Lethal Force Encounters — Coping With the Adrenaline Dump

It’s really happening. Someone has decided that today is the day your birth certificate is going to be revoked. Calmly, you draw your weapon, close your non-dominant eye, carefully take aim…

Okay, that’s a bunch of crap, it does not go down like that. Not even close.

Aggressor aiming handgun, this kind of situation will cause an adrenaline dump
An in-your-face threat will get the adrenaline flowing!

Chances are, you’ll be taken by surprise. It might be in dim light, just to add to your misery and uncertainty. You will be scared. Adrenaline will pour into your system and kick in—of that, you can be absolutely certain. The effects of that adrenaline dump will take you off your square like you cannot begin to imagine; your body will do things that it never did before.

Police experience adrenaline dump on a regular basis.
Even police are not immune to the physiological effects of an adrenaline dump. (Photo: KMEG)

I’m going to list some of the effects of that kind of adrenaline dump based on incidents that I’ve been involved in. Some of the effects differ from person to person. However, what is listed here are most of the common effects that influence people.

pixelated image of knife attacker
Attacks with knives will definitely elicit an adrenal response. (Photo: Stock)

What are some of the effects of an adrenaline dump?

Tachypsychia

This is the mind’s distortion of time. Typically, time seems to slow down into a bizarre sort of slow motion. People sometimes report that they feel detached from their own bodies as if they are watching themselves in a movie. While this is going on, it’s possible that you will have dozens, if not hundreds, of thoughts racing through your head. “What’s happening, why is he trying to kill me, Oh my God, what do I do…..?” The racing thoughts can cripple our ability to think clearly and function.

Auditory Exclusion

Simply put, sound diminishes. Not always completely, but often, sounds seem far off in the distance. Even gunfire. You may not be able to hear things that are being shouted at you or others.

Dulling of Pain

You may be wounded and not realize it for some time after the action has cooled down. Assuming, of course, that you happen to survive. People have been grievously wounded and have not realized it until the effects of the adrenaline dump begin to wear off, or perhaps someone nearby points out that they are bleeding or otherwise visibly injured. Pain might manifest after seconds, minutes, or even hours after the incident. I’ve seen this numerous times, and even had it happen to me. One individual whom I observed was mortally wounded and fought on despite having horrific wounds. He either didn’t feel it or didn’t care (he was in a state of rage), and fought until he ceased being a habitual oxygen consumer.

Loss of Fine Motor Skills

In short, our fingers and hands can become flippers. Blood is drawn from our appendages into our core when we enter battle. It’s a throwback from our caveman days. Suffice it to say that it makes it a difficult task to operate fine buttons, levers, and such.

Memory Loss/Distortion

Adrenaline can erase large swaths of our memory, or else distort it. This can make it seem as though we are lying on official reports.

Vision Distortion/Tunnel Vision

This is a huge one, and will be the focus of today’s article. Your brain zeroes in on the immediate threat. Peripheral vision basically shuts down as your brain focuses on that threat. Pupils dilate to take in as much light as they can. Your brain doesn’t care what’s going on to your left or right, or behind you. It is hyper-focused on the threat that is in front of you. This can be dangerous because there may be other threats afoot.

graphic depicting tunnel vision, a physical response to an adrenaline dump during a violent encounter
The brain will focus on the threat and exclude everything that it does not deem to be dangerous. (Photo: This American Life)

I absolutely guarantee that all of these factors are going to mess you up as you have never felt before. For some people, it is fatal because they cannot function.

Reduced Vision

That tunnel vision can really play hell on our ability to see. People in gunfights often report that they could not see the sights on their weapon.

So how about closing one of your eyes as you were taught during your target shooting instruction days? By closing that non-dominant eye, you are shutting down more than 50% of your vision. Why more than 50%? Because not only is that eye closed, but the fact that you have the pistol up to aim it is also blocking a portion of your vision in that one eye that you have open. Add in tunnel vision to this mix and you’re damn near fighting blind!

