How Not to Freak Out in A Gunfight

How will you react in gunfight? Will you react? Forget the “fight or flight” response. It’s fight, flight or freeze. Yes, it’s entirely possible that you’ll do nothing whatsoever when confronted with life-threatening danger. Your body will be flooded with adrenalin, your heart will race, your blood will flow away from your extremities, your breathing will become rapid and shallow and you’ll be frozen on the spot. Paralyzed by indecision. Welcome to your gunfighting nightmare. Mine too. Luckily for both of us I used to be a hypnotist.

True story: I spent ten years of my life putting thousands of people into a trance state. During that time I learned a great deal about the power of psychological rehearsal, especially when it’s done in a highly relaxed mental state. And the solution to the problem of thinking clearly and acting quickly in a gunfight has nothing to do with it.

“Creative visualisation” is a wonderful tool. It creates neurological pathways in your brain that you can access during a crisis. But the chances are you won’t. In a high stress event, you’ll probably forget your own name, never mind your plan for armed self-defense. No really. Check out this piece of self-defense advice from learnaboutguns.com:

A safe-room should have minimal items staged inside where they can be easily accessed if needed. Some of those items may sound simple now but invaluable if/when a threat is trying to access their safe-room to cause those on the inside harm. Simple items include: Cell phone, flashlight, pepper spray (if legal in your state), spare keys, flashcard with name, phone number and address on it.

Flashcard: the flashcard is there to aid the occupants when they are calling the 911 operator when they are frantic. In the event the occupants are so frantic that they forget their own address or name, they have the flashcard there to assist with the information.

For the record, I think a 12-gauge semi-automatic shotgun counts as a “minimal item” for a well-equipped safe room. Anyway, if Mark Leclair of smartweaponstactics.com says you need a cue card to remember your name and address when under attack, you can bet you’re going to be mentally challenged during said assault. At the exact moment you should be making strategic decisions based on rational thought, you won’t.

The Incredible Importance of Breathing

The fight or fight response is a feedback loop. Adrenalin makes the heart race, which requires more oxygen, which requires faster breathing, which make the heart race even faster, which requires faster breathing, etc. Add in additional stress stimuli, such as the glint of a knife headed in your direction (your irises are wide open), and you accelerate the loop.

The loss of cognition described above is a simple matter of body chemistry. The major mental effects tied to the “fight or flight” response are caused by changes in your blood chemistry. As Wikipedia reports, over-oxygenated blood is not the problem.

Counterintuitively, [hyperventilation’s effects] are not precipitated by the sufferer’s lack of oxygen or air. Rather, the hyperventilation itself reduces the carbon dioxide concentration of the blood to below its normal level because one is expiring more carbon dioxide than being produced in the body, thereby raising the blood’s pH value (making it more alkaline), initiating constriction of the blood vessels which supply the brain, and preventing the transport of oxygen and other molecules necessary for the function of the nervous system.

In other words, if you breathe too quickly, lowered CO2 levels switch your brain automatically into emergency mode. Higher brain functions shut down. Critical thought process? The “objective world” as you know it? Gone. You view situations in black and white. Your subconscious or reflexive mind takes over. If you breathe much too quickly, the whole system reboots. You faint.

Why NOT Hyperventilate?

The point at which your nervous system reboots under stress (i.e. you faint) is genetically predetermined, related to highly evolved group and personal survival strategies. A woman who faints is effectively “playing dead” and attracting the help of alphas for whom fainting is practically impossible.

I mention this because all of your responses to life-threatening danger are the result of evolution (i.e. natural selection); we wouldn’t have this “fight or flight” mode if it hadn’t worked out well for our ancestors. The advantage of diminished cognition: speed. You don’t think. You react. So why not hyperventilate? Because people who don’t hyperventilate in battle have a distinct advantage over those who do.

Ask any military historian; all great generals are known for calm in the face of battle. If you can maintain higher brain functions while all around you have gone into instinctive or reactive mode, you will have a greater chance of thinking intelligently and creatively. You have a shot at out-thinking your adversaries.

The Fallacy of Combat Training

The traditional answer to this loss of higher brain function during a gunfight: training. Every gun guru I’ve ever met says you have to train under duress to learn how to “cope” with the stress of combat. What they’re actually saying: you have to program your subconscious mind to react instinctively in a gunfight, ’cause you won’t be able to do much of anything else, really.

I’m not buying it.

OK I am, as the rabbi and several other high-priced training facilities will attest. But no matter how many pre-existing gunfighting stimulus – response patterns you have lodged in your subconscious, the best training in the world can’t possibly cover every real world scenario. As the Brits say, it’s the bus that you don’t see that kills you. You still need enough rational thought to select the appropriate reaction for a given combat situation.

