is a direct result of his findings.

      Can unit cohesion lessen soldiers’ unwanted reactions to stress? I think so.


    2. David Navarre

      I’d love to wade through the data he analyzed. I think his methods are flawed enough to make his conclusions questionable. He wrote very authoritatively, often without sharing his data. For example, the details in his writings on the airborne in the Normandy invasion are often wrong, but had been taken as gospel for decades. I need to see if I can ever wade through the source data on that.

      Soren, your experience and study strike me as far more useful.

      1. Soren Sjogren Post author

        Thanks David

        I am not sure that my experiences would qualify as a scientific method either. Nor is that my objective. I simply aim to share my experiences and reflections upon them.

  3. Liam Newman

    This is remarkable. I am writing a story for my english class. It is am war story called When Duty Calls. I love the info and will most likly use it in my story.

    Thank you,



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