Whether you found us because of a desire to be more prepared or to shoot better, there’s a good chance that you’re like the rest of our audience and would love to know how to perform better in extreme stress.
It could be reacting to a family member having a life threatening emergency, responding to a natural or manmade disaster, stopping a lethal force threat, or everyday life challenges.
Through the years, I’ve encountered high stress situations where I’ve frozen with indecision. Fortunately, I have always “snapped out of it” quickly and taken positive action. I haven’t always made perfect decisions—everyone makes mistakes that are easy to see with the eyes of a Monday morning quarterback—but I’ve made mostly good decisions.
But this has led me to dig into why some people freeze under stress, some people make bad decisions under stress, and some people thrive under stress.
When learning to drive, I wondered how I’d handle different emergency situations. When learning to fight, I wondered how I’d handle different surprise attacks at full speed. When learning medical skills, I wondered how I’d handle someone with a critical injury. When learning combative shooting, I wondered how I’d handle myself in a gunfight. You’re probably the same way. You always wonder how you’ll perform “when it counts” until after the first time it actually does…then you’ll wonder how you can do it better the next time.
It’s important to ask why different people with the same training, using the same technique, perform SO differently when the fit hits the shan? Traditional wisdom says that your fine and complex motor skills will disappear under extreme stress, but personal experience and the experience of many people that I’ve known and people I’ve studied have shown me that it’s not a black/white, all/nothing issue.
This has been top-of-mind for me lately as I’ve dealt with several rabid “haters” who say that using the slide stop on a pistol during a tactical reload is a fine motor skill and will always fail under extreme stress. I have too many friends who have been in combat who have made it work, and this led me to dig into why some people can do fine motor skills and complex motor skills under stress and others can’t.
There’s a saying that “In a life or death situation, you won’t rise to the occasion…you’ll perform at half the level that you do in training.” But that’s not always true. Some people DO rise to the occasion. They’re “clutch players.” They’re unflappable and perform no matter what. The question becomes, what factors dictate high stress performance and how can we control them and use them to our advantage?
The following is a work in progress and open to input, but it is an equation that attempts to quantify what is needed to perform under extreme stress:
Performance=(inoculation+state control+fitness level) x (familiarity+myelination) x (comfort with unknown+decision making) If math’s not your thing and your brain just froze, keep reading…in simplest terms, the better each of these factors are, the better you’ll perform under stress.
At the risk of turning this into a book, I’m going to cover each of these briefly. I encourage you to self-assess in each of these areas and see how you can increase the chances that you will perform at a high level under stress.
A point of note to the vast majority who aren’t math nerds. Each group of factors within parentheses are related. Theoretically, as long as at least one of them is not zero, you’ll be able to perform the skill to some degree under stress. This is not hard-and-fast and I covet input on how to refine it.
With that, let’s get into each of the factors:
Successful past stress inoculation: Simply put, you’ll perform better in situations that you’ve been in before. I find that, in shooting defined stages or courses of fire, I perform 20-30% faster the 2nd time I shoot the course of fire than the first time. I noticed the same phenomenon in sports, fighting, dealing with emergency trauma and medical situations, driving emergencies, and more and I’m betting that you can think of several personal examples from your own life.
On lethal force encounters in particular, Ken Murray, co-founder of Simunitions, has found that officers and soldiers are working out the kinks until about the 3rd successful and justified lethal force encounter. That being said, the ramp-up is much faster and easier for someone who has been gradually exposed to stress inoculation while mastering their craft than someone who has done all of their practice in a stress free environment.
Retired Navy SEAL, Larry Yatch, has had similar findings. He’s found that, in general, stress shooting performance is maximized with a mix of 80% dry fire, 10% live fire, and 10% force on force with simunition, UTM, or paint ball training.
Regardless of the situation, the more successful exposures you’ve had to similar situations, the lower your heart rate will be, the less adrenaline and cortisol your body will release, the clearer your thinking, and the more in control you’ll be the next time you’re in a similar situation.
I recently heard an officer talking about his first lethal force encounter. One of the comments that he made was that it wasn’t really the first time that he successfully stopped a lethal threat with a firearm. He’d mentally rehearsed the scenario hundreds of times before and nothing about the scenario surprised him when it was happening in real life.
Next is State Control, which is worthy of it’s own article. Comment below if you want me to go into more detail on this. If there’s enough demand, I’d love to.
In short, I’m calling state control the ability to control the state of your mind in situations where others aren’t or can’t. When you can stay cool, calm, and collected and have ice running through your veins, you can perform at levels much closer to how you perform in practice than having everything fall apart. Is it easy? No. Is it possible? Absolutely…as evidenced by the feats that brain surgeons, neuro surgeons, trauma surgeons, combat medics, and warriors throughout the ages have been able to accomplish in “impossible” conditions.
