A critical incident is any experience you have in which you are suddenly put into danger, or thrown into a situation that involves very strong negative emotions such as fear. If you have been the victim of a violent crime, you’ve been through a critical incident. Critical incidents come in other ways, too. There’s the phone call informing you that your child has been hurt in an accident, or the “near miss” in an airplane or car.
Nature has equipped all of us with certain automatic reactions to situations like that. Understanding what is likely to happen to you, physically, mentally, and emotionally, is one of the best ways of preparing yourself to get through a critical incident with minimal damage.
Dr. Alexis Artwohl, a psychologist who interviews many police officers who have been through deadly force confrontations, is carefully compiling statistics on the perceptual distortions that occur during those incidents.
Her extensive research corroborates some long-held beliefs about the variety and prevalence of perceptual distortions, and it also documents some surprises.
Almost everyone experiences the three most common effects. Almost 90% of people do not hear what is going on around them at all, or hear things muffled, or hear things selectively. For example, you may hear what your assailant is saying to you, but not hear the voice of a police officer who just arrived on the scene. This is one reason why police are taught to yell commands so loudly and repeatedly.
Diminished hearing also accounts for the fact that most people cannot accurately tell how many shots they, or their assailant, fired. You won’t be wearing hearing protection when you get into a gunfight, so you might expect that your own gunfire will be terribly loud — in fact, you might hear muffled pops, or nothing at all!
Oddly, about 15% of people have the opposite experience. They report that sounds were intensified, seeming louder than they would normally be. This experience can be mixed with diminished hearing, so some people hear some sounds louder while others are suppressed — “selective hearing” that intensifies sounds related to the threat while filtering out irrelevant details.
Vision suffers too. You will be able to see the threat all right, but your normal peripheral vision will be gone. You won’t notice motion along the side of your field of vision; that means that you won’t necessarily see a police officer approaching, or a second assailant, or witnesses. You can be easily “blindsided” because you are so concentrated on the threat.
To minimize the effects of tunnel vision, train yourself to turn your whole head (not just your eyes) to the left and right after securing the threat.
Another aspect of tunnel vision is that you will miss objects that you would normally see. I once passed up a gun lying “in plain sight” on a table during a houseclearing exercise, because I was looking so hard for human-sized targets and places a person could hide that I simply didn’t perceive things as small as a gun. In similar exercises, shooters regularly blast away at targets seen to be holding a gun, completely missing the fact that the targets are holding a badge in the other hand! (For this reason, more and more police are being taught to hold their badge near their gun to identify themselves, instead of holding the badge up high or out to the side where it would be more visible to people not under the influence of tunnel vision.)
Another effect of stress on the visual system of many people, is that what tunnel vision doesn’t shut out, stress intensifies. Tiny details that one would normally not notice, or would not even be able to see, become crystal clear.
How many times have you heard an instructor say, “Practice carefully, because you will do under stress what you do in practice.” Well, it’s true. Nearly 80% of people under life-threatening stress report acting on “automatic pilot”, doing what was necessary to counter the threat without a lot of conscious thought.
Being in tremendous danger is a very bad time to start making a plan to survive, because your creative thinking skills, like your hearing and vision, are greatly diminished by stress. But, this is a very good time to carry out plans that have been thought out and rehearsed.
Don’t mistake this “automatic” action as being robot-like, or out of control. Quite the opposite. Instead, think of it as being like driving a car. If you are an experienced driver and a child runs out in front of your car, you will instantly step on the brake, without consciously thinking “There is about to be a collision, so I have to move my foot from the accelerator to the brake, and then press down.” If you have time for a conscious thought at all, it is likely to be something along the lines of, “Child! Stop!!”, and your foot will be on the brake to carry out the “stop” command.
If you are properly trained and practiced with your gun, and you find yourself in a situation where someone is trying to kill you, you may barely have time for the conscious thought “STOP him!!” before you find yourself drawing your gun to carry out that self-given command.
Three out of five people experience the sensation of seeing things happening in slow motion. Your heightened perceptions can use this “extra time” to assess the situation and to decide on a course of action. It may take, for example, only a tenth of a second for you to look at someone’s face and decide whether they are showing rage or surprise, but it might seem as if you stared at him for several seconds before coming to that conclusion.
The assailant’s actions may also seem to happen kuje a slow-motion video playback. The seconds might stretch like taffy as he reaches for his gun. (One in six has precisely the opposite experience — things seem to happen in “fast forward” mode.)
Some of the most interesting, and least understood, aspects of stress relate to what it does to your memory of events. More likely than not, you will forget some parts of the event, or some of your own actions. This cognitive dissonance may resolve itself in time (which is why you should wait at least a day before making any official statements about the incident), but some people have holes in their memory from which they never recover.
“He started coming toward me with the knife, and suddenly the gun was in my hand. I don’t remember drawing it.” is one example of this kind of memory loss.
Another kind of deficit might affect your memory of the event — you might remember the action as if it were a sequence of still photographs instead of a continuous whole. Like drawings in a flip-book, they can give you a sense of what happened, but you know a lot has been left out.
Fewer people, about 1 in 5, experience false memories. If this happens to you, you will be absolutely convinced that you heard, saw, said, or did something that in fact was not true!
One of the really scary things about these memory problems is that other people who were involved in the incident, such as witnesses, may experience them too. No wonder that investigating a shooting incident is such a challenge for law enforcement officers — many of them have not been trained to have an understanding of the source of these cognitive and perceptual discrepancies, so they may have a strong tendency to think that someone is lying, or being uncooperative.
The media is even less likely than police officers to understand these effects, and may leap on any inconsistency as evidence of wrongdoing, when it is actually only evidence of the incredible, life-threatening stress that the participants experienced.
So, what does all of this have to do with freezing up at the critical moment?
Why do so many women fear that they will react this way? If you’ve had the experience of being so startled by someone or something that you gasp and remain motionless for a moment, you might think that that motionless state will continue if you ever experience a full-fledged attack.
But if you are prepared and have a plan, you can easily break out of that “deer in the headlights” pose and ACT!
Now Dr. Artwohl’s study quantifies what I’ve been saying for a long time. Way down at the bottom of the list, “temporary paralysis” brings up the tail end of the perceptual distortion list. Only 12% of people actually experience this “freeze” response, and even for them, it is TEMPORARY.
“Actually, the percentage is probably even lower than that,” Dr. Artwohl said, “because when time seems to slow down, which it does for most people, it might seem that you can’t move normally, but it is just that you perceive yourself moving slowly.”
So, if you are afraid of freezing like that jack-lighted deer if you are ever assaulted, remember that it probably won’t happen. Aural and visual impairment, yes. Time distortion, yes. Memory loss or distortion, possibly. Paralysis, probably not.
And if it does seem to be happening, it is more likely to be the effect of distorted time perception than true paralysis. It will be temporary, and should not interfere with your ability to carry out the defensive actions needed to keep yourself alive.
Remember, you may be a dear, but you’re not a deer.
Percent of people Type of Perceptual Distortion 88% Diminished hearing 81% Tunnel vision 78% Automatic pilot 64% Time seems slowed down 66% Heightened visual clarity 63% Memory loss for some parts of the event 58% Memory loss for some of your own actions 49% Dissociation; detachment 34% Intrusive, irrelevant thoughts 21% Memory distortion (you "remember" things that did not actually happen) 15% Intensified sounds 15% Time seems speeded up 12% Temporary paralysis
Dr. Alexis Artwohl’s Perceptual Distortion Survey Results