Letter Re: A Police Officer’s Comments on High Stress Reactions

Dear Mr. Rawles,
I have enjoyed your books and SurvivalBlog for several years now. They have helped me prepare myself and my family for dark times we hope are not coming but look more and more certain each day. I wanted to attempt to share some of my knowledge with this community in hopes it can help prepare others.

After 9-11 I made a career change and became a police officer in Northern California. I have been blessed to receive a lot of specialized training since become an officer. Some of this training has included: firearms instructor, defensive tactics instructor, chemical agent instructor, less-lethal munitions instructor, simunitions instructor, swat operator and sniper operator.

The focus of this writing will be on the body’s reaction to critical incidents, specifically, in firefights or gun fights. This information will apply to other critical incidents as well, such as major auto accidents, natural disasters, or other high stress calamities.

I have been present in critical incidents three times when shots have been fired. I hope my personal experience and education can be a help to other readers in preparing them for similar incidents, should they find themselves in one. As you know, a little preparation goes a long way.

In high stress situations where the body and mind perceive a grave threat is at hand the body produces an adrenal dump or chemical dump (lots of chemicals are put into the blood stream at this time, not just adrenalin). This is referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ reaction. A third reaction, or lack thereof, makes ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ a better name.

This chemical dump occurs automatically when someone faces a situation where the mind recognizes the body is in severe danger. The chemicals cause several automatic reactions in the body. Some of these are: blood is pulled away from the outer extremities and into the core (chest) of the body, higher respiratory rates, increased pulse, and an increase in blood sugar.

These simple changes allow vital organs enough blood to perform their essential functions, especially the heart and lungs. This also prevents a wound to the arms or legs from causing a major loss of blood and hampering the body’s ability to fight or flight. Increased breathing helps provide the muscles with enough oxygen while the quickened pulse helps deliver fuel throughout the body, again readying fight or flight.

Other reactions occur in the body as well as a result of the chemical dump. These include: distorted audio and visual perception, time distortion, intruding thoughts, increased heart rate, deterioration of fine motor skills, and increase in strength and pain tolerance.

In a brief summary of these, audio distortion is commonly reported as the loss of audio input. Incredibly loud sounds, such as gun shots, are heard as mere popping noises, like a cap gun. This makes communications between police officers in critical events difficult. It will also make it very difficult for you and yours to communicate if the SHTF and you are defending yourselves.

Time distortion is frequently reported as the perceived slow down of events – as if things were occurring in slow motion, even the involved reactions to the threat. Infrequently this was reported as things happening more quickly, i.e., in fast forward. Visual distortion is commonly called “tunnel vision” in high stress events. The mind realizes the life or death threat in front of it and it attempts to block out all other stimuli but this life or death threat. Imagine your natural field of vision being reduces from approximately 200 degrees down to 40 degrees.

One of the more interesting effects is intruding thoughts. Some individuals report strange details being at the fore front of their mind while a life or death situation unfolds. For example, even though a person may be seeking cover from a subject shooting at them, their mind is questioning whether or not they remembered to feed the dog before going to work.

The chemical dump also causes the loss of fine motor skills. The hands will shake and be unable to perform intricate detail with accuracy, if at all. A last area that should be mentioned is that many people lose control of their bowels and bladders as a result of a critical incident. These ‘code brown’ or ‘code yellow’ incidents can be embarrassing at a later time. They do not reflect a person is a coward or scared. The body is simply trying to get rid of things it does not need.

If you are not mentally and physically (physically conditioning and prior exposure to chemical dumps) prepared for the effects of the chemical dump it can make a difficult situation worse. I have seen individuals overloaded by the dire nature of a situation and they lose their ability to think or react with reason. This is obviously not a state of mind which increases ones chances for survival.

So, now that we know what happens to the body we can begin to prepare mentally for what may be coming. Understanding these effects also helps us heal mentally more quickly once we have survived. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can occur in any critical incident. PTSD is defined as a complex disorder where a person’s memory, emotional responses, intellectual processes, and nervous system have all been disrupted by one or more traumatic experiences. Intruding and reoccurring thoughts of the event are still present approximately eight weeks after the traumatic event. Understanding that these reactions are normal and common ahead of time can be a great comfort to the individual who experiences them. These issues are not a sign of weakness or failure. Anyone who survives any gunfight is not a failure.

I would recommend anyone who is serious about surviving any type of armed encounter begin to rehearse mentally in their head as much detail as is possible of as many different scenarios as they can. For example, imagine three people coming to your home demanding food and threatening you with guns if you don’t provide it. Imagine being out after a successful hunt which will feed your family and two subjects order you to leave your game behind and go. Imagine every step of action you could take, from engaging in a firefight, moving to cover, having bad guys shoot at you, etc.

Practice four count breathing as a way to counter some of the less desirable effects of a chemical dump. This four count breathing is performed by breathing in for four seconds, holding the breath in for four seconds, breathing out for four seconds, holding the breath for four seconds and repeating.