Here’s where the rubber meets the road. Let’s say that you’re violently surprised and have an adrenal response. The initial release of adrenaline, which you probably can’t control, will happen subconsciously in less than 1/100th of a second. Someone without state control will keep releasing adrenaline…both draining their adrenals and seriously compromising their ability to perform fine and complex motor skills and perform higher level thinking. But someone who does have state control can quickly slow the flow of adrenaline. The quicker they do it, the more likely they’ll have an optimal amount of adrenaline in their system that doesn’t rob them of performance. Also, since adrenaline has a half-life of approximately 90 seconds, the quicker you stop the release, the quicker you’ll be back to a “normal” state and the less of an “adrenaline hangover” you’ll have.
The factors that I’ve identified that make up state control include the following:
Inner compass (which is complex, but for me includes my Christian beliefs, belief that my life is worth defending with whatever force is necessary to insure that my wife has a husband and my sons have a father at the end of the day, and belief that innocent people should be protected from evil people). Matt & Sherrie Seibert (see here ) have come up with the best process that I’ve ever seen to get people to internalize the fact that it’s OK for good people to do bad things to bad people who are in the process of committing evil acts.
Nutrition, hydration, and sleep. Pretty self-explanatory. A deficiency in any of these makes it hard to respond to stress effectively and remain in control.
Brain chemistry and hormone levels. There’s a lot of crossover here with nutrition, hydration, and sleep, but I feel that they’re worth separating out. Ironically, when people’s adrenals are fatigued, they’re more likely to “go straight to 11” rather than having a measured response.
Unconscious mind/flow state/the zone. High performers and extreme athletes are all familiar with and constantly seek flow state and/or the zone. It’s a state of mind where the unconscious mind does most of the driving, time appears to slow down, balls/hoops/targets seem to get bigger, the body relaxes, Alpha waves in the brain increase, creativity flourishes, and amazing things happen.
Next time you see a musician doing independent motions with their right and left hands AND right and left feet AND singing, this is what’s going on. What they’re doing is completely impossible to do consciously and must be driven unconsciously or by the subconscious mind.
For most people, this is a fleeting state that happens outside of their control without rhyme or reason. They think that some people “have it” and some don’t. That’s simply not true. This kind of performance is amazingly normal and you can trigger it on command and at will with >this training<
Will Power, confidence. Again, there’s a lot of crossover with these and other factors, but I’m pointing them out because they can be easily be influenced in yourself and in others.
Pain/injury level. This is a tough one to place in the equation. I view pain and injury somewhat differently than most. It’s been incorporated into a few trainings and courses that friends of mine have put out, so you may be familiar with it already. In short, I view pain/injury as a constant that the mind acts like a lens on. The mind can use this lens to cause the pain/injury have more or less of an effect on mental and physical performance. There are definite limitations to this, but the discipline/skill of being able to minimize the effects of pain is very valuable.
One person can get a paper cut, see their own blood, and become completely frozen and ineffective. Another can be unfazed by life threatening wounds.
Pain and injury can be distracting and take mental resources away from performing a needed task at a high level in a stressful situation.
Fitness level. In general, the more fit a person is, the better they’ll be able to deal with a stressful situation. Add to that the fact that if the stressful situation requires dynamic movement, the exertion will be less stressful if you’re fit than if you’re not.
Familiarity of the task at hand. Most people remember a time when they drove around a corner and their rear wheels lost traction. Instinct is to turn away from the skid, but the right move is almost always to turn the front wheels into (towards) the direction that you’re skidding. The more times you’re exposed to this situation and have successful outcomes, the quicker you’ll respond and less stressful it will be in the future.
Thickness of the myelin sheaths around the neural pathways for the task at hand. This sounds more complicated than it is. Practice something over and over the same way and you’ll develop neural pathways (muscle memory). Keep doing it and you’ll develop a fatty (cholesterol) sheath around the neural pathways that partially insulate the neural pathway from the performance robbing effects of adrenaline and cortisol. In other words, practice something until it’s boring and you’ll be able to do it under stress better…regardless of whether it’s a gross, fine, or complex motor skill. Why?
This is overly simplified, but it’s like running a maze in the dark, blindfolded. If you’ve done it so few times that you have to think about the process, it’s going to be a long and painful experience. But, if you’ve done it enough times…first slowly in the light, then speeding up, then gradually taking away the light…then you no longer have to consciously drive the process. The process is a conditioned response that you simply make the decision to start and the unconscious mind automatically fires off all of the neurons necessary to take you through the process and to the desired finish.
Comfort with the unknown and the ability to boldly make decisions. Also called “paralysis by analysis”, these are factors that are hard to quantify, but I’ve definitely seen them play a role in performance under stress. Fortunately, once you make the choice to start looking for opportunities to improve in these areas, your mind will start spotting them—then it’s just a matter of disciplining yourself to make educated choices when the outcome is stacked in your favor but not guaranteed.
Again, the equation I shared is not a hard and fast guideline and the factors I mentioned probably aren’t the only ones to consider, but if you honestly assess yourself in each of these areas and pick one or two at a time to work on, you’ll quickly see that your ability to react positively to stressful situations improves.
Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Additions? PLEASE share them by commenting below. I am a brain and body hacker who’s been focused on squeezing maximum performance out of an average body for more than 20 years, but I’m no pedigree and I always seek out and appreciate wisdom from those who know more than me. -Ox out.