Stress Reactions Normal Responses To Abnormal SituationsSituations involving tactical response options are stressful. Everyone involved will be experiencing the effects of stress, though the reactions will vary from person to person. Stress reactions can occur during and after the event, either as ‘after shocks’ or in situations that trigger memories of the event.

Fear and pain are positive instincts designed to assist us to survive. Pain tells us that something is wrong in our bodies; however, we can feel pain without ‘suffering’ – the negative mental state we create in response to pain. Likewise, fear is an instinctive wakeup call that we are in severe danger, a positive message that can spur us to incredible acts of strength, speed and determination to survive. Worry, the negative emotion, is the fear we manufacture, and it serves us no good at all. Worry will not bring solutions, but it is more likely to distract us from finding solutions.

The stress response is built in to our physical and psychological makeup to protect us, but we can adopt strategies to adapt to it. Understanding how the body and mind change under stress is critical for correct preparation to survive and thrive in the toxic environment that is violence.


Vasoconstriction is when the blood vessels constrict or narrow. This can occur in response to physical stressors, such as cold, which cause the capillaries in your fingers and toes to constrict so you do not lose heat through your extremities. The end result is your skin turns white as the blood retreats towards the body’s core. It can also occur under stress. At low levels of vasoconstriction, only the little capillaries shut down, causing some loss of fine motor skills. As vasoconstriction becomes more intense, blood flow to the complex motor muscles begins to shut down. The blood pools in the body’s core and large muscle groups, causing your blood pressure to increase. The outer layer of your body becomes almost a layer of armour and, as long as an artery is not hit, you can take extensive damage without much blood loss. This appears to be a survival mechanism intended to limit blood loss in a combat situation. The price, however, is a loss of motor control, because when the muscles stop getting blood, they stop working. Eventually, there is a backlash, called vasodilation, where the veins go wide open and often the hands and face go red as the blood flows back to the extremities. If the officer has sustained wounds during the confrontation, these may start bleeding due to vasodilation.

Loss of Near Vision

In a heart-pounding situation, the loss of fine motor skills and near vision makes it mandatory to drill those things that seem simple when you are calm and collected. With loss of near vision, officers may not be able to see their firearm sights. Rather than focus exclusively on aimed or reactive shooting, the best solution is to probably use a combination of both. When you have time and distance, use the sights, but at extreme close ranges there may be value in reactive shooting. Use breathing to control heart rate and maintain vision. Use the acronym BRASS: breathe, relax, aim, sight, squeeze.

Auditory Exclusion

Our brains must constantly tune out sensory data or be overwhelmed. In extreme stress situations, this screening process can be even more intense, as we tune out all senses except those needed for survival. Usually that one sense is vision, but in low-light conditions the ears can turn ‘on’ and the eyes turn ‘off’, as the combatants hear the gunshot but tune out the less salient muzzle flashes. Most of auditory exclusion (like tunnel vision) is a matter of cortical perception. The ears still hear and the eyes still see, but as it focuses on the survival mission, the cortex of the brain is screening out awareness of what it deems insignificant to the goal, and the goal is survival. Research indicates that the ear can also physically shut out loud sounds, just as the eyelid can shut out bright lights. It would appear that this biomechanical shut down in the ear can occur in a millisecond in response to sudden, loud noises. First, there is a form of auditory ‘tunnel vision’ in which specific sounds are tuned out under high stress, then there is a form of auditory ‘blink’ in which loud noises are physically and mechanically muted or silenced for a brief moment. There is not even the usual ringing in the ears afterward. This auditory blink can be roughly broken down into three types:

  • One response, which appears to happen at lower levels of arousal (Condition Yellow) is to soften or shut down the sounds of your shots (which, at some level, are anticipated), while the sounds of someone shooting next to you can be deafening.
  • Another response, which seems to occur under extreme stress situations (Condition Black), is to shut out all sounds so that you do not remember hearing anything afterward. The greater the stress, the more powerful this effect. This is not an aural blink, but rather the auditory equivalent of squeezing your eyes shut until the threat goes away. This is associated with exceptional stress, extreme heart rates and intense physiological arousal.
  • A third response, which is probably the most common, occurs when you shut out all gunshots, but you hear everything else. This appears to be a Condition Red response, in which your body is capable of biomechanically shutting down your ear in a millisecond in response to the leading edge of the shock wave of a gunshot, and then reopening immediately so you hear everything else around you.

