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.”

One of the oldest “modern” references to this was Clausewitz’s “On War,” published in 1832, where he said, “It is immensely important that no soldier. whatever his rank, should wait for war to expose him to those aspects of active service that amaze and confuse him when he first comes across them. If he has met them even once before, they will begin to be familiar to him.”

As a result, 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 skills, it causes something called “amygdala hijack.”  Cortisol levels go up.  The brain chemicals that you need for learning skills plummet.

And you end up QUICKLY creating strong episodic memories OF the training without actually consolidating skill to long term memory.

In some cases, it causes an association between the skill that the instructor is trying to teach and pain/discomfort…which can make the student hesitant and timid in a future real-world situation instead of empowered and confident.

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 causes the lion to be overwhelmed–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 being overwhelmed 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, refining skills, and making those skills resilient across a number of situations.

Once you have reached the point where you believe you have the skill nailed at a subconscious level, THEN start adding in stresses.

I have come up with several tools that I use to induce stress when I’m training on my own 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 last Winter Olympics 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 Praxis…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.  (This is completely different than a life-or-death stress response and it’s stressful because it’s disturbing…not because you’re in fear for your life.)

-Sticking your hands in ice water or salted ice water until they hurt.  This has a bonus effect of giving you compromised fine motor skills before shooting.  Also called a “stress pressor.”

(Fun story:  2 minutes is a long time on this drill.  A few years ago, I was doing some training with a local group of shooters.  It was December/January.  I’m not sure how cold it was…it was about 20 before the sun went down.  Anyhow, we shot for an hour or so after the sun went down and everyone went home except a recently retired DEVGRU shooter and me.  We did some NVG drills for awhile, and then decided to do the stress pressor.  We’d already been outside for hours and we’d stayed warm because we were moving.  So, we punched holes into the snow so we were about elbow-deep and moved our hands/arms around so the hole filled with lots of nice loose snow.

And we started talking.

I think the first time we looked at our watches was at the 5 minute mark.  And we kept going.

Finally, at about 8 minutes, we decided to call it…not because of our hands, but because I was starting to have a hard time talking.

So, right from having our hands in the snow, we stood up, both drew from concealment, and started banging away on steel again.

Good times 🙂

These are all great methods of stress induction, but there’s another one that you may not be aware of…electrical stimulation.

One form is 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’ve watched the SWAT reality show from a few years ago called, “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, PowerDot EMS, and Katylist full-body EMS and prefer the remote dog shock collar, PowerDot, and Katylist for myself and a dog shock collar or PowerDot for others 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.  Tasers and stun guns are designed to be pretty intense.

The goal with stress training is to inoculate, not overwhelm.  You want 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.  If you do push things to failure, you want to back off immediately and get success at a lower intensity.

There are three 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 an inert training platform, like a SIRT, blue gun, airsoft training gun, or T4E paintball.

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.

The third way that I use shock is to make a limb unusable for shooting.  As an example, I’ll put the PowerDot on my right arm, turn up the intensity so that it causes my hand to grip and not release, and set it on a 20-30 second cycle.  When it’s off, I can use my right arm like normal.  When it powers up, my right arm becomes useless and I have to transition and run the gun with my left hand (while dealing with the discomfort/pain in my right arm).  I believe this is much more useful for training for a support-hand-only shooting scenario than the contrived setup where you make a fist with your primary hand to improve your grip with your support hand.

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.

Paying homage to Clausewitz, 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 training my skills to the point where they’re automated.

And, even if you’re not interested AT ALL in stress induced by pain, stress inoculation, state control, and training to automaticity are all things that every shooter should be working on…both separately and as integrated skills.

Not interested in pain, but still want to do stress training?  Trust me, I get it.  We incorporate several non-painful techniques for elevating stress levels during gun training in Praxis.  They are techniques that you can use on your own or with your training group.  If you haven’t signed up for Praxis yet, you really should.  Check out the informational video now and sign up at the end by going to

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 not be appropriate for you mentally or physically, 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.

Like this stuff?  Like I said, there are several stress induction techniques embedded in the drills that come with the Praxis Dynamic Gunfight Training.

In addition, I’m on track to release my latest book in the next few weeks.  It has 14! different techniques that you can add to any drill to up the stress level (a little or a lot) so that you can be building resilient and anti-fragile skills rather than simply building paper-punching range skills.

