Dealing with Combat Stress Before it Happens

Jim Wagner's Fighting Tips and Tricks

How will you perform at the moment of truth? What’s going to happen to you emotionally when you’re locked in mortal combat? Will you have the Will to Survive or will you be so paralyzed with fear that you hesitate during the first few critical seconds or can’t move at all? The answer is – you won’t know until you can say, “Been there, done that.” This article is about dealing with combat stress before it happens.

Tough Talk
As a police officer I’ve heard my fair share of locker room bravado where officers boast about “hookin and bookin” criminals only to find these same officers standing around on the sidelines when a suspect went 918V (violent). I’ve been knee deep in some fights where a fellow officer failed to jump in and assist. Of course moments of paralysis are not limited to law enforcement or soldiers in the fox hole. We’ve all heard a story or two about a “black belt” getting beat up after years of training. Some people gleefully recount such stories, like news of an evangelist having adultery, but sadly we know such things do occur.

Years ago I assumed (and yes, you can fairly parse this word) that most people getting into the military or law enforcement would be aggressive by nature. After having trained personnel from over 400 agencies and military units I have discovered that there are a lot of people in these professions who have never had to “fight for their lunch money.” About half the students who attend my courses have no real fighting experience; people who lack not just street experience, but who don’t even know how to throw a proper punch or kick. What is taught in today’s law enforcement academies and military boot camps, when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, is just the bare minimum; and sometimes not even that. It’s no wonder that many officers use excessive force in the course of their duties, or in some cases not enough force and they themselves injured during an altercation.

It has only been in the last couple of years that more emphasis is being placed on Combatives training (also known as Defensive Tactics – DeTac) and the stresses associated with type of conflict. After all, the average law enforcement officer is involved with more hand-to-hand situations than shootings. And yet, up until now, most of the combat stress training has revolved around firearms situations.

Martial Arts Schools

If law enforcement and the military are just now addressing combat stress management in hand-to-hand confrontations, then that lack of proper training is even greater in the civilian martial arts (when it comes to realistic training I believe that the military and law enforcement are years ahead of civilian martial arts having myself been on both sides of the fence).

Most martial arts schools teach very effective self-defense techniques to their students that will work in the streets. A kick is a kick, and a punch is a punch. Where most schools lack is addressing the stress that these techniques will be performed under. The following training methods will help you implement your own combat stress management program.
Hace frio (it’s cold)

When the human body is subjected to extreme cold there are predictable physiological conditions which occur: the body pulls blood from the limbs and concentrates it in the inner core to give warmth to vital organs, digits get numb, reaction time slows, fine motor skills are reduced, and the thinking process is dulled.

In actual combat the body can experience similar stresses like that of cold: fine motor skills give way to gross motor skills, breathing becomes rapid and shallow, and reaction time may be slowed. To simulate this stress takes nothing more that cold water.

In the privacy of your own shower turn on the cold water and let it run over you. The sudden shock to the body is close to the shock that you’ll experience when your life’s on the line.
Under such conditions it’s hard to carry on normally, but that’s exactly what you have to train yourself to do. When you’re running the water your breathing much be deep and rhythmic. The better you control your breathing the more relaxed your muscles will be and the clearer your thinking will be. Build up your tolerance a little each time. Your reward will be a warm shower afterward.

In the US Navy SEALs, Marine Force Recon, Army Special Forces or other units who train extensively in waterborne operations, personnel are subjected to cold conditioning – notably, standing in the cold surf without thermal protection. Prior to reaching hypothermia (condition where the body heat falls below normal) they are ordered out of the water and are required to perform various tasks (in the form of strenuous physical exercise) then sent back into the water. Cold is a great demoralizer, and dealing with it takes mental fortitude.

A few months ago I was training a Brazilian Military Police SWAT team called G.A.T.E. (Grupo de Ações Táticas Especiais) and I had them jump into icy ocean water from a boat dock. The water was approximately 55 degrees Fahrenheit / 13 degrees Centigrade. They entered the water with their Battle Dress Uniforms (BDUs), but left their tactical gear on shore or else they’d sink to the bottom like a rock. When they crawled up on the rocky shore they immediately put on their gun belts and practiced gun retention techniques (preventing a suspect from taking the officer’s own sidearm from the holster) while dripping wet. My students found that the stress induced by the cold required more energy and determination then when they were performed earlier in the ideal conditions of the training room.

A WORD OF WARNING! When we train in waterborne operation we always have a trained Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) present to monitor swimmers. Prolong exposure to cold can cause injury and/or death.

Sleepy Time
Fatigue, like cold, is a demoralizer. When you are extremely tired even simple tasks become difficult. In combat it is easy to become exhausted very rapidly, especially in prolonged conflicts. Most fights I’ve been in have ended in seconds. However, I recall one time in the jail when a sergeant and I tried to subdue a combative prisoner who had fried his brain on a hallucinogenic drug. We struggled with this guy for 5 straight minutes before our back up arrived. This was in the days before pepper spray or impact munitions, but we would not have been able to get to them anyway. After the ordeal we were spent. If it would have went on any longer we would have had to use lethal force.

Depriving students of sleep and forcing them to perform physically demanding exercises is common in various specialized military and law enforcement training. In the US Army’s Ranger School students receive approximately three hours of sleep a night. In the Navy SEAL’s BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) training, during a period called “Hell Week” candidates receive an average of 20 minutes of sleep per day.

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Jim Wagner
Jim Wagner is a former United States Army soldier, corrections officer, police officer, S.W.A.T. officer, Dignitary Protection Unit team leader, agent with the United States Federal Air Marshals, and serves as a Reserve solider in a military police unit. Jim Wagner teaches civilian, police, military, corrections, bodyguard, and security courses around the world.