Intensified Sounds

Whilst many officers experience diminished sound under stress, some report having intensified sound. This most often occurs in low-light conditions, where the brain chooses to ‘shut down’ the eyes and ‘turn on’ the ears as it focuses on salient stimulus, which in the dark is sound. Sometimes the brain transitions back and forth between visual and audio, depending on which sense it feels it needs the most at a given moment.

Sensory Exclusion

Often, officers are not immediately aware of injuries sustained during a violent confrontation, because during the stressful event the sense of pain is shut down. It is not until after the event and when the stress and adrenaline have subsided that the pain threshold lowers and you experience the trauma received.

Sensory Overload

If the brain receives too much input from too many stimuli at the same time, it can cause sensory overload. When all five senses simultaneously send an emergency message to the brain, the overloaded brain responds with ‘tilt, reboot’. This is the concept behind diversionary devices such as a flashbang. Officers that carry a firearm also possess a flashbang… when you press the trigger, it flashes and goes bang. Firearms are a psychologically daunting device. In a violent confrontation, if the subject fires first, the officer begins the engagement on the receiving end of a flashbang. Proper mindset and realistic training to develop autopilot responses can help overcome this problem.

Tunnel Vision

Tunnel vision is sometimes referred to as perceptual narrowing. Under extreme stress, such as occurs in a shooting, the area of visual focus narrows as if you were viewing the situation through a tube. Tunnel vision, along with auditory exclusion and a host of other perceptual distortions, is commonly associated with the high levels of anxiety normally present in everyone involved in a violent confrontation. In most cases, the same thing is happening to the subject. To take advantage of his visual distortion, sidestep quickly so that you, in effect, disappear from his view. To visually reacquire you, the subject has to blink, draw back and move his head in your direction. This can buy critical moments. Officers can break out of tunnel vision by scanning and breathing after discharging the firearm. If officers are trained to scan and breathe on the range every time after every engagement, the procedure soon becomes a valuable and automatic conditioned response.

Visual Clarity

Scientific research and volumes of anecdotal evidence indicate that in many shooting situations there is a sudden visual clarity, an incredible moment when the body dedicates all its resources to get maximum value out of the eyes. Like many combat stress responses, the visual clarity effect can make it possible for the human body to do things that we previously would not have believed possible.

Slow-Motion Time

There are numerous case studies of officers who found slow-motion time so powerful that they were able to see bullets pass by them. On several occasions, they were able to validate what they perceived by pointing to where the rounds had hit. They were not implying that bullets moved by them at a crawling pace; what they meant was that the rounds passed by the same way that low velocity non-lethal training ammunition (NLTA) can be seen going past. While slow-motion time can be a survival mechanism, it frequently comes with baggage. It often happens in Condition Black and is accompanied by an extremely elevated heart rate and loss of fine and complex motor control.

Scared Speechless

Speech is a fine motor skill, and the voice is one of the first places to observe stress in most people. This appears to happen as a result of the vasoconstriction effects of Condition Red shutting down the fine-motor control of the larynx. Unless officers have been properly trained, it is quite easy for them to experience a profound breakdown of speaking ability and, in Condition Black, may literally be scared speechless when operating at extreme levels of stress. However, officers can partially transcend these limitations through training. Like most fine-motor skills, pre-rehearsal of what to say ahead of time increases the likelihood that the skill will exist at the moment of truth when operating in Condition Red. Officers are trained to verbalise repetitively in a variety of training scenarios typical of what they encounter on the job. It is because they train to use verbal commands in high-stress situations that they are able to use them when needed. Drilling specific verbal commands dramatically increases the likelihood that at the moment of truth those commands will be available under stress.

Temporary Paralysis

This paralysis, sometimes referred to as freezing, is a phenomenon that is clearly not a survival mechanism. Freezing does happen sometimes in combat but, in some cases, we know that those who think they are experiencing temporary paralysis are actually experiencing slow-motion time. The problem is that there are officers experiencing temporary paralysis and slow-motion time during violent encounters, but no one has warned them that it might happen. Suddenly, they cannot move their legs and they panic. They think they are paralysed.

Intrusive/Distracting Thoughts

Many officers in violent encounters had thoughts that were truly intrusive and distracting during their shootings. Often, the intrusive thoughts were bizarre. In the heat of battle, many officers think of their family. These intrusive thoughts are not always distracting; sometimes they can serve as an inspiration or motivation. It is useful for officers to develop positive self-talk, the most important of which is, ‘I will survive and keep going, no matter what’. These are the kind of intrusive thoughts that you must program into your mind to survive in combat.


