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Overcoming Panic And The “Startle” Response

April 11, 2011 by  

Overcoming Panic And The “Startle” Response

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.

–David Morris

Dr. David Eifrig Jr.

is the editor of two of Stansberry's best advisory services. One of his advisories, Retirement Millionaire, is a monthly letter showing readers how to live a millionaire lifestyle on less than you'd imagine possible. He travels around the U.S. looking for bargains, deals and great investment ideas. Already his average reader has saved $2,793 since 2008 (documented in each Retirement Millionaire issue). He also writes Retirement Trader, a bi-monthly advisory that explains simple techniques to make large, but very safe, gains in the stock and bond markets. This is a pure finance play and the reason Porter Stansberry loves having "Doc" on the team. Doc holds an MBA from Kellogg and has worked in arbitrage and trading groups with major Wall Street investment banks (Goldman Sachs). In 1995, he retired from the "Street," went to UNC-Chapel Hill for medical school and became an ophthalmologist. Now, in his latest "retirement," he joined Stansberry & Associates full-time to share with readers his experiences and ideas.

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  • Traci

    about 3 months ago I was sitting in the passenger side of my vehichel reading a magazine with my 3year old twins sleeping in their carseat in the parking lot at Texas de Brasil at about 11am while myhusband was running an errand nearby…I heard a tap tap tap I looked up and there was a huge black man telling me to roll down my window… I screamed no freakinway and had one hand on 911 and the other hand on the horn blaring wildly…5 seconds later I realized he was more frightened than I was and he said mam Im the parking lot attendant~your husband told me your a bootmaker and I wanted a business card..ooops! just months before one of my dear friends was lounging by the pool a few blocks away from this area and a man stabbed her and dragged her to her appartment and robbed her luckily her husband was inside the apartment and called 911 immediately but the guy got away…and she will never be the same!!!she should never have been at that pool alone! as gas and food prices rise its inevitable crime will as well.

    • granny mae

      When I was younger I had several close calls. Going home from some place or even one time coming home from work. Now that I’m old and in a mobility chair I have come to realize that I am vulnerable. There are times when my husband might be in town running errands or something and I stay home. At first I used to think I was safe out here in the sticks but not any more. You never know when someone will be coming down that lane and you don’t have a clue as to who they are and if you don’t hear them comming you can’t be ready for any problem that is why I decided to get a dog. At least the dog lets me know when someone is coming and I can make sure I have my protection close by. You just can’t be too trusting now days even with people you think you know !

      • libertytrain

        Grannie I’m alone most of the time up here in the mountains as well, so I like the yappy barking dogs to let me know when they are not happy about something.

        • granny mae

          Amen !

          My very same idea in getting a dog! This is going to be a very big dog too! Now all I have to do is plan on being able to feed this crazy mutt when times get real tough! I keep telling him if he doesn’t straighten up soon he may find himself dinner some day ! He just looks at me and rubs and loves all over me ! He is funny. I named him Bubba !!!

          • libertytrain

            I’m sure he’s a little doll.

  • sean murrey

    yes crime will rise as a result of high prices people are getting desprate.

    • Al Sieber

      I agree, we haven’t seen nothing yet.

    • 45caliber

      Not all crime is caused by high prices. Most actually is not.

      About half our crime is caused by someone who wants to increase his/her income without risking the loss of a welfare check. Much of the rest of it is related to drug use. They run out of money, don’t have anything to sell, and can’t get or hold a job.

      • granny mae


        That is so right. I personally know of two people that are drug users and as long as they have a job they are alright but when one of them looses their job they start stealing and even the toys of their children come up missing. I have know neighbors of mine that resort to getting in cars in the neighborhood and stealing money out of the cars. My next door neighbor use to go to play bingo all the time and she always left her bingo money in her car and like an idiot she never locked her car! Her money came up missing one day. I never left money in my car and never left it unlocked even in my own driveway !

    • EddieW

      That’s exactly why we shold ALL be in Condition Yellow, when we are outside our homes…being in condition white, makes us subserviant to the demands of an attacker! That’s precisely why the woman could easily be forced anywhere her attacker wanted! When one is in public, he/she should always be alert and expecting the unexpected!

