Controlling Fear & Making Sound Decisions Under Stress

Controlling Fear & Making Sound Decisions Under Stress
By Tom Givens,

Range Master
Range Master

Memphis, TN –-( When a responsible person first begins going armed, he is usually haunted by two recurring questions, or self-doubts:

  1. If I’m really attacked, and my life is at stake, will I be able to handle it?
  2. What if I screw up and kill an innocent person?

This is a normal reaction, and to a degree it is healthy. We do, however, need to address these issues and resolve them, before a conflict, so that they will not raise their ugly heads when we should be concentrating on winning the fight.

Remember, if an unavoidable fight is thrust upon us, we MUST WIN!

The alternative can be death, or crippling injury. The first issue to face is that of FEAR. Fear is a normal reaction to physical violence for most people. In addition, since most of us no longer have military experience and live in “civilized” surroundings, we may not have ever actually engaged in a true fight before our moment of truth in a criminal attack. This fear of the unknown is, for many, worse than the fear of being hurt or killed.

First, let me say this. Unless you are an exceptional person, a nutcase, or a liar, and you have actually been involved in armed conflict, you have tasted fear. I’m not ashamed to say I have been scared several times, and I fully expect to be scared again before my life is over. What you must learn to do is control your fear, and do what you must to win.

Fear can be controlled and overcome, even in life threatening circumstances. This is obviously true, and it is proven every day by hundreds of ordinary people all over the country. Here are some

Steps you can take to make this process easier:

  1. Admit to yourself you are afraid, then move on. Concentrate your mental energies on the task at hand, not on your fear of death, injury, or loss of ego.
  2. Avoid dwelling on the chance of failure. Concentrate on finding a way to win.
  3. Take control of yourself. Autogenic breathing is the very best and most efficient way to do this. (Details later.)
  4. Focus on getting the job done.
  5. Have a Plan B. Always, always, always, expect Plan A to fail. Expect your gun to malfunction. Expect the suspect to stay up after being hit solidly. Expect to be injured. If any of these things occur, have a pre-planned option to continue (Plan B).
  6. Turn anger into a motivator. Who does this clown think he is?!? What makes him think he has the right to (rob/rape/kill/ pick one) me?!?
  7. Accept an element of fate in every situation. You can get hurt by accident after doing everything right. Control everything you CAN control (selection of equipment, getting adequate training and practice, being alert, thinking tactically) so there are fewer things you CAN NOT control. Stack the odds in your favor and fate has a lot less impact.

Courage under fire is not a matter of being without fear. It is a matter of being able to control fear and accomplish your mission, which is to stay alive. Only fools are fearless.

The other nagging self-doubt concerns over-reacting and shooting someone under unjustifiable circumstances. If you are reading this, that will not happen. Citizens who are responsible enough to obtain carry permits, seek expensive training, make time for practice sessions, etc. are simply too honest, caring, and self disciplined to shoot people without just cause.

In my own state, there have been eight fatal shootings by permit holders in the past three years. Every single one was judged to be justifiable and lawful by the Attorney General’s office. Not one of these permit holders was charged with any crime nor were they sued for anything.

Why? Because every single case was clear-cut, obvious, and morally, legally, and ethically justified. Private citizens have a great reluctance to shoot, even when it is necessary. In fact, for many the problem they will face is the exact opposite of being “trigger happy”. Believe it or not, every day, people who are armed and know how to use their weapons, and who have an opportunity to use their weapons to save their lives, fail to do so and die as a result. This happens to both private citizens and police officers alike.

You ask, “Why on earth would someone who is armed stand there and literally watch a thug kill him?” There are a number of reasons, and they stem from the socialization process that the normal person goes through from birth (but that the criminal does not).

These reasons most often include:

  1.  Moral repugnance to taking a life: You have been taught all of your life that human life is sacred, that to kill is wrong, and that only bad people hurt others.
  2. Failure to be mentally prepared: An astonishing number of people who go armed have never given any thought whatsoever to the fact that they may have to shoot someone. To many, the gun is a talisman, and wearing it is thought to ward off evil spirits. In fact, it is a tool, one used for regaining control of your immediate environment in an emergency.
  3. Failure to understand the dynamics of armed confrontations: Many people armed with firearms are killed by thugs armed with edged weapons because they fail to take the “lesser” weapon seriously; they don’t understand that deadly force is deadly force, whether applied by gun or knife; and they don’t realize how quickly someone at ten feet can appear at one foot.
  4. Inhibition by community pressure and fear of lawsuits: These are trivial matters compared to being killed, raped, or permanently crippled. Get your priorities straight! Unless you are alive, these don’t matter, anyway.
  5. Uncertainty about when deadly force is justified: This is a training issue. Be certain that you understand the laws of your state as they apply to self-defense and the use of deadly force. Once you have internalized this information, it is simple and easy to see when the circumstances fit the law. There is nothing subtle about someone actually trying to kill you! It will be obvious to you, to any witnesses, and to the police.

The best way to be fully mentally prepared to actually press that trigger if you have to, is to develop a well thought out and plainly stated set of rules of engagement, long before you are faced with a crisis. This is referred to as a “pre-made decision”, thought out, verbalized, and firmly planted in your mind in advance.

I suggest the acronym IDOL, which stands for “Immediate Defense of Life”. Make a commitment that you will only fire as a desperate measure to terminate a threat to your own life, or the life of an innocent third party. If you pose an imminent and otherwise unavoidable threat to my life, or that of an associate (wife, partner, etc.) I will act swiftly and decisively to put you down and out. I will reach for my gun for no other reason, period.

Many people think about this incorrectly. They ask themselves, “If he does —-, can I shoot him?” That is a recipe for disaster! Your question should ALWAYS be, “ Do I have to shoot him?” Ask yourself, “If I don’t shoot this man, right here, right now, will I be killed or crippled?” If the answer is Yes, shoot him! If the answer is No, try something else.

As with most things, this is a matter of training. Proper training ingrains the proper responses. Repetition is the mother of all skill. With skill comes confidence. With confidence comes the ability to think under pressure and make sound tactical decisions.

To be of value to you, training must meet the test of the Three R’s. Training must be: RELEVANT REALISTIC RECENT.

Relevant training refers to exercises and skill drills pertinent to the task of self-defense. Bullseye shooting training, for instance, is not particularly relevant.

Realistic training is conducted on humanoid targets, from the holster, with a carry type gun and full powered ammunition, in varied lighting conditions, and under time pressure.

Recent training assures retention of motor skills, which degrade quickly. The skills involved in rapidly firing a full-power weapon with precision are perishable, and are lost completely without frequent practice. I suggest two or three sessions of dry practice at home each week, with at least one range session per month to maintain competency. Practice builds skill, skill builds confidence. Having a well developed skill set, and the confidence that well developed skill engenders, can help you keep your head and stay in control during highly stressful conflicts.

“An amateur practices until he gets it right. A professional practices until he can’t get it wrong.”

Tom Givens and his many renowned guest instructors can provide the serious student with hands-on tactical training and mental preparation for the not-so-unlikely event that you are forced to defend your life or your family in the real world. Visit: