Training: Body Alarm Reaction

By David Kenik published on in Safety and Training

If you are ever in the unfortunate situation of being in a lethal force encounter, your body will be in a heightened state of alarm and will react with chemical and physiological changes. When sensing danger, Body Alarm Reaction (BAR) subconsciously takes over. Under perceived threat, the body, using its natural instinct to survive, produces an adrenal dump that causes increases in pulse rate, blood pressure, and breathing. It also amplifies strength and situational concentration. While those reactions are good for the physical body, they create various physical consequences, which can be distracting and harmful if you don’t know that they are imminent. The good news is that by understanding them, you can counteract them and fight through them.

Man pointing a 1911 pistol at the camera

Facing a gun causes tunnel vision and other body alarm actions.

Physical BAR responses can include tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, decreased dexterity in extremities (especially fingers), impaired thinking, and a distorted sense of time and distance.

Everyone has already experienced BAR in some form or another. That sick feeling in your stomach and chest that instantly occurs when you are involved in a near-miss automobile accident is BAR. Not everyone will experience all BAR reactions, and the intensity will vary for each individual. While these responses sound debilitating, as I said, understanding them will lessen their effects and will enable you to fight through them.

Tunnel vision will restrict your vision to the threat at hand and auditory exclusion will reduce your hearing. You may hear nothing, or you might hear your adversary and nothing else. Many people report not even hearing the sound of their own gun. The danger in this is obvious.

Man pointing a 1911 pistol at the camera

Lower the gun just enough to see over it and threat scan in both directions.

Being oblivious to your surroundings may allow a second criminal to flank you, or you may not hear the commands of a police officer attempting to intervene. To mitigate these responses, after you are involved in a shooting and the bad guy is neutralized, keep your gun on the threat and do a visual scan. If you have a safety or a decocker, engage it. Lower your gun slightly, so you can see over it. Look to the right, and then back to the threat. Look to the left, then back to the threat.

Once the initial scan is done, do it again—looking farther around and farther away. Make threat-scanning part of your practice routine. Every time you finish shooting a string in practice, threat scan before holstering in order to make scanning second nature.

Decreased dexterity in your extremities will reduce your ability to perform fine motor skills. That means that you probably won’t even be able to feel whether your finger is on the trigger, and manipulating a small mechanism such as a slide stop may be impossible. While we can’t change those effects, training can help overcome them.

Actuating the slide stop on a 1911 pistol

Actuating the slide stop is a fine motor skill that will be diminished with the effects of BAR.

Train with gross movements. Instead of using that tiny slide stop, use a gross movement to grip the slide from the rear to rack it for loading. It may take two hands to manipulate devices such as safeties and magazine catch releases. Well-honed motor skills and high competence through training will enable you to overcome the effect of reduced dexterity.

Increased pulse rate, blood pressure, and breathing will most likely make your body shake. The good news is that at combat distances, the shaking will not affect your ability to hit the target. I did not believe it myself until I tried it. Stand 10 feet or so from a target and shake your hands while shooting to simulate your body’s reaction. While the group size certainly opens up, even with shaking, accuracy at combat distances is good enough. It is a good idea to practice this regularly to build confidence for when it happens for real.

A distorted sense of time and distance will do crazy things to your recollection of events. Time may seem to slow dramatically or speed up excessively. You may think you are 30 feet apart, when in reality you may only be standing 8 feet away. While these effects cannot be mitigated, it is imperative to understand them when making statements to the responding police.

racking the slide on a 1911 pistol

The gross movement of racking the slide will be easier to perform under the influence of BAR.

It is imperative not to give the police any statements at the time of the shooting for this exact reason. You don’t want to tell them that you heard one gunshot when five were fired, and you don’t want to tell them you were 30 feet away from your adversary when in reality you were much closer. Your distorted memory can get you in trouble. That’s why it is imperative to inform the responding officers only that the perpetrator attacked you, tried to kill you, and you had to defend yourself. Advise them that you wish to seek counsel with an attorney before making a statement.

A Providence Rhode Island tragedy was possibly the result of the effects of Body Alarm Reaction. Officer Cornel Young, an off-duty, rookie police officer, intervened in an altercation involving firearms outside of a restaurant that he was in at about 2 am. Responding officers found a man with his gun aimed at two people involved in a fight, and did not recognize him, as it was dark and Officer Young was dressed in a hooded sweatshirt, backlit by a streetlight.

