Maximizing your performance under stress
Thursday, September 01, 2016
If you have a desire to be more prepared or to shoot better, there's a good chance you would love to know how to perform better in extreme stress. It could be reacting to a family member having a life-threatening emergency, responding to a natural or man-made disaster, stopping a lethal force threat or everyday life challenges.
Through the years, I've encountered high-stress situations where I've frozen with indecision. Fortunately, I have always "snapped out of it" quickly and taken positive action. I haven't always made perfect decisions — everyone makes mistakes that are easy to see with the eyes of a Monday morning quarterback — but I've made mostly good decisions.
But this has led me to dig into why some people freeze under stress, some people make bad decisions under stress, and some people thrive under stress.
When learning to drive, I wondered how I'd handle different emergency situations. When learning to fight, I wondered how I'd handle different surprise attacks at full speed. When learning medical skills, I wondered how I'd handle someone with a critical injury. When learning combative shooting, I wondered how I'd handle myself in a gunfight.
You're probably the same way. You always wonder how you'll perform "when it counts" until after the first time it actually does ... then you'll wonder how you can do it better the next time.
It's important to ask why different people with the same training, using the same technique, perform so differently when the fit hits the shan. Traditional wisdom says your fine and complex motor skills will disappear under extreme stress, but personal experience and the experience of many people I've known and people I've studied have shown me it's not a black/white, all/nothing issue.
This has been top-of-mind for me lately as I've dealt with several rabid "haters" who say using the slide stop on a pistol during a tactical reload is a fine motor skill and will always fail under extreme stress. I have too many friends who have been in combat who have made it work, and this led me to dig into why some people can do fine motor skills and complex motor skills under stress and others can't.
There's a saying that goes as follows: "In a life or death situation, you won't rise to the occasion — you'll perform at half the level that you do in training." But that's not always true. Some people do rise to the occasion. They're "clutch players." They're unflappable and perform no matter what.
The question becomes, what factors dictate high-stress performance, and how can we control them and use them to our advantage?
The following is a work in progress and open to input, but it is an equation that attempts to quantify what is needed to perform under extreme stress:
Performance = (inoculation + state control + fitness level) x (familiarity + myelination) x (comfort with unknown + decision making)
If math's not your thing and your brain just froze, keep reading. In simplest terms, the better each of these factors is, the better you'll perform under stress.
At the risk of turning this into a book, I'm going to cover each of these briefly. I encourage you to self-assess in each of these areas and see how you can increase the chances that you will perform at a high level under stress.
A point of note to the vast majority who aren't math nerds. Each factor within parentheses is related. Theoretically, as long as at least one of them is not zero, you'll be able to perform the skill to some degree under stress. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, and I covet input on how to refine it.
With that, let's get into each of the factors:
Simply put, you'll perform better in situations you've been in before. In shooting defined stages or courses of fire, I perform 20-30 percent faster the second time I shoot the course of fire than the first time. I noticed the same phenomenon in sports, fighting, dealing with emergency trauma, medical situations, driving emergencies and more. And I'm betting you can think of several personal examples from your own life.
On lethal force encounters in particular, Ken Murray, co-founder of Simunitions, has found officers and soldiers are working out the kinks until about the third successful and justified lethal force encounter. That being said, the ramp-up is much faster and easier for someone who has been gradually exposed to stress inoculation while mastering their craft than someone who has done all of their practice in a stress-free environment.
Retired Navy SEAL Larry Yatch has had similar findings. He's found that, in general, stress shooting performance is maximized with a mix of 80 percent dry fire, 10 percent live fire and 10 percent force-on-force with simunition, UTM or paint ball training.
Regardless of the situation, the more successful exposures you've had to similar situations, the lower your heart rate will be, the less adrenaline and cortisol your body will release, the clearer your thinking, and the more in control you'll be the next time you're in a similar situation.
I recently heard an officer talking about his first lethal force encounter. One of the comments he made was that it wasn't really the first time he successfully stopped a lethal threat with a firearm. He'd mentally rehearsed the scenario hundreds of times before, and nothing about the scenario surprised him when it was happening in real life.
This is actually worthy of its own article. Comment below if you want me to go into more detail on this. If there's enough demand, I'd love to.
In short, I'm calling state control the ability to control the state of your mind in situations where others can't. When you can stay cool, calm and collected and have ice running through your veins, you can perform at levels much closer to how you perform in practice than having everything fall apart.
Is it easy? No. Is it possible? Absolutely, as evidenced by the feats that brain surgeons, trauma surgeons, combat medics and warriors throughout the ages have been able to accomplish in "impossible" conditions.
Here's where the rubber meets the road. Let's say you're violently surprised and have an adrenal response. The initial release of adrenaline, which you probably can't control, will happen subconsciously in less than 1/100th of a second.
