Adaptation to Stress Through Training and Education


“To provoke the police to shoot them, 50% pointed their firearm at officers, 26% lunged at them with a knife, 15% fired their weapons at officers, 4% threw a knife at officers…”                   On the Topic of “Suicide by Cop”                      Harold Hall  Forensic Psychology and Neuropsychology for Criminal and Civil Cases (2008)

When training the fundamentals of firearms, defensive tactics and readiness for combat, we establish a baseline  of precision and accurate  behavior in a ‘dry’ context. But we must prepare to execute targeted force under stress, in ambiguous circumstances and rapid change in context. As members of the defense and law enforcement communities, we seek to perform under stress,  retain functional skills, assess and evaluate the effects of our actions, and verify with practical checking procedures. We seek to perform when tested just as athletes will in competition.


Stress inoculation training and stress exposure training are tools widely used by instructional cadres across the globe. These tried and true methods enable us to transition with less friction from dry-to-live application of skill and mindset in the actual performance of our duties. We train to succeed in the future struggles and conflicts we may face. Preparation, readiness, and resilience are keys to the profession.

In a nutshell, our training doctrine and method is centered on the relationship between motivation, skill and the exploitation of opportunity under stress. The formula follows the mantra of “Crawl-Walk-Run.” We move our operators from dry practice to dynamic situational exercises and training with full-spectrum mission profiles on reality-based platforms. These training methods will have even greater effect and impact when combined with cognitive reappraisal and incident debriefing. This is the crucible for understanding where the lessons are learned, where our challenges and training gaps lie, testing and conditioning best practices, actions and decisions. As Aristotle noted, excellence is found in habit.


What is the effect of human aggression on our psyche and body? First, there is the perception that a threat exists. While objective assessment of a given threat is based upon a trifold assessment of intention, capability and opportunity —  these facts register as a cognitive threat when associated with death, killing, injury, failure and poor decision-making. “Stress occurs when an individual appraises an event as a threat for which they lack coping mechanisms” (Hancock. Performance Under Stress:2008).

From our perspective on training, we can control the stress response to the extent that we increase the will to win and provide the skill-set and resident knowledge to accomplish that end. Stress inoculation and exposure training makes the unknown known, increases our appetite for uncertainty, and ramps up motivation.  We train to draw out and maintain the positive and adaptive response to combat stress and human aggression, the connection between skill-sets and the will to succeed. Training and education tempered by experience feeding back and forward is a winning recipe.

In ‘The Law’, John Steinbeck extols that, “This is the Law. The purpose of fighting is to win. There is no possible victory in defense. The sword is more important than the shield and skill is more important than either. The final weapon is the brain. All else is supplemental.


 About the Author: Aaron Cunningham is the acting President of the International Tactical Training Association

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