Recognizing Stress and Your Response
June 1, 2021Civilian Marksmanship Program▸The First Shot▸Recognizing Stress and Your Response
Submitted by Mike Judd
Mike Judd, 57, of Salt Springs, Florida, is a retired School District Administrator, retired Air National Guard Master Sergeant and former police officer. He has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Arts degree in Educational Leadership from the University of Central Florida. A lifelong shooter, Mike began shooting highpower in 2013. In 2016, he earned the Distinguished Rifleman Badge. He and his wife Brenda currently compete in Highpower, Service Pistol and Games rifle events.
The body has a natural response to stress. By understanding and recognizing when your body is under stress, you can learn to control your response. This Stress Response is often referred to as the “Fight or Flight” response.
Stress is a condition of strain on your emotions, thought processes and physical condition. When it’s excessive, it can threaten your ability to cope with your environment. When you experience a stressor, your body goes through the three stages of stress, unless the process is stopped. A stressor can be a mugger in an alley or an important match you are competing in.
The Stress Response has physical effects that you can feel, if you know what to look for. The Stress Response occurs in three stages:
- Alarm Stage
The Alarm Stage occurs as the match approaches and during the early stages of the match. You may think about how much time, money and effort you’ve put in to doing well. In Highpower, the Alarm Stage is in full swing just as you’re trying to shoot off-hand. During the Alarm Stage you don’t think clearly, you have increased heart rate, breathing rate, muscle tension and blood pressure. Blood is directed to the large muscle groups. Your pupils dilate and hearing becomes more acute. The signs I find easiest to detect during a match are feeling/hearing pulse in my ears when my earplugs are inserted and increased muscle tension.
2. Adaptation or Resistance Stage
As you get acclimated to the stressor, symptoms of stress may subside. Your body begins to repair the damage caused by the Stress Response. Your mind begins to function more clearly. However, these repairs use up available hormones. This may occur during the match as you focus on the process of shooting the match.
3. Exhaustion Stage
This is the feeling of exhaustion you get after a stressful match. Your resources are depleted and your adaptation energy is exhausted. Ever wonder why you’re so tired when all you did was shoot 50 rounds?
The same system that causes the Stress Response can also turn it off. The easiest way to elicit the Relaxation Response is also the easiest to perform during a match. Simply breathing differently can reduce the Stress Response. When under the effects of stress, we tend to take quick short breathes. When you notice the symptoms of stress, close your eyes and take deep slow breathes inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Breathe evenly until you notice the stress symptoms easing.
Another technique for reducing stress that also helps Natural Point of Aim (NPA) is Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). The goal of PMR is to distinguish between feelings of relaxation and tension in your muscles. This technique takes a little practice away from the range, but is very worthwhile. PMR is accomplished by tensing and relaxing muscle groups. This process short circuits the stress feedback loop. With some practice, you can learn to identify and relax tense muscle groups during a match without completing the full process.
Begin by setting in a quiet place. A recording of the process or other relaxing sound is helpful. Start at the top of your body and work down. Tense each muscle group for seven seconds, then relax for 45 seconds. Do this twice for each muscle group. After you have completed the procedure, do an inventory of each muscle group by scanning for tension, working from your head to your toes.
Self-talk is exactly what it sounds like. It is the internal discussion we have with ourselves. Before and during a match, self-talk should be positive. Like many people, I wasn’t a big fan of off-hand when I began shooting Highpower. I decided to tell myself before each match, “I love off-hand,” “I’m going to do better than most of these guys because they hate off-hand.”
I was recently at a match where it had been raining hard enough that the match was delayed until it let up enough that we could at least see the targets. The shooter I was scoring for said, “I’ve already got half of these guys beat. They are telling themselves how miserable they are going to be shooting while lying in water.” He’s right. Negative self-talk leads to bad performance. When I fire a poor shot, I don’t beat myself up. I tell myself, “settle down,” “you’re better than that” or “it’s all 10s and Xs from here out.”
Several other authors have related that by focusing on your shot process rather than the importance of the match, shot or next shots. You can stop distracting thoughts that decrease performance. A good shot process is the routine you follow for each shot. It needs to be specific, thorough and practiced. Be careful that it doesn’t become so routine that your mind wonders to stress inducing thoughts.
Combining these techniques can dramatically reduce the Stress Response. If I feel nervous during off-hand, I rest my rifle on my cart, close my eyes and take deep even breathes while feeling for muscle tension. If I find tense muscles, I relax them. I visualize my shot process. If I am performing this after a poor shot, I quickly try to determine the cause of the poor shot and, using self-talk and a review of my shot process, try to fix the issue and reinforce my positive outlook. Usually after a few seconds I am ready to continue. I stay alert for any of the signs of stress and repeat the techniques as necessary.
More information about these subjects is available online. You can learn to control your response to “match nerves,” but it takes work.