Overcoming fear in combat: How your pulse affects your ability to think rationally and make sound decisions.


The air is filled with dust and sharp cracks from bullets passing by mere inches away.

I dive for cover and begin returning fire. After 10 rounds I look around. My sections are in position. Without stopping to think I make a dash across an open field to get to the front section for a better overview.

I find the section commander in a ditch returning fire. He immediately starts to brief me on the situation. The words make no sense to me. I take two deep breaths to calm myself down. Suddenly I am able to grasp what he is saying:

“Four enemy fighters are in position in the hedgerow in front of us. If you can get 1 and 2 section to provide suppressing fire we can close in on them head on.”

A Danish rifleman before assaulting a Taliban position in Afghanistan

Conditions on the battlefield

Modern day soldiers have to endure the same hardships as their forefathers fighting with spears and shields; the soldier has to face his own fear of death, he risks seeing his brothers-in-arms being killed or wounded and he still has to react efficiently.
The military leader has the same challenges. Furthermore, he has to make rational decisions sometimes crucial for the difference between life and death.


Fear is a basic condition

“Afraid you will be”  – Master Yoda

There are two types of soldiers. The ones who admit they have felt fear and the ones who are lying. When the firefight starts the body releases large amounts of adrenalin. The chemical puts the body into a state of alert. The natural reaction to stress is healthy: blood flows into the major muscle groups in legs and upper torso; the pulse rises and prepares the body to perform its best physically.
This reaction, however, comes with a price: adrenalin and a high pulse rate hamper your ability to think. The higher the level of stress we experience, the worse we are at making rational decisions.


How our pulse affects our ability to thinkConditions based on heart rate by Dave Grossman

In the book On Combat the American Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman describes how heart rate affects the body. He defines five conditions based on our heart rate: White, yellow, red, grey and black.

  • When the pulse rises above 115 beats per minute (bpm) fine motor skills begin to deteriorate
  • Above 145 bpm our gross motor skills begin to deteriorate
  • Above 175 bpm is condition black. The soldier’s ability to think rationally is severely affected; tunnel vision, freezing, vomiting and loss of bladder control might occur.

Generally, the higher the heart rate, the more the body has to rely on instincts. And instincts are not always rational.
Grossman points to condition red as optimal for performance in battle. In condition grey, soldiers can perform standardized and previously rehearsed tasks; black is outright dangerous.


Breathe and regain control

The key to handling fear in combat is thus managing your heart rate. You must pay to attention to the body’s early signals in order to react before it is too late. In combat I have often experienced tunnel vision – and I knew that my ability to make rational decisions was severely affected when that happened. I took cover and took deep breaths: I inhaled through the nose and exhaled through the mouth before considering the next move.

In some situations there is no time for thinking. Being ambushed is such an example. A natural reaction could be to take cover or run. Through training we can replace such instincts with more effective ones: returning fire and manoeuvring.
Any action required by soldiers in combat has to rely on standards – drills in military terms. These drills have to be conducted time and again until they become internalised as instincts.

It takes a long time to train instincts and it takes even longer to unlearn them again. That is why I still feel an urge to dive for cover when I hear something that sounds like gunfire even here on the streets in Denmark.


Preparing for combat

The best way to prepare for combat is by practising. During training and exercises the soldiers will test their own skills, thus building and gaining confidence in themselves, in each other and in you as their leader.

  • Know yourself

    You can get an idea of how you will react to combat by challenging yourself. Break your comfort zones. I do it by climbing and diving: I feel insecure on heights and under water – the body reacts by moving into panic. The same feeling as in combat. Any technique that helps me to calm down while climbing can be effective in combat as well.

  • Know your team

    Expose your team to hardships during training that are harder that you would expect in combat. It is far safer to fail on the training ground at home than to fail in combat.

  • Remain in good physical shape

    Being in good physical shape improves your body’s ability to raise and lower the heart rate. A physical surplus is needed to make the right decisions in combat.

  • Know your battle drills

    Any manoeuvre carried out in combat must simple and based on standards. Communication in combat must be simple and standardized. The only way is practice. Over and over again.


Breaking point

I have not yet personally experienced losing control in combat. But I have had one soldier who in despair threw his rifle on the ground after one of my riflemen was hit by enemy fire.
Fear is a contagious disease capable of destroying units in short time. It is crucial for combat effectiveness that fear is not allowed to spread. Either get the solder to participate in the fighting at once or remove him.

However, we all have a breaking point. A soldier who failed to live up to standards in combat is not necessarily a bad soldier. Breaking is just a sign that we are humans reacting normally to extreme conditions. We all react to combat. There is no shame in it.

The way ahead is to accept it, talk about it, evaluate it and move on. However, if a soldier continuously reacts negatively to combat stress, consider removing him from the front line. Letting him stay in the unit would affect combat effectiveness and it would probably affect the soldier long term as well.


Training is the key to effectively functioning in combat

I have had my share of sleepless nights before combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have felt my legs shake after clearing compounds with hand grenades – but during combat our combat drills worked. Long hours of repetitions paid off:
I have never hesitated during battle. Neither has my unit.

Facts on pulse:

  • Maximum heart rate is determined by age and genetics. It is not possible to increase your maximum heart rate by training. You can calculate your theoretical max heart rate by deducting your age from 220.
  • Resting heart rate is typically between 60 and 100 bpm. People in good shape can have a heart rate of down to 40 bpm.

1 thought on “Overcoming fear in combat: How your pulse affects your ability to think rationally and make sound decisions.

  1. Dipak Patil

    Today I had dream of fight and I wake up in bad condition at 5.45 AM. I feel more insecure and I just switch on my PC and started browsing sites which talk about “how to remove combat fear”.
    Feel very lucky to be here. Now I feel more confidence. Thanks.


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