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There is no denying that stress is a killer. The stress most often referred to is “chronic” stress, where the difficulties of life just continue to compound on you until it becomes too much for your heart or other vital organs. What I want to cover is a different type of stress—stress that is equally as deadly in the wrong situation. This stress is commonly referred to as “acute,” or “short-term,” stress and is the body’s reaction to a situation that is demanding or dangerous.


My guess is that most of our readers do not train for stressful situations. Their training regimen consists of going to the local range, firing off a few boxes of ammo—hoping for some decent groups on target—and then calling it a day. Then, there is the small percentage of gun owners who actually train for real-world scenarios. They draw from the holster, they seek cover, they shoot at targets in depth and laterally.

An even smaller percentage of shooters add induced stress into their training so they can understand the effects that stress will have on their shooting ability and how best to counteract those changes to their non-stress shooting.

“A little stress can be a good thing, but too much could cost you your life.”


In his book, Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales talks about avoiding the “four poisons of the mind”—fear, confusion, hesitation and surprise. In a real-life situation, a normal person will experience one or more of these. Survival depends on how you react to each—or, better yet, how you train to avoid the point of indecision. The “fight or flight” response is real. Most will respond in a similar manner, such as rising blood pressure, the heart pounding, and constriction of both large and small muscle groups. Even worse is what could happen to you externally. You might become overly emotional or shut down to your surroundings. In extreme cases, you might experience tunnel vision, a loss of color vision or possible hearing loss.

At its best, stress can excite and invigorate. But at its worst, stress can destroy your will to fight back. Recognizing how you react to stress can help you combat the symptoms. The ideal heart rate for good performance is between 115 and 145 beats per minute (bpm).

At this range, complex motor skills and visual and cognitive reaction speed are at their best. In order to reach a level to train your stress response, you would need to either drop your heart rate or increase it. For our purposes, we will work to increase it above the 145 beats.


In the first set of drills, set two targets up 7 to 10 yards from the shooting line and approximately 6 to 8 feet apart. From the shooting line, walk back 25 yards and mark another line. We will call this the “fitness line.” While facing the target—with your gun secure in a holster—turn to the rear and run to the fitness line. Once there (depending on your fitness level), do either 25 pushups or 25 jumping jacks. When finished, run back to the firing line and fire five rounds into each target, alternating the target you are shooting at. Don’t forget to scan for additional threats. The next drill starts with the range set up the same.

During this iteration, as you run back to the fitness line, you will be carrying weighted objects. Dumbbells work best, but you could also use sandbags, cinder blocks or cut logs. The object needs to be heavy enough to accomplish the point of the drill, which is to cause muscular stress or muscle constriction.

In difficult situations, don’t stand in the open—you want to use available cover to protect yourself. Therefore, you should train that way. (Photo: Onfokus, Getty Images)

Once you reach the fitness line, lift the object above your head 10 times and then carry it back to the firing line. Once again, fire five rounds on each target, alternating targets between shots. And, once again, don’t forget to scan for additional threats. As you are training via these drills, you should allow enough time between iterations for your heart rate to drop below at least 145 bpm. Do three sets of each of these drills; you can alternate the drills, as well. By the second or third set, you should begin to see loss of some motor skills and possibly some other stress side effects. It is advised that you do not do this alone and that you monitor your vitals for any abnormalities. I also recommend that you get the OK from your doctor if you are not in peak health.


Now that you are “stressed out,” we need to work on what you can do to combat these effects while they are happening. The easiest is to… breathe! It seems like a silly thing to say, but when you are stressed, your breathing can become erratic and cause other functions in your body to react. Try to take deep breaths and count “1-2-3-4” as you breathe in and out. It will force you to take slower, deliberate breaths. You must use deep abdominal breathing. With abdominal breathing, you initially expand your abdomen as you breathe in, instead of expanding your chest.

Just being followed in a less-than-secure area is enough to stress many people. Avoiding these areas is a start, but training for difficult scenarios can reduce the stress you feel when confronted. (Photo: PeopleImages, Getty Images)



During a stressful situation, keeping the sights on the threat might prove more difficult than you would hope for.

One easy way to combat this is to select a stable shooting platform. Whether you have a rifle, shotgun or handgun, getting stable is just a platform away. It could be a street post, window ledge, car hood or other expedient method to rest on to get stable. Pay attention to distance from barrel to sight so that you don’t shoot through your platform. The other method is to use a laser to get on the threat. It doesn’t require the fine motor skills that looking through sights does, and it can also intimidate your threat.


Two other tips: First, try to remain calm, and trust your training. Second, as you go through your everyday routine, imagine that during any given situation, something bad is going down—the “what if?” scenario.

For instance, you are sitting at a traffic light, and someone breaks in your window in an attempted carjacking. What would you do? Run through the scenario in your mind, identify your flaws, and train on them next time you are at the range. Another example: You are sitting at home in your favorite recliner, watching a game. Imagine that someone suddenly breaks in through your front door. Are you prepared?


Regardless of whether you use these drills or come up with your own, you need to be prepared. Help is often too far away to assist you; and, even if it gets to you in time, the stress you suffer could be long lasting if you haven’t prepared for it. Don’t let stress build up from everyday activities. It will only compound during a defensive scenario, and that could lead to something catastrophic. A little stress can be a good thing, but too much could cost you your life.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the February 2018 print issue of Gun World Magazine.