When the Adrenaline Hits the Fan

Detonics Mark 1 Combat Master .45, rapidfire at seven yards.

A lot of instructors make much of the loss of fine motor control when you are in the throes of an adrenaline rush. They are correct; it has been scientifically demonstrated that this occurs. Many have interesting and varied theories about the effect of this in combat, and what to do about it.

An adrenaline dump occurs when the amygdala, the collective name for the portions of your brain dedicated to dealing with strong emotions, decides that a fight-or-flight response is needed. To give you the tools to help you survive it instructs your brain to trigger the adrenal glands, located above your kidneys, to dump adrenaline into your system. This is not a graduated thing; your autonomous system has determined that if you don’t act now it’s over, so it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. It doesn’t trickle adrenaline into your system, it dumps it. This makes your heart beat faster, increases blood flow, and tells your body to rapidly process sugars for energy. Your eyes dilate to take in extra light and information, and the increased oxygen and sugar sharpens your reflexes and temporarily increases your strength. It also erodes your fine motor control.

But a lot of these instructors forget or overlook a simple reality; as competition shooter Tim Bacus points out, operating a pistol does not require fine motor control. Want to carve the Lord’s Prayer on a grain of rice, or paint it on the tail-light of your hotrod? Or just thread a needle? If you experience an adrenaline dump you are probably out of luck. But people can and do operate pistols just fine.

Adrenaline dumps are more or less created equal. It was determined in the ’80s that a competitive shooter’s adrenaline dump from ‘match nerves’ is functionally identical to one caused by a lethal threat, which makes sense. Your brain has decided it GO TIME. It doesn’t calculate how much you need and meter it out; it’s the full-meal-deal or nothing. Yet participants in action shooting sports regularly perform awesome feats of marksmanship and gun manipulation. How?

Training and mental preparedness. If you have practiced your manual of arms to the point where the actions are automatic you will perform them as fast or faster under the impact of an adrenaline dump. Getting a sight picture, reloading, clearing a jam- all easy if you are trained and mentally prepared. Yes, if you aren’t trained you are going to fumble these actions a bit, but that’s as much a function of trying to perform an unfamiliar task in a hurry as any physiological reason.

Similarly people with little training tend to shoot more poorly during an adrenaline dump, and even competitors sometimes find this happening. Under pressure it’s only natural to be in a rush, and that does not make for good accuracy. But- I and some other shooters actually shoot better under an adrenaline dump. Training and other physiological effects of the adrenaline dump counter the shakes and whatever loss of motor control there is. The extra strength lets us clamp down and overcome the shakes, the increased focus gives us greater precision etc.

My suggestion would be to practice all aspects of gun handling and manipulation over and over again, until they become automatic. Don’t try to do them fast- just do them right every time. When that adrenaline hits you will do what you trained to do. Best to train the right habits; in the fight adrenaline will give you all the speed you need.

That’s my two cents. I’m not a doctor, or a trainer, researcher or what have you. I’m just a guy with s few decades of experience watching how things play out in the real world, so take this for what it’s worth.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 5 August 2019

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