Someone without state control will keep releasing adrenaline — both draining their adrenals and seriously compromising their ability to perform fine and complex motor skills and perform higher-level thinking.
But those who do have state control can quickly slow the flow of adrenaline. The quicker they do it, the more likely they'll have an optimal amount of adrenaline in their system that doesn't rob them of performance. Also, since adrenaline has a half-life of approximately 90 seconds, the quicker you stop the release, the quicker you'll be back to a "normal" state and the less of an "adrenaline hangover" you'll have.
The factors I've identified that make up state control include the following:
Inner compass. This is complex, but for me includes my Christian beliefs, belief that my life is worth defending with whatever force is necessary to insure that my wife has a husband and my sons have a father at the end of the day, and belief that innocent people should be protected from evil people.
Nutrition, hydration and sleep. Pretty self-explanatory. A deficiency in any of these makes it hard to respond to stress effectively and remain in control.
Brain chemistry and hormone levels. There's a lot of crossover here with nutrition, hydration and sleep, but I feel they're worth separating out. Ironically, when people's adrenals are fatigued, they're more likely to "go straight to 11" rather than having a measured response.
Unconscious mind/flow state/the zone. High performers and extreme athletes are all familiar with and constantly seek flow state and/or the zone. It's a state of mind where the unconscious mind does most of the driving, time appears to slow down, balls/hoops/targets seem to get bigger, the body relaxes, Alpha waves in the brain increase, creativity flourishes, and amazing things happen.
Next time you see a musician doing independent motions with his right and left hands and right and left feet and singing, this is what's going on. What he's doing is completely impossible to do consciously and must be driven unconsciously or by the subconscious mind.
For most people, this is a fleeting state that happens outside of their control without rhyme or reason. They think some people "have it" and some don't. That's simply not true. This kind of performance is amazingly normal and you can trigger it on command and at will.
Will power, confidence. Again, there's a lot of crossover with these and other factors, but I'm pointing them out because they can be easily be influenced in yourself and in others.
Pain/injury level. This is a tough one to place in the equation. I view pain and injury somewhat differently than most. It's been incorporated into a few trainings and courses that friends of mine have put out, so you may be familiar with it already. In short, I view pain/injury as a constant that the mind acts like a lens on. The mind can use this lens to cause the pain/injury have more or less of an effect on mental and physical performance.
There are definite limitations to this, but the discipline/skill of being able to minimize the effects of pain is valuable. One person can get a paper cut, see his own blood and become completely frozen and ineffective. Another can be unfazed by life-threatening wounds.
Pain and injury can be distracting and take mental resources away from performing a needed task at a high level in a stressful situation.
In general, the more fit a person is, the better he'll be able to deal with a stressful situation. Add to that the fact that if the stressful situation requires dynamic movement, the exertion will be less stressful if you're fit than if you're not.
Most people remember a time when they drove around a corner and their rear wheels lost traction. Instinct is to turn away from the skid, but the right move is almost always to turn the front wheels into (toward) the direction you're skidding.
The more times you're exposed to this situation and have successful outcomes, the quicker you'll respond and the less stressful it will be in the future.
Practice something over and over the same way, and you'll develop neural pathways (muscle memory). Keep doing it, and you'll develop a fatty (cholesterol) sheath around the neural pathways that partially insulates the neural pathway from the performance-robbing effects of adrenaline and cortisol.
In other words, practice something until it's boring, and you'll be able to do it under stress better — regardless of whether it's a gross, fine or complex motor skill. Why?
This is overly simplified, but it's like running a maze in the dark, blindfolded. If you've done it so few times that you have to think about the process, it's going to be a long and painful experience. But, if you've done it enough times — first slowly in the light, then speeding up, then gradually taking away the light — then you no longer have to consciously drive the process.
The process is a conditioned response. You simply make the decision to start, and the unconscious mind automatically fires off all of the neurons necessary to take you through the process and to the desired finish.
Comfort with unknown and decision making
Also called "paralysis by analysis," these are factors that are hard to quantify, but I've definitely seen them play a role in performance under stress. Fortunately, once you make the choice to start looking for opportunities to improve in these areas, your mind will start spotting them — then it's just a matter of disciplining yourself to make educated choices when the outcome is stacked in your favor but not guaranteed.
Again, the equation I shared is not a hard-and-fast guideline, and the factors I mentioned probably aren't the only ones to consider. But if you honestly assess yourself in each of these areas and pick one or two at a time to work on, you'll quickly see your ability to react positively to stressful situations improves.
Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Additions? Please share them by commenting below. I am a brain and body hacker who has been focused on squeezing maximum performance out of an average body for more than 20 years, but I'm no pedigree, and I always seek out and appreciate wisdom from those who know more than me.
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