When you practice shooting at the range practice as if you are in a gun fight. Whether you know it or not, you are developing habits your mind is going to follow if you go into an autopilot mode following a chemical dump. It would be much better to practice engaging your target and scanning around you and breaking your tunnel vision prior to mentally concluding your training exercise. Bad guys are like potato chips, they seldom are found one at a time. Be alert for the next bad guy(s) and be prepared to engage him before they get to you.

Without opening the topic up to much, and again, just scratching the surface, I want to digress onto firefights a bit. We have expressions that are valuable and should help the average reader. Two shots is a good start in a firefight. A slow hit is better than a fast miss. Put your shots on target (see below) and make them count. When you can’t get to the range as often as you would like, use mental imaging to help prepare you for the real thing. Practice dry fire (after ensuring your weapon is unloaded [, all ammunition has been removed from the room, and you have a safe backstop]), as often as you can. Live fire is just a demonstration of how well you dry fire.

Much has already been discussed here and elsewhere about the caliber of weapon one should use. I do not mean to beat a dead horse and cause days of reader responses for you sir, but I will stir the pot with the following: An FBI Firearms Training Unit Study cites previous studies that have calculated bullet velocities and impact power, concluding that the “stopping power” of a 9mm bullet at muzzle velocity is equal to a one-pound weight (e.g., baseball) being dropped from the height of six feet. A .45 ACP bullet impact would equal that same object dropped from 11.4 feet. That is a far cry from what Hollywood would have us believe, and actually flies in the face of what even many in law enforcement have come to mistakenly believe. I would suggest the best round for you to use is the round you can most accurately deliver on a consistent basis.

The FBI report also emphasizes that unless the bullet destroys or damages the central nervous system (i.e., brain or upper spinal cord), incapacitation of the subject can take a long time, particularly if one is engaged in a firefight and has experienced a chemical dump or if the subject is under the influence of drugs. There is sufficient oxygen within the brain to support full, voluntary action for 10-15 seconds after the heart has been destroyed. How many shots could you get off in 10-15 seconds?

Back to preparing to survive the gun fight. Develop now the will to live, survive, and win the fight. If you are shot, and you can get medical attention, you have a good chance of surviving. Don’t Panic! Visualize yourself getting hit and continuing to fight. Expect the body’s reaction to a chemical dump – dry mouth, sweaty palms, pounding heart. Know that if you are hit with gunfire that tissue wounds may not hurt, bone hits will hurt. Not all bullet wounds bleed extensively. I have witnessed wounds that left thumb sized holes in individuals with the smallest trickle of blood exiting the body. The body has a lot of blood in it – about 1.5 gallons of blood in body. You can lose 40% of this blood before you will lose consciousness (Imagine the mess on your hands if you spilled a half gallon of milk on the floor in the kitchen!).

My department has spent a great deal of money providing the officers here with Simunition firearms and safety equipment for training. I personally believe this is invaluable in preparing individuals for surviving and winning gun fights.

I recommend anyone serious about preparing for a gun fight include paintball training (due to its lower cost) or similar. This training must be taken seriously with proper safety equipment for all involved. The benefits are many.

For this training to work it must be done in the most serious manner possible. Participants will have to buy in mentally and will make the scenarios good or bad by their involved effort. Scenarios acted out will be the best way for the training to have a positive effect.

When taken seriously this training will induce a (small) chemical dump in participants. I have witnessed and experienced this training and know it will help inoculate participants into the effects of a chemical dump. Any familiarity one can obtain in a critical incident makes the likelihood of surviving the incident that much greater. The threat of pain from the paint ball will induce the chemical dump, the memory of pain will help prevent you from making any mistakes again. I would strongly suggest that each person who is receiving the training in the scenario be allowed to win each scenario. We do our best learning through positive interaction. We are also trying to show that even if we are hit we can still fight through and win. Anyone wanting more information of this training I would suggest the book “Training at the Speed of Life” by Kenneth Murray.

This is as good a place as any to touch on the perception/reaction delay as well. Studies have suggested it takes ¾ of a second for the average human to perceive an incident is occurring and another ¾ of a second for the body to react. If you are facing a situation where you believe a gun fight is imminent then you need to find a place of cover (something which will absorb bullets) or distance away from your enemy to help you overcome this delay. Try a paint ball scenario (with full safety equipment) where one subject is holding another at gun point with their gun extended and ready to shoot. The second subject can have their gun at their side. The first subject can’t shoot at the second subject until the second subject moves to shoot the first subject. You might be surprised at how difficult this is.

In closing, please consider this a scratch on the surface of the issue of surviving gun fights. Hopefully this has given the reader some food for thought which stimulates their appetite to learn more on their own. Remember, dirt bags survive being shot, so can you.

Good luck and stay safe. – H.J., A prepper brother in the thin blue line.