Man with a handgun scanning for threats

Make threat-scanning part of your practice routine. Every time you finish shooting a string in practice, threat scan before holstering in order to make scanning second nature.

Not recognizing that Young was a fellow police officer, the two responding officers ordered Young three times to drop his weapon. Young then turned toward the officers, pointing his gun at them, and was fatally shot by the police. The shooting was ruled as justified, because the victim did not identify himself as a police officer, refused three orders to drop his gun, and then pointed the gun at the officers when turning toward them.

While we will never know, I believe that the effects of Body Alarm Reaction caused this terrible chain of events. It is my theory that tunnel vision kept Officer Young from knowing that police officers had arrived on the scene, and that auditory exclusion kept him from hearing the police officers’ orders to drop his gun. When Young turned his head toward the police officers to see what was happening, his body naturally turned with him, aiming his gun toward the police and triggering his fatal shooting. If Officer Young had realized that he may not be seeing and hearing everything, and had he threat scanned with his gun pointing toward the real threat instead of letting it follow his head movements toward the police, events may have had a very different ending.

It is important to realize the effects that Body Alarm Reaction will produce. The way to overcome BAR is through understanding and training. Develop confidence and competence through training, practice visualization of what to do in a lethal situation, and trust your trained instincts.

have you ever experienced Body Alarm Reaction? Do you train for it? How? Share your answers in the comment section.


David Kenik is the owner of Armed Response, author of the book, Armed Response, and co-author of the Armed Response Video Training Series. www.armedresponsetraining.com

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Comments (7)

  • John Krupa

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    You may want to let Dave Grossman (Books – On Killing and On Combat) and Bruce Siddle (Book – Sharpening the Warrior’s Edge) know that you are basically plagiarizing their documented research from their published books and renaming the Sympathetic Nervous System Startle Response to Body Alarm Reaction.

    The SNS startle response system research and training has been around since the mid-1990’s and has been adopted by most professional training academies at the Federal, State and local levels.

    There is no need to rename this information. Call it what it is and give credit to the men that put in the hard work by including the books listed above as references on where you obtained this information.

    We’ll all be at the ILEETA instructor conference next week in St. Louis, MO. (www.ILEETA.org) if you’d like to stop by and apologize to these gentlemen and it would probably be a good idea to remove this article before this turns into a legal matter. Stay safe. – Krup

    John Krupa
    Master Firearms Instructor (ILETSB)

    Reply

  • JOHN

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    Good stuff.

    Made me think about my own training and responses.

    Thank you.

    God bless that officer who lost his life.

    Reply

  • Mike

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    I believe “BAR” symptoms can be mitigated. I think people would be much less impacted by BAR symptoms if they would think about the situations they could be confronted with. I think most just by a gun, get minimal training and forget about it (unfortunately, even some police).

    In Officer Young’s case, I think the problem was that he knew he was a police officer and just assumed everyone else would know that. He was used to being universally recognized by being in uniform. I saw it all of the time in police reports. The reporting officer would write it without key details because he knew what happened and just subconsciously assumed all other police would know what he knew. So, Officer Young did not consider that he was unrecognizable and assumed that the responding officers would know what/who he was. He turned around to basically say “hi”.

    I was a policeman for 39 years, a police firearms instructor for most of that time. I continually did/do what I call “what if” a situation. Whenever I was enroute to a call, I would run through my head possible scenarios to that call and a controlled response to them. Over time, I conditioned myself to already be prepared for a controlled reaction. In emergency situations, where most people were confused, anxious, “running at 90 mph”, etc., I was relatively calm, logical & methodical. If you already have a plan, you are far less likely to be surprised or frightened since, in a way, you have already “been there, done that”. I went to Gunsite twice and Col Cooper’s emphasis on setting the “mental trigger” and being in condition yellow, really helps too.

