Those in the military assigned to combat roles, or in some circumstances – law enforcement officers assigned to “hot” areas, experience stressful situations several times each day. Often those situations involve the use of a firearm where shots are fired, or there is a great potential that shots will be fired. When you live and work in those environments, you develop your own ways to function in times of stress and the potential of having to shoot someone.
This information may not apply directly to those people. This information is instead directed at those “ordinary” people who may be carrying a firearm for self-defense. In most cases, months, years, or decades may pass without them being in a potentially life or death situation. However, suddenly, and without much notice, the person carrying a concealed weapon may need to use that firearm to defend themselves or someone else.
Because they don’t deal with this kind of situation on a regular basis, they are more likely to have a greater reaction to the stress these situations bring. As a result, to be successful, these people need to have a better grasp of how these stressful situations impact their body, and how these impacts and reactions will affect their ability to defend themselves.
When the body is suddenly confronted with what it perceives as a life or death situation, several things physically happen to the body. These things are natural reactions to fear and the immediate threat of harm, they are hard-wired into our systems, and go back to the days when we had to get away from those saber-toothed tigers.
Think of yourself watching a scary movie – when the hand reaches out and grabs the hero – you jump. When you are walking down the stairs, and you slip and start to fall – you reach out and grab for the handrail to stop your fall. Now you can tell yourself the next time you are startled – you won’t jump. Or the next time you start to fall – you’ll just go with it…
But you know you that without a huge amount of training and effort, you can’t easily override your natural reactions to these events – and even then, you may only be able to lessen the reaction, and not eliminate it. The same thing goes for the chemical reactions triggered by your brain when you feel threatened – try telling your brain not to release adrenaline the next time you get really scared.
Chemicals released include norepinephrine and epinephrine. The hormones estrogen, testosterone and cortisol, and the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, are pumped into the bloodstream. These chemicals cause the body to react much differently than from “normal” training activities. The reactions are intended to help the body get through the next few minutes, to survive the encounter and get out of the threat area to a place of relative safety.
The body goes into a “flight or fight” mode – it gets ready to run away from the threat, or if that isn’t possible, to fight with as much strength as possible. The brain & body combine their resources to get through this, get to a place where we will be secure, and then we can hide, tend to our wounds and begin to recover from the incident.
Some common results:
- Constriction of small blood vessels in extremities – skin, small muscle groups, the reason for this is sound, and helpful in surviving a shooting situation
- prevent blood loss from injuries on arms & legs
- keep blood flow in central core priority areas – heart, lungs, brain
- blood allowed to large muscle groups – legs to run, upper arms to push & shove
- Loss of fine motor skills, especially in extremities, can be due to decreased blood flow
- Increased heart rate, respiration and blood pressure
- Decreased sensitivity to pain
- Tunnel attention – focusing on only those things directly in front of you, loss of peripheral vision
- Visual distortion – handgun pointed at you seems to look like a barrel from a battleship
- Heightened awareness – increased perception, increased focus on details
- Tachyphychia – altered perception of time, sense of things happening in slow motion
- Auditory occlusion – loud noises are quiet, gunshots sound like “pops”
- Voiding of bowel and/or bladder – body doesn’t want to retain waste products that could cause infection if lower torso is wounded
- The brain’s focus turns to survival – to get you through the situation. The brain’s tape recorder records everything, but you won’t be able to play it back clearly for 24-48 hours later – generally two sleep cycles. Understand the distortions in your memory are very normal when dealing with stressful situations. When you remember clearly that the gun that was pointed at you was at least three inches wide – you begin to have self-doubt. You very clearly remember the barrel being that big, but you also know there are no common handguns that have a barrel that size.
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