Shooting in Self-Defense, Part 2: The Stress Factor

When an individual experiences a deadly force encounter, a myriad of mental, physical and psychological reactions can occur. In Part One of this series, I provided details of those psychological reactions from my own life-or-death incidents, and how to best to prepare for them during deadly force encounter—changing the focus to the present, practicing all skills until they are automatic and occur with muscle memory, ensuring that any plans for action are fluid and flexible, and practicing in a manner that replicates reality and is void of potentially destructive habits.

In this segment we will look at the ways in which the body can react under stress. Some of these reactions can be so disturbing that, if unexpected, they can have a debilitating impact on the person experiencing them and impede the ability to defend an attack.

Let’s first look at how the body reacts.

Physical Reactions to Stress

There are a variety of physical stress reactions that someone facing potential death or acute stress may experience. These reactions are the result of the body preparing to protect itself. Although they’re natural, in our society they can be perceived as a sign of cowardice.

The danger with these symptoms occurs when they are not understood as natural, and the individual experiencing the reactions begins to process them negatively. In addition, these reactions can physically impact the individual’s desired response. In my first critical incident, an individual wielding a knife attacked me. Long before he came at me with the knife, there were signs that this incident wasn’t going to have a peaceful conclusion, and in the moments before the knife came into play, my right leg began to shake uncontrollably, making standing difficult. When I tried to request backup, I heard my voice crack. These symptoms immediately registered to me as an unacceptable level of fear, and that everyone—officers listening to the radio, and the suspect threatening me—knew that I was a coward. Negative thoughts like these can impact your actions in a way that’s very similar to when similar to when athletes get down on themselves for mistakes, and their game strategy and focus fall apart.

Some of the physical reactions a person may experience during a life-or-death encounter include:

• Involuntary evacuation of the bowel

• Involuntary evacuation of the bladder

• Vomiting

• Tunnel Vision

• Auditory Exclusion

• Loss of dexterity of the hands

• Trembling of the legs

• Fainting

When the body perceives a threat to survival the sympathetic nervous system is activated. This system primes us to run, fight, or freeze. One way our bodies prepare for a response is by releasing hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones help heighten awareness. Our bodies also send blood away from the extremities and toward large muscle masses and organs. At the same time our blood pressure and heart rate increases. The body also reclaims energy sources by diverting them from other, less important areas.

When an individual defecates, urinates or vomits uncontrollably under stress, they do so because their bodies have directed energy stores away from normal, less important bodily functions, such as the function of the sphincter. The loss of manual dexterity and the trembling of legs are the result of increased adrenaline and diversion of blood from the extremities to the large muscle masses in preparation for fighting or fleeing.

Fainting after a life-or-death incident can occur because some blood vessels constrict during the incident to prevent the subject from bleeding out in case of injury. After an incident concludes safely, however, the blood vessels dilate, releasing the blood and causing a drop in blood pressure.

Auditory exclusion—you don’t hear sounds—and tunnel vision are the result of the sympathetic nervous system activation, hormonal and bodily changes in preparation for the threat, and a sustained focus on a threat.

These reactions should not be a point of shame and actually should be shared with law enforcement officers if you use deadly force. These details are important to report because they offer solid proof that the threshold of deadly force is met – that you feared for your life.

As troubling as these physical responses to stress can be to those experiencing them, there are plenty of others that can also occur, some of which are triggered by the physical responses.

Corresponding Emotional Responses to Stress Coping with the physical responses to stress can be challenging, but the corresponding emotional responses can sometimes pose an even greater threat to our survival. Some emotional responses to acute stress that have been reported include:

• Negative self-talk

• Unrealistic expectations

• Automatic actions

• Perceptual distortion

• Stress-induced amnesia

• Confusion

• Any emotional response

Negative self-talk can result when an individual experiences an unpleasant physical response to stress, such as shaking. If the person interprets the reaction negatively, it can shift their focus from what is occurring now to a focus on trying to control or understand that physical reaction. If the person assumes that the shaking indicates fear and cowardice, then their self-talk can lead to self-defeat and self-doubt at a time that requires confidence.

Unrealistic expectations refer to a tendency to believe that something will happen as imagined. A classic example of an unrealistic expectation would be a belief that if you shoot someone center mass, that this action alone will end the encounter. In reality, a determined individual shot straight through the heart may have 8 to 10 seconds of fight left in them. When we have unrealistic expectations, under stress we cannot comprehend when things do not happen as imagine…leaving us shocked, stunned and unable to mentally formulate Plan B.

Automatic responses under stress can be beneficial. This is when we take actions but have no recollection of doing them. For example, during my officer-involved shooting, I was interviewed and asked why my pepper spray was across the house. I had no recollection, but my partner reported that when he yelled “Knife!” he saw me throw the spray in order to pull my sidearm—which I also didn’t recall. I was on autopilot for my actions because I was busying focusing on the suspect.

The suspect had pulled out a folding knife and extended it after my partner and I addressed him. He came at me, and when I couldn’t retreat any farther, I shot him. Hours later in the interview room I could not recall if the suspect had actually opened the knife. My exact response was, “He must’ve opened it… I wouldn’t have shot someone that didn’t pose a threat.” I could not (and still cannot) visualize that knife being opened. This is an example of stress-induced amnesia. Fortunately, my partner remembered and the suspect admitted it. But what if it was my word against a suspect who might lie? It is important to know this phenomenon exists in case you experience it.

Another emotional response to stress is confusion. This might better be explained by the term blanking out. I have experienced blanking out after multiple incidents. Sometimes it’s a matter of knowing whom I should notify; at other times it was a sense of being completely overwhelmed and outnumbered. It feels like your brain is trying to access information and it won’t.

It's also important to know that there can be any emotional response to a critical incident. I have seen and experienced a variety of emotional responses. As I pointed out in Part 1, right after I shot the man who tried to stab me, I felt an almost uncontrollable urge to laugh. But eight months later, when someone else tried to stab me, I broke down in tears.

Anyone who carries a firearm for self-defense should be familiar with the variety of responses that can occur should they ever have to use that firearm. Many of them are uncontrollable, so simply knowing what can happen and that they are a natural occurrence may help alleviate the surprise.

Focusing on specific areas of training, which were detailed in Part 1, should help alleviate some of the stress reactions. If you are able to maintain focus on the now during a deadly force encounter, you will be more likely to achieve your goal—surviving it.

In Part 3, we'll look at the long-term physiological and mental impacts that can come with shooting someone in self-defense.