During high-threat situations, officers may experience a strange sense of detachment, as if the event were a dream, or they were looking at themselves from outside their body, going from that moment of intense awareness of fear, to feeling almost nothing as they focus only on staying alive. Afterward, when they snap back to reality, it will seem as if the event took place in the Twilight Zone. Even hours later, they may have difficulty accepting that it happened, as if some part of them is still in denial that it could really happen to them. However, initial conclusions from stress studies of soldiers indicate that dissociation may be associated with less effective performance in combat and a predisposition to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after combat. Data indicates that dissociation and slow-motion time often occur together in combat situations, and that they may represent a powerful Condition Black response, indicative of extreme high levels of arousal, that may predispose someone toward a post-traumatic response.

Memory Loss

Nearly half of all officers involved in deadly force encounters experienced significant chunks of memory loss from their event. It is common for there to be some degree of memory loss in a deadly encounter, especially when the heart rate reaches the realm of Condition Black. This is a phenomenon termed critical incident amnesia. Interestingly, if officers fire only one to two shots, they usually remember the number. But as the number increases, there is a tendency to forget how many they shot, or they underestimate the number. It is common within the first 24 hours to recall roughly 30 percent of the occurrence, 50 percent after 48 hours and 75–95 percent after 72–100 hours. This is why it is important to interview officers of a critical incident again after they have gotten one or more nights of quality sleep.

Memory Distortion

When under great stress, officers may envision their worst fear and they see it so clearly in their mind that they are absolutely convinced it really happened. Sometimes people remember what actually happened, and what they envisioned as happening, creating what is referred to as a ‘parallel worlds’ effect. Children are not usually good witnesses, so great caution must be exercised when there is no other choice but to use them. Until a child is about nine years old, they are incredibly suggestible; there is only a small difference between the real world and fantasy. Is it so hard to believe that the mind of a frightened adult might, under great stress, be just as malleable as a child’s? In combat situations, people often envision possibilities and sometimes those possibilities become reality in their minds. And seldom do they envision positive things occurring when people are trying to kill them and others.


A normal, rational human being will make rational, logical decisions, taking into account various factors and examining different possibilities. Under stress, the midbrain takes over and people can get trapped in an endless ‘do-loop’, repeating actions over and over. This is called tactical fixation. We fixate on the current action and do not consider other possibilities. This is probably a survival mechanism left over from our prehistoric ancestors. Today, we use precision instruments in violent engagements. At a distance of just a few feet, a 1/8” variance in the barrel of a firearm can make the difference between a hit and a miss. We need precision control. The rule is do not fire any faster than you can hit the target. But there is a tendency, upon occasion, for officers to fire faster than they can hit. When in a deadly struggle, it is not uncommon for an officer to fire as fast and long as he can until the target goes away. The solution to increasing the hit rate with fewer rounds fired is force-on-force training that provides stress inoculation with marking capsules. There is solid evidence to believe that the problem of multiple shots with few hits is partly the result of a fear-induced stress response. The solution, therefore, is to inoculate against the stressor to prevent or reduce the fear. There is a powerful obligation to participate in this type of realistic training.

So, what can you do about stress?

Officers should accept in advance that they will feel fear, but they can still perform during stress situations. Recognise stress reactions and consciously adapt to these rather than fight against them; consciously slow down and resist the urge to rush. The best option to control the adverse effects of stress is tactical breathing, which reduces the heart rate, and once heart rate lowers the stress response diminishes, motor skills can be employed more effectively and rational thinking becomes easier.

Under stress, the brain resorts to instinct. To overcome adverse reactions, realistic, appropriate and regular training combined with proper attitude and awareness is essential. Strategies for operating effectively under stress include:

  • control breathing
  • keep responses simple
  • understand the physiological and psychological effects of stress
  • assess before acting or reacting
  • avoid sleep deprivation behaviour
  • have realistic expectations of operational risk
  • inoculate against stress – train for reality

As you adopt strategies, they should be tested under stress to see if they will work under realistic conditions similar to those you will face on the job. If you do not train this way, chances are you will not be prepared for the reality of a violent confrontation. Personal safety is personal responsibility. The important thing to remember is that these are normal reactions experienced by everybody.

Richard Kay
Richard Kay is an internationally certified tactical instructor-trainer, director and senior trainer of Modern Combatives, a provider of operational safety training for the public safety sector.