    I had a shooting in a small apartment. The only symptom that I had was auditory exclusion (fortunately; it would have been ear shattering without it). I had extreme focus on the front sight and trigger control, yet had total peripheral vision and surrounding awareness. When the suspect went down, I (relatively) calmly proceeded in my appropriate duties until relieved by responding units. Because of “what if”, I had previously already thought it all out. I was in control, there was no big surprise, fear, indecision, etc. and no BAR.

    Reply

  • Mitt Radates

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    Good article with important information. I teach my self-defense students that when the adrenaline kicks in, they WILL lose fine motor skills and cognitive thinking. That’s why our training relies on gross motor skills and major muscle groups (basic Krav Maga). And why, when their “lizard brain” is in charge, they have only their training to rely on, so train like your life depends on it.

    Reply

  • Dan H.

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    Great points are made throughout this article. I just wanted to add that our law enforcement and military community is not immune to the effects of BAR which is more commonly referred to as “Fight, Flight, or Freeze” reaction.

    Many military & law enforcement members train to overcome the effects of BAR, by using physical stress to mimic the symptoms. Drills requiring thought and high physical output are conducted once loaded down with ammo, weapon, and body armor. These drills raise blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, and increase tunnel vision on targets to make shots count. While this serves to give the shooter awareness of the body’s response to extreme stress and practice making important shots accurately under that stress, it fails to meet the demands of “Fight, Flight, Freeze” reactions during real situations.

    Deployed military members have a distinct advantage over law enforcement and private citizens encountering these effects when an ambush or surprise engagement occurs. Although enemy ambushes on the military typically have greater fire power to include use of IEDs, RPGs, and automatic weapons set in defended positions, the average distance of contact for troops in Afghanistan is 200 meters vs 21 feet (6.4 meters) for civilian and law enforcement engagements. The added distance coupled with longer engagements, allows a greater opportunity for military members involved in these engagements to reduce the total impact BAR has on their ability to perceive the threat, accurately engage the threat, and ultimately neutralize the enemy. Albeit, the military engagements typically result in higher casualties but this article is about BAR and not the number of casualties inflicted.

    Without jumping into studies for precise numbers, I would estimate the greatest effects on the mind and body occur within the first 5 minutes of engagement (which is a life time in a gun fight). Unfortunately and fortunately, engagements encountered by concealed carry members will rarely last for a full 5 minutes, much less beyond. Therefore, it is important for our concealed carry community to train for situations of extremely close engagements under high stress with no prior notice that an engagement is likely. Never underestimate the value of surprise, as it will shock your body’s response almost as much as being shot; hence why some people “freeze”.

    Some of the best training I have done, included using simulated munitions, which are lower velocity plastic bullets filled with paint. These simulated munitions provide a visual indicator that a “target strike” has occurred and provides a healthy sting to reinforce the effects of being shot during a simulated assault. When using two highly trained personnel with a single round (each) to expend at less than 10 feet, you would be shocked to learn how often both persons fail to hit their target. Most often, a round is fired immediately after draw and before presentation of the weapon has been made. Resulting in a ground strike or other non-lethal strike.

    In addition to one on one training, I have also trained in a room with numerous exterior doors and only one concealed carry per a group of 8 – 10 people. This simulates a meeting, at which time an unknown number of active shooters will enter the room, the ensuing chaos and panic, coupled with the sting of a simulated munition, has been the most effective training tool I have ever been a part of. It is worth the added expense to find a training program that incorporates a form of training using simulated munitions. Just knowing a real welt making penalty is entering through the door really kicks in the effects of BAR and gives you a good idea of what to expect, if and when the real deal happens.

    Reply

  • DOUGLAS PRATO

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    I am 73 years old and I have all of those symptoms on a daily basis and I haven’t ever been in a situation where I had to make the decision to even pull my gun let alone shoot someone. Can’t image what would happen to me if I had to do that and got the BAR on top of what I already have?

    Reply

  • Leon Amer

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    I felt what this author calls BAR when I used to skydive, but didn’t know it had a name then. Though freefall from 10,000 ft above ground till chute deployment at 3000 took about a minute, the adrenaline in my blood was amping my pulse more and more the closer we got to exit altitude, and on the way down it stretched my sense of time so that each second felt like a minute. Good thing I had an altitude-sensitive alarm beeper in my helmet’s ear pocket to supplement the visual altimeter on my wrist.

    Reply

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