Inducing and Controlling Stress in Firearms Training


The topic of state based training has been hot in pop-gun training culture over the last few years.  The idea is that if you train in the same state (extremely afraid, flight or fright, etc.) that you’ll perform the same way in a lethal force encounter.  In other words, “train the way you fight and fight the way you train.”  Many schools and instructors are amping up stress to simulate what students would encounter if/when they find themselves in a use of force situation.

This can be a good thing if done correctly, but incredibly damaging if done incorrectly.

The problem lies, in large part, in timing.  I’m going to tell you why, how to fix it, and tell you an effective, but possibly a little masochistic technique that you can use in your training to help you perform better in lethal force or other high stress situations.

What oftentimes happens during defensive firearms classes is that instructors introduce stresses, like lights, sirens, yelling, math equations, confusion, etc. too early in the learning process.  When these stresses are introduced before the student has developed high quality neural pathways, it leads to poor performance, correction, frustration, and a negative feedback loop.  It interrupts the learning process and causes an association between the skill that the instructor is trying to teach and pain/discomfort.

It’s not meant to be, but it’s similar to how lion tamers used to interact with a lion.  The lion tamer goes face to face with a lightweight chair and a whip…neither of which are effective kinetic tools against a lion.  It works because the 4 legs of the chair cause temporary confusion for the lion–he can’t figure out which leg to focus on–and while the lion is in this confused state, it gets snapped with the whip.  The combination of confusion and introducing pain (auditory and/or physical) while the lion is in pain turns this apex predator into a confused kitten.

Similarly, if stress is introduced into the learning process while a student is still having to consciously think about the shooting process, it creates confusion and the feedback of poor performance and/or correction from the instructor creates pain.

This is a gross over simplification, but when you form memories, they are stored with either a positive label or a negative label, depending on your state when you formed the memory.  You want to make sure that your outlook is positive while you’re learning new skills, developing neural pathways, and building myelin sheaths around those neural pathways.  Once you have reached the point where you believe you have unconscious competence, THEN start adding in stresses.

I do a lot of my training alone and, so, I have come up with several tools that I use to induce stress so that I know how my performance changes under various stress levels, so that I can practice controlling my physiology and emotions, and so that I can perform well in non-ideal states.

If you watch the Olympics earlier this year and saw the biathlon, you may have heard that the general approach to the shooting portion of biathlon has changed.  It used to be that top shooters worked incredibly hard to master biofeedback techniques to lower their heart rates and respiratory rates before they shot.  Now, many of them have switched to simply learning how to shoot well, even when they are breathing fast and their hearts are beating fast.

A few of the techniques that I use to induce stress and/or a compromised state for training are from and …they are:

-Using strenuous exercise to lower blood oxygen levels, increase pulse rates, decrease oxygenation to the eyes, and compromise fine motor skills.

-Using high reps with low weight curls to burn out the muscles of the hands and arms before shooting.
Sticking your hands in ice water or salted ice water until they hurt and have compromised fine motor skills before shooting.

These are all great, but there’s another another one that you may not be aware of…the StressVest. The StressVest is a wearable vest that delivers a mild shock to the shooter either by remote control or when sensors on the StressVest sense that they’ve been hit by a laser fired from a pistol or carbine. This allows users to experience tangible stress about not getting a shot off in time or about getting hit during force on force drills.

If you watched the SWAT reality show, “Elite Tactical Unit” with Michael Hawke, you saw a “StressVest” that contestants wore that delivered shocks or vibrations based on time or when the vest got shot by a laser pistol. In one scenario, they were taking precision shots and they started receiving random shocks if they didn’t complete the course of fire fast enough. Some guys showed almost no visible sign of being affected. One guy seemed to bounce off of the ground when he got shocked. Everyone’s different.

Yes, it’s not something that “normal” people would subject themselves to.  It hurts, and it can hurt A LOT, depending on the setting, and there’s not very many people that I’d recommend it to, but if you’re someone who could benefit from it–specifically military and law enforcement personnel. In fact, the following agencies are publicly using electrical shocks (with the StressVest system) as a training aid according to

FBI Academny
Vancouver Police Department
Air Force Space Command
Canadian Forces (Military)
NYPD Tactical Training Unit
San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department
Federal Law Enforcement Training Center
NRO (National Reconnaissance Office)
and more…

I can understand why you would not want to use mild electrical shock as a training aid, but it is and has been an accepted and proven technique for some time. It’s been tested by military and law enforcement units and the StressVest in particular has been tested by Psychologists and shown to be incredibly effective as a teaching aid.

I’ve used a Taser, stun gun, and remote dog shock collar and prefer the remote dog shock collar for several reasons.  The biggest one being that I don’t want to create an aversion to training and when I’m working with others, I don’t want to discourage them or “break” them.  The goal is to progressively increase the intensity of the stimulus…pushing the shooter to the limit that they can perform at, but not pushing them to physical or psychological failure.

There are two ways that I use mild electric shock in training.  In each case, I use the shock as a signal to “go” but the application is different. This is not something that I do at a regular range with a live gun. It’s something that I do with trusted professionals live or with an inert training platform, like a SIRT, blue gun, or even an airsoft training gun.

The first way that I use shock as a training tool is to relax myself, like we did with my wife during childbirth, to the point where I am mostly unaffected by the shock, and run the gun like normal.  This is a great skillset to have, because you can use it to manage pain without narcotics and you can also use it as a tool to deal with high-stress events where you don’t have the luxury of freaking out.

The second way that I use shock is to take the hit, get the full physiological reaction, and see how fast I can blunt my reaction, get back in control, and take whatever compensatory steps I need to in order to run the gun effectively.

Sometimes, depending on the intensity, I have a seemingly uncontrollable urge to stomp my leg like a rabbit, my hands are tingly from adrenaline, my pulse & breathing are elevated, and my vision is narrowed.  These are not new feelings, I’m comfortable running a gun with them, and know what I need to do to keep tight groups and not spray rounds all over–even though I’m in what is normally considered to be a compromised state.

The reason that I’m able to do this is because of stress inoculation (repeated exposure), state control, AND because of having highly developed neural pathways and thick myelin sheaths that insulate the neural pathways from some of the effects of the stress response. (for more on myelin sheaths and neural pathways, check out another article that I wrote here: )

Coming full circle, there are a couple of big things to keep in mind with this training technique.  First, don’t even think of doing it until your shooting technique is so solid that it is a conditioned response.  Second, don’t screw around with this unless you have written approval from your doctor.  It might hurt your heart, you might have a bad mental reaction, you might flex muscles in such a way that you injure yourself, you might fall down and get a secondary injury, or any number of other bad outcomes.

If you’ve used these techniques before, I’d love to hear about your experiences…please share them by commenting below.




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  • Ella Starr

    Reply Reply May 21, 2021

    How interesting that you mention the feelings that can come with the stress of firearms training. My husband and I want to purchase a firearm for our home and get trained for it. We will look for a great place to purchase a firearm in our area.

  • Leon Gall

    Reply Reply June 21, 2014

    “Shock Collars”? Really?
    This is plane nuts!

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