One of the things that I’ve focused on for the last several years is controlling brain state and chemistry under extreme stress.
In a life or death situation, an unregulated fight or flight response will hurt your ability to see, think, hear, use your fingers, and more.
If you can regulate your fight or flight response so that you get the optimum arousal level (optimum levels of adrenaline, noradrenaline, endorphins, cortisol, etc.), you’re much more likely to be able to keep a cool head and perform better in life or death situations.
When you get into a situation that your brain thinks is a life or death situation, you have the ability to view it through a lens. Sometimes, with a lens, you can move it so that it magnifies the image. Your brain does the same thing. It can make a situation seem much worse than it is and over-react.
If you move that same lens, if you move it, you can cause the image to appear much smaller than it really is. Your brain can do this too, and allow you to stay calm in a very stressful situation.
A lot of people don’t know how to control their responses to stressful situations. Others have head knowledge about how to control their mind in extreme stress situations but aren’t exposed to controlled stress often enough to develop the skill.
It’s similar to factually knowing how to throw a pass when your offensive line is falling apart and 900 pounds of defensive linemen are racing at you and actually being able to do it in the Super Bowl. Knowing how to do something is great. Actually being able to do it under extreme stress takes some practice.
So how do you go about controlling your response to stress? More specifically, what can you do in your own home now that will help you during a sympathetic fight or flight stress response?
Each of these can be used to monitor the body’s response to stress and help you to learn how to calm your limbic system so it won’t over-react to stress.
So, what else can you practice over winter to improve your ability to perform at a high level under stress?
There are some stress modulation techniques you can do at home that are pretty deep and beyond the scope of an interview, but I can give you a couple of quick strategies. These aren’t what I’d call “normal” and I wouldn’t suggest them for most shooters. They’re not necessary, but if you’re interested in the stress aspects of defensive shooting, they’re worth exploring.
First, breathing is one of the most straightforward ways we have of controlling the autonomic nervous system to calm the mind/body in a stressful situation. When we have a sympathetic response to stress, our breathing speeds up. In turn, we can calm a sympathetic stress response with slow breathing or “combat” breathing.
Ideally, you’re going to want to breathe between four and seven times per minute if you’re trying to calm yourself. Step one is to use a metronome or breathing app on your phone to get used to what that pace feels like. Step two is to practice breathing at that pace when you feel stressed. The HeartMath app and HRV monitor are great for this.
Start to notice that when you’re stressed, you’re not breathing at all or very shallow!
When I’m really amped up and can feel my heartbeat, I’ll count heartbeats to determine my breathing pace. Sometimes I breathe in for six beats and out for eleven. Other times I’ll breathe in for six, hold for six, breathe out for six, and hold for four.
When I’m running, I’ll use steps instead of heartbeats to drive my breathing pace.
The cool thing about this is that the more you do it, the quicker your body responds and the more dramatic the response.
I use a few different techniques besides breathing. One of them is progressive muscle relaxation…relaxing from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet. Another is staring at fire or water and letting my mind wander. Another is the Insight Deadly Accuracy training. Some of the methods I use are fairly controversial and very misunderstood by the general public, so I’ll just leave you with those for today.
The more you take time to calm your limbic system, the more resilient it will be to stress. You will still react to stress, but you won’t over-react as much.
Once you’ve practiced calming yourself in low stress and no-stress situations, it’s time to start gradually introducing increasing levels of stress and training your mind to stay calmer in stressful situations.
One simple tool that I use to induce stress on a regular basis is cold water. A lot of people can’t do this because of heart issues, so check with your doctor. I stand under the water in my shower with it set hot, but comfortable. Then I flip the water to all-cold. I’ll get an initial shock reaction to the water, but I’ve conditioned myself to immediately start slow calm breathing.
A second tool that I use to induce stress is one that I learned from the Bradley method of natural childbirth. What you do is squeeze or press pressure points to the point of pain and then learn to relax and breathe through the pain.
Third, I will breathe all the way out, hold my breath, do a short set of pushups, stand up, and start doing dry fire reps until my mind/lungs start to panic/spasm…then hold for another five, 10, or 20 counts. This is a very basic skill for free diving and it’s an effective tool for conditioning your mind to stay calm and in control when it wants to freak out and panic.
Fourth is an extreme technique. I will use a remote control dog shock collar on my upper arm, calf, or belly and practice getting zapped and then immediately drawing and engaging precision targets with a laser pistol or airsoft (not live fire). This helps with both controlling anticipatory stress and quickly calming yourself after a stress response. This technique can build people up or tear them down, depending on whether or not you use the right intensity. Don’t increase intensity too fast.
On that note, I’ve also used Tasers and stun guns for this and I don’t suggest it. A dog shock collar still more extreme than what’s necessary for most, but is way more controllable and more effective from a learning/teaching perspective.
It’s important to remember that, to a large extent, just the discipline of calming your mind regularly will tone the limbic system and make it more resilient to stress. The stress testing definitely helps, but if that’s not your cup of tea, don’t think you have to do it.
Once you’ve figured out a breathing pace that predictably relaxes you, start using it every time you shoot. As you’re getting ready to shoot, simply relax your shoulders, relax your jaw and facial muscles, and drop into that slow steady breathing pattern and it will help keep you out of fight or flight or calm your fight or flight response so that you’ll have enough extra adrenaline to perform better but not so much that it sabotages performance.
What else can you do? You can use eating peppers that are hotter than what’s comfortable for you, competition shooting, public speaking, or anything else (including exposure to phobias) that causes a stress response for you.
Think about this article and analyze your performance or behavior during past situations. Learn more from our firearms training team at Gunshots Academy in Inland Empire.