It is paramount to our level of competency as armed or unarmed protectors of ourselves and community, that we understand how our body and mind work under the stress of a life threatening situation. Unfortunately, we will never fully be able to train under these conditions, even in the highest level of military training we cannot fully simulate a combat environment. However, we can create the physiological conditions that mimic these events. We do this by purposefully inducing stress. This is a key component of the evolutions taught in well executed training courses.
We must first understand the basics of our craft, marksmanship, close-quarter defense, evasion and self defense. Then we can go into the decision making process and contingency situations to analyze how our actions affect the overall outcome of a threatening situation. We then must train these fundamentals and processes under stress. What can be seen when our heart rate reaches certain levels is that the things we relied on, such as our fine motor skills and quick decision making abilities, are hindered the higher our stress goes. In this case of most training courses, we are measuring stressors as heart rate and external pressure from instructors/ourselves. These all show themselves physically as a buildup of carbon dioxide in the blood. Even if we cannot recreate being in a gunfight, or having our children in danger, our brains typically cannot differentiate between physical and mental stress, and the reaction is the same.
The most effective way to induce this environment in our bodies is through physical work, which is the reason training days often culminate in a “stress shoot” or sparring. This is where we can utilize physical activity such as running or carrying sandbags to create fatigue, then we seek to perform a task such as shooting or self defense. The results are typically dependent on understanding of the fundamentals, and the ability to tolerate stress in order to implement those fundamentals properly.
We will never perform these tasks we train on in a comfortable environment internally or externally. These are skills used to deal with life threatening situations. We fail ourselves if we do not train under stress.
So how do we learn to deal with the stress of these scenarios (fear, adrenaline, heart rate, etc.)? Here are a few ways:
This is the single most important tool we have to modulate the effect stressful situations have on our bodies. Mental and physically induced stress causes a buildup of carbon dioxide in our bodies. This increases our desire to breathe and turns on our sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight, or freeze). This process is exactly what hinders our motor skills and decision making abilities. There is a wealth of research on the science of breathing and we could go deep down the rabbit hole, but here are a few tips.
Breath through your nose as much as possible, and as slow as possible. This is sending a signal to your body that you are not under stress, as stress breathing occurs through the mouth to get more oxygen and turns on our anaerobic energy system. This energy system does not last nearly as long as our aerobic energy system. Think sprinting (anaerobic) vs jogging (aerobic).
Extend the exhale. This allows you to let out more carbon dioxide, the primary stress molecule and is the fastest way to bring your heartrate back down. The lower your heart rate, the better your body and mind works.
Breath properly. Not in your chest, not with an extended gut, but with your diaphragm, where the major movement can be seen in the lower ribs. This is how we were designed to breath, and also stimulates the vagal nerve which brings us out of the fight/flight/freeze reaction.
Our level of physical fitness will determine the amount of time and level of intensity it takes for us to reach a state of hindered performance. In other words, if you are out of shape, you will lose the abilities that you trained for sooner. Your decision making will suffer, and your marksmanship or defense tactics will suffer.
Raising your tolerance to stress will help you not only in life/death scenarios but in your everyday dealings with work/family etc.
Inevitably, if we are in a situation where our children or loved ones are in serious danger for example, we will receive an adrenaline dump that will block our rational thinking and have us reacting to emotion. This can be dangerous, and is the reason why we go through scenarios in our training. It is very important to repeatedly go through how you want yourself to react and feel during these situations. Whether that is protecting your home or business, or making sure you get home safely walking in the night.
When we cannot practice in our homes or in the real world, visualization is the most effective tool we have. We can rehearse and rehearse in our minds until it feels real, these are repetitions stored within us for later use. The goal here is that when someone breaks into your house, or confronts you at the grocery store, you have already been through this encounter, and can act on instinct when adrenaline is running wild. This instinct will be based on thought out, rational solutions vs. an emotional reaction.
What I mean by situational preparation is how we carry or store our gear/tools. If you are running a stress shoot on the range and your gear is flopping all over, you will notice right away the added stress and difficulty that adds. This will force you to come back better prepared for the next run, making sure things are tight and in the right place. If you plan on using a firearm in your house, or a flashlight/mace when walking at night, you need to have those tools in a place where you can get to them easily, and you must have rehearsed this as well. If you are confronted with a threatening situation and you are struggling to get these tools into operation, you are only adding stress and lowering your threshold to deal with whatever is going on properly.
Train as you fight, so you can fight as you train.
This article is courtesy of the Defensive Strategies Group.
Pearce Cucchissi is a former Army Ranger and is currently a lead instructor with Defense Strategies Group. Pearce completed multiple cycles of training and combat deployments throughout the Middle-East and has extensive knowledge in tactics, firearms, marksmanship, close-quarters combat, self-defense, executive protection, breaching, reconnaissance and surveillance, evasive driving, and air operations. Pearce has worked with all branches of US Special Operations and government agencies and has vast experience training and advising foreign government units overseas. Pearce lives in Los Angeles and has a business degree from Loyola Marymount University.