Overcoming Panic And The "Startle" Response
April 11, 2011 by David Morris
What is the startle response, how might it affect you in a crisis situation, and how can you keep it from turning into full blown panic?
Startle response is a term used to describe a person’s reaction to sudden and unexpected danger. For example:
- You turn a corner and there’s a man pointing a gun at your chest.
- You’re sitting in your car and from out of nowhere somebody knocks on your window.
- You are walking along and shots are fired from the rear.
- A loud explosion erupts and everybody around you panics.
- You wake up in the middle of the night and a stranger is standing over you holding a knife.
These are examples of situations that may trigger a "startle response."
Now keep this thought in mind: Trainers who talk about the startle response are actually being diplomatic. Startle is a polite word for panic. Nobody wants to think they may panic under stress, so we call it by another name. It helps make us feel a little bit better. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to talk about “startle” as being in control and “panic” as not being in control.
What happens under startle?
First there is a stimulus: Shots are fired. Then we have a reaction: Fight or flight.
When faced with a threat that is sudden and unexpected, here’s what usually happens. Stimuli trigger a flight response, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in, we retreat and lose our ability to use fine motor skills and proper tactics.
In a startle response, fear overwhelms us and our mind becomes preoccupied with thoughts of doubt, injury and death. We become convinced we can’t handle the threat. We automatically succumb to a flight reaction.
When we are "panicked" our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and we lose control of our fine and complex motor skills. Complex skills involving eye-hand coordination suffer, as do hearing and peripheral vision. Our ability to focus our eyes decreases and tunnel vision sets in. And it gets progressively worse.
In this scenario, we go from stimulus to flight reaction. However, for whatever reason, we suppress the urge to flee and prepare to fight. The problem with that is that, in panic mode, our tactics and skills go flying right out the window. Our ability to survive is impaired and all we can depend upon is luck.
Remove the unexpected element and the same stimulus triggers aggression, a fight response. We stay clear-headed and in control. Our training and muscle memory responses kick in. We are able to use proper tactics.
We want to be able to respond to a threatening situation with confidence and control. To do this we must assess the threat and believe that we can handle it. And we must eliminate the unexpected aspect.
Remember, startle is a response to unexpected and sudden danger. If we expect danger, we inoculate ourselves against a startle response. Let’s go back to the color code system for a moment.
In condition yellow, you say to yourself: “Today is the day that I may have to use lethal force to protect my life or the lives of others under my protection.” With that in mind, when you come face-to-face with danger, you say to yourself, “I knew this would happen someday, I know what to do. I am ready for it. And I will survive, no matter what.”
A panic response can only be triggered by the combination of sudden and unexpected danger. We can prevent the startle response by being in condition yellow (casually aware) at all times. In effect, we eliminate the “unexpected” from the deadly combination of sudden and unexpected danger.
We can effectively deal with sudden danger by simply expecting it to happen. Soldiers in combat do it all the time. Cops are constantly subject to sudden danger. In reality, civilians are too—just not as often.
Unexpected danger is more likely to cause a fear response. We must break the link between sudden and unexpected.
If our self-confidence is high and our skills effective, even when violence is sudden, we will progress automatically from stimulus, to aggression (controlled anger), to tactics.
It takes self-confidence and a well-practiced repertoire of effective tactics and training to walk out the door every day and remind yourself that today is the day some bad guy might try to do you in and that you expect it, are ready for it and will respond as you have been trained. With high self-confidence, you will stay calm, in control and be able to deal with any situation, problem or threat that comes along.
I am not saying that a flight reaction is wrong or bad. What I’m saying is that employing appropriate tactics is critical to our survival. If we have to make a hasty withdrawal from the scene, that’s okay, but we must do so in the best way and avoid a panic reaction.
Research indicates that once the sympathetic nervous system is activated, vital functions are seriously impaired. But the good news is we can go on “automatic” and rely upon our training and motor-memory skills to handle the problem.
Once we have mastered the I CAN DO WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE thought process, we can easily progress from the element of surprise, to controlled aggression, to required tactics.
In your mind’s eye, see yourself reacting to various sudden danger scenarios, calmly at first. Then, in your mental imagery, move into controlled anger: How dare this guy pull a gun on me. Your mind will focus and your subconscious will take over. You will automatically perform as you have trained.
One specific way to prepare for reacting after being startled is to study the startle response and incorporate it into your training. I’ve had the privilege of spending quite a bit of time with world-renowned firearms instructor, Rob Pincus from Integrity, Consistency and Efficiency (I.C.E.) Training. One of the things that Rob teaches is not to start your draw stroke as if you’re about to do an Old West quick-draw contest.
Rather, start your draw stroke by being relaxed and then mimicking your startle response. For most people, this will mean bending the knees and dropping your weight about six inches, putting your feet about shoulder width apart, curling your spine forward slightly, dropping your chin to your chest and raising your hands to your face/neck, facing outward to protect your neck against attack.
This response puts you in a position where you can quickly and efficiently respond to physical attacks. For many people, it’s instinctive to assume this pose, or something close, when they’re startled.
So, the next time you’re doing firearms training (live fire or dry fire) or even hand-to-hand training, try this sequence:
- Assume a relaxed position that you would be in if you were in public going about your business.
- Quickly assume the “startle” position.
- Start your firearms or hand-to-hand sequence from here.
The next time you do get startled, take a second to observe yourself and use that as your “startle” positioning in the future.
There is a very fundamental reason for training like this… you want your training to be as much like real life as possible. If you always train by starting squared up to your target with your hands at your side or at belt level in front of you and you find yourself startled with your hands at your face, your muscle memory isn’t going to be very effective.
If, on the other hand, you begin your training sequence by going into your startle position, you will be training your body how to respond when you are, in fact, startled and need to respond.
This is one more instance where training like you intend to fight will pay dividends if you have to defend yourself in a violent encounter.