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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  • Alan D Kerby

    Reply Reply October 8, 2021


    Enjoyed the post. A couple of points. As you note, introducing high levels of stress at the wrong time for new trainees can induce neurological damage, maybe even a permanent injury that will hinder their potential long-term performance. This is a real problem as many trainers don’t recognize the potential damage that can occur. Maybe these trainers need to heed the Hippocratic principle of “do no harm” (check out the Building Shooters article

    Second, I personally do not like to use the term “inoculation.” Inoculation by definition most often refers to medically receiving a vaccine that keeps you from getting (or diminishing the severity of) a particular disease. Many beginning students erroneous get the idea that going to a high stress scenario or a force-on-force class will “inoculate” them to future gunfight related stress. After all, “I’ve gone to the training class.” Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.

    We don’t want them to be inoculated against stress (through their one-time training exposure, or even a follow-up booster), but rather to become resilient to increasing levels of stress, which is an ongoing process through training. Stress response from an ambush is different from the stress of an unfolding event. Anyone can become Pavlov’s dog but learning to mitigate stress is more than just the physiological aspects (gun handling), it is also psychological, which includes mindset. I would even say that the psychological (mindset) is more important. Some training programs discuss mindset in passing, but it is more difficult to incorporate into actual training as it currently exists.

    For those who may be interested, the STRONG Project teaches military members mindfulness, which improves attention, situational awareness, and the ability to better manage and recover from stress (

    Back to “DO NO HARM.” I would say the majority of trainers who use aversion or high-stress induced training probably do not have any training (medical or psychological) to understand the impact (or consequences) of their training methods. They probably read about what someone else (who may or may not have any expertise) was doing and thought to give it a try. Maybe students need to ask qualifying questions before submitting themselves to such training or trainers need to offer full disclosure that they are using techniques for which they not trained to use and students do so at their own risk. Good luck with that.

    One of the best stress resilience training models (beyond mindfulness training) is interleaved training leading to good decision-making. The soon to be released NURO Shooting System is one such model. Stay tuned.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply October 8, 2021

      I agree with you on your interpretation of inoculation…mine is different and I think I’ll go back and clarify. An inoculation is when you receive an attenuated version of a virus so that you are eventually able to handle full exposure. Same with inoculation to stress. If you’re training to perform at a stress level of “10” and you’ve done all of your skill development at “0,” then you inoculate by gradually ramping up.

      I agree on mindfulness. It’s been going in & out of favor since Jedi, Strozi-Heckler, and others who we know who’s influence was a little more behind the scenes.

      For most training, high stress is a filter and not a lifter (as Ken Murray would say) and there isn’t much learning that goes with it.

      NURO’s going to be a great step forward. Mine are about 2 feet away from me as I write this 🙂

      • Alan D Kerby

        Reply Reply October 10, 2021


        Thanks for the feedback and point taken. Follow-up thoughts. I reviewed some of the animal research on stress training. The term inoculation seemed to be used to describe the various training techniques that would ultimately lead to some level of stress resilience (changed behaviors). Same for Stress Inoculation Training (SIT) programs, which use progressive training stressors (the inoculators) over time with the end goal of developing stress resilience.

        A good analogy from the medical field might be allergy immunotherapy. When I was working for an Allergist, we would give injections of progressively stronger doses of the particular allergens a patient was having problems with in order to build a stronger immune response and decrease their sensitivity to the allergens. Slow progression over time was essential to avoid an adverse response. These treatments were tailored to the individual patient.
        As you have noted, after learning the fundamentals of firearms handling with very low stress (sometimes even touching a firearm can be very stressful for some) introducing progressive levels of stress through various interleaved drills (the inoculation phase) over time will lead to stress resilience for a variety of scenarios.

        A couple of takeaways. Progressively introduced stress training techniques, which almost has to be individualized, must occur over time. Unfortunately, to be effective, neither can be accomplished in the typical 1-2 day program. In fact, serious neurological damage may occur to those who are not ready for an intense stress immersion program. No positive learning takes place. In addition, the current business model does not lend itself to progressive training over time.

        Of course, you understand all this. Just sharing additional thoughts for your readership. Keep up the good work.

  • 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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