  • CabotAR

    Don’t feel bad. This is called self-preservation &, this is the new America that all of us have to protect ourselves & children.

  • Don

    Unfortunately i think it called ” change you can believe in “

  • Carlucci

    Great article.

  • TIME

    I strongly feel that people are sold on the idea to have FEAR / FEARS, thus I also strongly feel that every person in the US should serve for at least two full years in the Military.
    Thus they would be better able to understand how to handle any situation at hand. Never fear Death, its natural.

    Boldly question, as well aggressively study how to better understand human nature.
    Then when someone sticks a gun in your chest, you will know just what to do to take it away from them. Learn to control your inner self, remove the word FEAR from your mind you have nothing to fear but fear that your told to fear.

    Ask; why are you being sold on fear?

  • 45caliber

    Anyone can be startled. But panic sets in if you have no idea of what to do. If you have thought about it earlier (i.e., thought about what you would do in some particular situation) you will generally not panic but will react instead. If you have enough experience in something you will also react.

    For instance, you suspect some man is following you down the street. If you haven’t considered that before, you will likely panic and may run. If you have thought about it, you are far more likely to simply duck into a store and see if he follows you inside. If he does, you are more likely to go to another shop to see if he follows you there. If he does, you are then more likely to call a cop while remaining in a crowded area where he is far more unlikely to attack you.

    Most people can basically cure panic but many won’t.

  • Dan az

    Everyone feels the same in stress situations, the difference between killing and being killed is in your attitude toward those signs. Which thoughts and emotions do those physical signs of stress provoke in you? Do you think:

    *”Oh my god, I’m so scared right now that I can’t feel my hands!” *”My heart’s beating out of my chest and everyone can see it, I don’t have any chance against this guy and we both know it!” *”My hands are shaking so bad I can’t even hold my weapon!”

    Or do you think:

    * “I have so much adrenaline in my body right now that I won’t feel any pain! Go ahead and try to shoot / stab / hit me, I won’t even notice it until after you’re long dead!” *”My heart’s beating out of my chest to increase the blood flow in my body and everyone can see it in the rippling of my muscles! If anyone was ever ready to fight, then its me right now!” *”There’s so much power flowing through my body right now that I can’t help but shake! This guy has no chance against me and we both know it!”

    Like I said, everyone experiences combat stress, but whether you let it work for or against you is something that only your can decide.

  • http://com i41

    See a 22 year old man shot a 50+ man coming up on his pickup in Az with a drawen gun. The 22 year old got off as an act of self defense for popping a few rounds into the puke. If everyone carried a gun and was treatened or witnessed a crime, shoot the perp, and let St Peter settle it. We can start on the borders!

  • AJS

    Don’t forget panic in response to other, non confrontational, everyday situations. Two real life examples. My wife was driving one day and we were involved in an accident. It happened fast, the one thing I remember most about it was that as it started my wife’s hands flew off the steering wheel and went to her face, specifically it looked like the old “knuckle biting” pose. I always wondered why she did that. I figured you probably wanted to keep your hands on the wheel right? But after reading this I realize it was the panic response.

    A couple of weeks ago I had a grease fire in my kitchen. A big one, an entire broiler pan erupted from one end to the other. If you have never had a full blown grease fire suddenly erupt in your face you can’t imagine it. Look it up online and you can see some videos, usually from fire prevention sights. I can see how people panic.

    Luckily I had seen a program on discovery or something about grease fires a few years ago and ever since then I had kept a big pot lid and a towel next to the stove for exactly that situation. I never used that lid for cooking. Numerous times my wife would tell me to put the lid away were it belonged: in the cubbard. She didn’t mind the towel. And then she would roll her eyes and shake her head at me when I told her what it and the towel were for. “You worry to much” was a typical response. Everytime I looked at that lid and towel I thought about what I would do if I had a grease fire.