How to Stay Calm in Battle

It’s simple. Breathe slowly. Your heart won’t race. Your brain will get enough oxygen to think clearly.  Your blood flow won’t rush inwards. You will continue to feel your extremities, enabling (i.e. not disabling) fine motor skills. Your mind will be sharp, clear and focused. Provided you had the mindset in the first place.

Which reminds me: it’s all relative. If you slow your breathing during a gunfight, you will still experience some of the psychological and physiological effects from the fight or flight response. But slow breathing is a control mechanism for those effects, one that dramatically reduces the chances of a complete subconscious takeover.

A wrinkle: you have to breathe slowly quickly. I mean, early in the game. Before you caught up in the bio-feedback loop described above. If you try to control your breathing after hyperventilation has set in, well, Wikipedia tells the tale:

In alkalosis, hemoglobin binds more securely to the oxygen (‘alkalotic O2 clamping’, also called the ‘Bohr effect’), so the patient’s cells become relatively hypoxic. Restricting inspired oxygen worsens this hypoxia and is detrimental to the patient.

The same benefits can be obtained more safely from deliberately slowing down the breathing rate by counting or looking at the second hand on a watch. This is often referred to as “7-11 breathing”, because a gentle inhalation is stretched out to take 7 seconds (or counts), and the exhalation is slowed to take 11 seconds.

Practice That

If you want to stay calm in battle, focus on your breathing. Breathe slowly. But don’t breathe too slowly. So-called 7-11 breathing is designed to reverse the effects of hyperventilation, not establish a suitable base line for mental and physical performance under stress.

The right breathing pattern isn’t a strict formula; it depends on your size, weight, fitness level and activity. But an even breathing pattern—say, five seconds inhale, five seconds exhale—is best.

Bonus! Wearing enclosed ear protectors makes it easy to hear your own breathing. So you can practice breathing every time you go to the range. And the more you do that, the more likely you are to breathe properly without thinking about it. Add in some stress training to make sure you can keep your breathing consistent in the heat of battle, and there you have it. Calm in the face of danger.

Hypnosis

Saying that, I could make a hypnosis tape that would program your subconscious mind to make you breathe slowly and consistently whenever you touch a gun (a.k.a. “anchoring”). That way you wouldn’t have to think about it. Now that I think of it.

comments

  1. avatar Bob H says:

    Sure you can make me a tape… And what else will this tape do? Will I be forced to assassinate your competitors? Isn't there an better way for you to take over the gunblogging world?

  2. avatar Scott G. says:

    Your background in combat and the psyche of warfighting is what?

    Controlled breathing techniques are taught and used in the fine art of special operations such as sniping (as an example) and in many other arms of the armed services including police academies/training institutions around the world. And while we cannot always train or "simulate" using live fire type of exercises we certainly can train using repetitive exposure – ie. handling drills, movement drills, to create patterns that form a part of the "gunfighting" mindset. Con't….

  3. avatar Scott G says:

    Controlled breathing is only but a part of the whole management of a tachypsychia episode in gunfighting or any other warfighting format for that matter. Controlled breathing is also a method of controlling what would be considered every day stress and has its place in many aspects of life. However, there have been many studies performed by military/police/aviation etc. organizations around the globe involving various methods of managing the "in the moment" stresses of a tachypsychia episode. To dismiss exposure to scenarios and drills and replace it with a tape purporting to teach an individual to breathe while handling a gun which by extension will alleviate the "black" of panic in a gunfight, is akin to the snake oil salesmen of yesteryear selling that elixir that cleans out your clogged drains, safe to drink, cures acne and makes you more attractive to the opposite sex. Good luck

  4. Scott,

    You obviously have experience in this field. As do I. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. How about we do an experiment? Ping me at guntruth@me.com or propose a test here.

  5. avatar Mark says:

    Repetition is key to enable muscle memory to be effective. Controlling your breathing will, in fact, allow a person to have clearer thought and decision making abilities. I have trained and operated for many years in Special Warfare and became disabled doing it. I have thousands of hours of instruction that I have created and taught to teammates (none of whom have returned home in a box) with great results. By controlling your breathing, you can focus better and better plan your next move in a traumatic situation where you would normally "freeze" from fear.

  6. avatar MArk says:

    One technique is "in through the nose and out through the mouth". I have used this technique before and it has worked great. It also allowed the heart rate to decrease which dropped the anxiety level. Even while moving, moving and shooting and staying on target-control was everything!

    Although you cannot practice every scenario, you can control your environment by practicing simple scenarios throughout the home to prepare for a home attack and while in the car to prepare for a home invasion. As far as tactical/high-speed/ advanced marksmanship to train for a combat situation: a paper target has yet to attack a person but there are courses of fire that will enable the shooter to gain a flash sight picture, target discrimination and any other situation for close-quarters combat that one can think up. I know because I teach this, I create these and I practice it!

    Good Article Robert! Keep them coming

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