I’m a big fan of stress training. And when I say stress training, I mean a range of various training modes from light stress such as using a timer with people watching, to full-on adrenalized force-on-force with weapons, significant energetic verbal interaction, and additional special effects to simulate reality as close as possible.
Recently, there was a request from someone to actually talk more in depth on this topic, so here’s a brief discussion on the general concept:
Multiple studies over time have clearly shown that stress creates physiological changes in the human body that effect our abilities to perform physical and mental actions. The level of stress felt by the individual (which is NOT the same thing for all people in the same situation) can occur along a huge range, and thus can create physiological reactions that range from minor to (extremely!) major.
So, the First Statement of stress reactions and training: Nothing is an absolute.
What happens to a person physiologically depends on the perceived level of threat/stress, which is a function of immediacy, proximity, experience, and understanding of the situation. It can also be effected by duration of stress, but that isn’t something we normally consider much in terms of citizen self-defense situations, though it IS something that needs to be considered for people whose jobs involve repeated stress events like law enforcement, military (on deployment), fire fighters, and some other first responders. (Stress is cumulative and seems to be more geometric than additive. In other words, stress over time ramps up quickly.)
Second Statement of stress reactions and training: The most common physiological reactions felt by people under significant amounts of stress/adrenaline are, in no particular order: tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, time dilation, increased speed and strength, and a decrease of physical control and precision. (There are more, but those are the major ones.) After the event has occurred, the “crash” that accompanies the stress response cycle (not only the adrenalized feeling that still occurs afterward, but the body’s reaction to that adrenaline going away) sometimes includes inability to speak coherently, tendency to babble, inability to remember time sequences and events in a precise and correct manner, shaking, nausea, light-headedness, and shock.
An example of these first two statements in use: The first time a person is involved in a potential life-threatening self-defense situation (and realizes it), the stress is huge and crushing, and the person experiences significant tunnel vision, doesn’t hear anything around him, feels like he’s mired in mud and everything moves incredibly slowly, and his ability to do things seems stunted because he’s incredibly clumsy. Afterward, he is shaking and can’t stop himself from talking, and his recollection of the details of what happened and in what order are significantly different from a video recording of the event. He feels weak and sick to his stomach.
He then decides that this will never happen to him again. He takes training that includes stress-training and force-on-force.
He then gets into another life-threatening situation—but this time it is a car crash. The circumstances do not match what he has been training for. His stress level is significantly high, but the practice he has done has made him better at dealing with the physiological effects. He still feels them, but not quite to the same extent, and performs better (with a better ability to think and respond effectively) based on his experiences with stress.
Later in his life, he experiences another life-threatening self-defense situation. (He’s not having a good year.) Several things are in his favor: He recognizes the situational type of attack, and has trained for it, therefore his stress level is significantly lower. In addition, his training has prepared him for acting during high stress events. As such, not only does he have less tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, and self-discipline issues (the physiological reactions are significantly less serious), but his ability to handle said issues and react effectively is significantly better.
Afterward, he still feels some of the effects of the adrenal crash (though it is much less since he was less stressed than the first time this happened to him) however his ability to mitigate the affects is much better, AND his training tells him to shut up and not babble things that may not be correct.
For any person, the amount of stress that occurs is based on the perceived level of the situation—so the same situation may cause extremely different reactions in two different people with two different levels of training and experience. Reactions to stress are NOT absolutes, so if someone says “This WILL happen to you, you WON’T be able to do this other thing” then there is a problem, because it doesn’t happen that way.
Sure, if you are untrained, have no experience with stress and violence, and are taken by surprise, the stress levels you will feel will probably be such that your ability to respond will be close to nonexistent. But we train for a reason—and training both lowers perceived stress, and helps you handle the physiological reactions that occur.
So—sure, under stress you will want to stare at the attacker (or turn your head away completely), bring up your hands (perhaps in front of your face), and not pay attention to anything else. If you have no training, experience, or practice in dealing with stress, that’s probably exactly what you are going to do. (If you can do that much.) WITH practice, you CAN handle a firearm, aim using the sights, maintain situational awareness, move, and react effectively. Among other things.
Violence, stress, and physical reactions are not absolutes—and they aren’t simple things. The good thing is that you don’t need to be able to diagram the neural pathway and list the neurotransmitters engaged when stress stimulates the the hippocampus and amygdala… (which again, is a simplification of what occurs in your brain and body) …you can simply get good realistic training that increases your ability to handle stress, and then get training that realistically simulates self-defense situations to enable you to understand them—which will lower your perceived stress in self-defense situations. The combination of those things WILL make you more capable of doing what you need to do to keep yourself and your loved ones safe.
More to come in a later article regarding specifics of what you can do for “stress inoculation,” which is a commonly used term describing training that 1) increases your ability to control your body and deal with the reactions caused by stress in general, and 2) reduces perceived stress during altercations by adding experience with those situations.
Some additional reading, if you want more. The following is more phrased to apply to unarmed self-defense, but really is about all self-defense:
Marc MacYoung’s No Nonsense Self-Defense Page
(Warning: Marc has a unique writing style.)