    I did not realize I was mentally preparing for a fire but thats what I was doing. And then I had one. I froze for a second because this fire was way bigger than a single pot lid could handle. I had not mentaly prepared for a fire of this size. For that second all I could think of was “Grab the Kids! Get out now!” But then I just went ahead and did exactly what I had always imagined myself doing every time I saw that lid and towel: I put the pot lid on it. Poof! About 40% of the fire was out just like that.

    Ever heard the expresion “My mind was numb”? Well my mind was because now I needed another pot lid and I couldn’t remember were they were. I had no idea were to find the other pot lids I used every day. Were the heck were they? Finally I remembered and I methodically grabbed another lid from the cubberd and plopped it down on the other side. About 80% of the fire was now out. Next I grabbed the towel, soaked it, rung it out real quick, and laid it over the entire thing. Poof! Fire was out.

    The shakes started about a minute later. I was surprised that I got them, probably shouldn’t have been. But thats OK, it was over. While it was happening I remember moving very deliberately (muscle memory?) almost calm, but I was anything but calm inside.

    That same pot lid and towel sit next to the stove just as before, but I have a new understanding of just how important they are. But I think my mental preperation was 10 times more important. There were numerous ways to put out that fire (including the class B-C-D extinguisher I keep in the kitchen) but I bet you I would not have been able to think of a single one if I hadn’t thought about it and prepared for it beforehand.

    • libertytrain

      Good story, and thought-provoking. thanks

    • 45caliber

      I’m not sure why but I never panic. It comes in handy at times. And I’ve been in several life-and-death situations. My wife used to ALWAYS put grease in a pan and then go watch tv while it warmed up. We had a grease fire a couple of times a year for many years. She was really upset when I put a fire extinguisher in the kitchen and really was upset when I used it on one of her fires as it left yellow dust all over everything. She could put out the fire with a lid!

      Well, she tried one time. The lid was warped and fire leaked out around the edges despite the stove being off. And electric heat doesn’t disappear immediately. I couldn’t remove the lid – it would explode. IF YOU USE LIDS TO PUT OUT A FIRE MAKE SURE THE LID IS NOT WARPED AND DO NOT _ NOT_ NOT!!! REMOVE IT! Another bad thing – DON’T THROW WATER ON A GREASE FIRE!!

      I picked up the pan and carried it outside while it continued to burn. Moving the pan swept the flame down across my left hand. I had a 3rd degree burn from it and still have scars from it.

      The only good things were that 1) I had an aloa vera plant and used a leave on the burn immediately. (You cut the skin of the leave, roll it inside out, and crush it before putting it on the burn. If you don’t have the plant, get one.) As a result the pain went away and I didn’t have more problems with pain. The flames probably burned the nerve endings as well. 2) My wife agreed to get a gas fired stove so she HAD to stay with it when she heated the grease and hasn’t set fire to another pan since.

  • Susan

    One other thing. Trust your intuition. Several years ago I while on my way to a client, I stopped at a convenience store to get something to drink. There were a couple of men hanging around the front of the store, but this is not uncommon. I went inside and just did not have a good feeling. I bought my drink and exited very quickly. An hour or so later, I passed that same store and there were several patrol cars outside and uniformed police. The place had been held up. I always listen to my inner gut.


    Just remember, you have a right to protect yourself…no matter what it requires. And first: “I’d rather be judged by twelve, than carried by six”, and second: “when seconds count, the police are just minutes away”. Like the man said when he was asked why he carried a concealed firearm…”Because a police officer is too heavy!”

  • http://hotmail Susan

    I was driving home from the store one night and stoped at a light. A car was in front of me and a fellow was crossing the road, he stopped in front of the car in front of me and instead of going across the road walked beside the car and kept comming toward my car. I always leave my door unlocked and never thought much about it before but something told me to lock it and hurry, so I reached up and with my elbow hit the lock. The fellow came closer to my door and raised his hand and threw it down and said the f word and walked back behind my car and dissapeared in the night. I can’t imagine what might have happened if I hadn’t locked the door, now I automaticly lock my door when there is a person outside of my car no matter how they look.


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