Aiming pistol with one eye closed, not a good self defense method when dealing with the effects of an adrenaline dump
Keeping one eye closed while also dealing with tunnel vision, seriously reduces our ability to see. Combat shooting at close range should be done with both eyes open.

Keep Both Eyes Open

For defensive and combat shooting, I highly advocate that you keep both eyes open, especially for close-range engagements. Even with both eyes open, you’re going to have limited vision like you’ve never experienced before. It’s so profound that it’s actually hard to describe.

And it’s not just going to be your vision that’s screwy. Like I said above, all that shit is going to be hitting you in the span of a millisecond, and you’re going to have to try to figure out how to deal with it—all while under a possibly lethal force attack.

Aiming pistol with both eyes open, a better way to handle an adrenaline dump than aiming with one eye closed
Keeping both eyes open allows us to get the best picture possible (and even that will likely be limited).

The advantage is that you can read about it here and try to wrap your mind around it so that if it ever happens, you at least have an idea of what’s headed your way. It’s better than nothing.

In Center Axis Relock (founded by Paul Castle), the sights are brought in extremely close to the eye to overcome the issue of not seeing your sights under the adrenal rush. In that sense I believe CAR does a very good job of helping shooters to prevail. The farther away from your eye those sights are, the more difficulty you will have in seeing them.

Paul Castle, the founder of Center Axis Relock, demonstrates the Combat High Position, which addresses the effects of limited vision due to an adrenaline dump during lethal encounters
Paul Castle, the founder of Center Axis Relock (CAR), addressed the issues of limited vision during lethal encounters. Here the CAR Combat High position is shown, which allows the operator to be ready while scanning for threats. (Photo: Morrison Tactical)

For very close-range engagements, there is another technique that can be beneficial. With the pistol canted slightly, you can use the corner of the slide (where it forms a triangle) as your aiming point, rather than the sights. At short distances where precision is not needed, it is faster and easier. Aside from being faster, it also keeps the pistol lower in your vision, which allows you to see more because the pistol and sights are not blocking a portion of your vision.

The corner of the pistol slide can be used as a sight when dealing with the visual effects of an adrenaline dump in a lethal encounter
Using the corner of the slide (where it forms a triangle) for very close range is faster than using the sights and allows us to see more because the pistol is held lower. This is not something to use for 25 yards, it is intended for very close distances. It’s best to try it at the range and see how far you can realistically benefit from this technique.
Author keeps pistol close to his eyes to better see the sights.
With the pistol held close (reading distance), the Extended Position from Center Axis Relock keeps both eyes open and allows an operator to see the sights.
CAR extended position
A side view of the Extended Position. Eyes are open and the sights are close. The pistol used is the S&W CSX Micro-9mm.

The Importance of Scanning

With your vision so limited, it will be much more important for you to scan after your attacker has been dealt with. Criminals and bad guys seem to enjoy working in pairs or packs. Consequently, there’s a decent chance that one is flanking you while you deal with his partner.

knife in the hand of an attacker - a situation that will cause an adrenaline dump
Situational Awareness is the key to survival. Scan, because you don’t know what is sneaking up on you.
Author scans to the sides and behind him.
We look left and right before crossing the street. So it is, we should scan all around us once the main threat has been neutralized. Left, right, and behind.

To drive home the importance of scanning, one of the instructors in some classes that I took would smack us on the back with a padded bat if we engaged a target and then failed to scan afterward. It wasn’t long before scanning became second nature, and I’m glad for it.

You need to override that tunnel vision to safeguard yourself from other threats.

In Conclusion

The first time you deal with a real lethal force or combat situation, you will experience physiological changes that are startling. Not only will you be fighting your foes, but also your own body and mind. Hopefully, this article gives you food for thought on preparing for what will happen.

Aside from that, you now have some methods by which to train so you can overcome at least some of the effects of an adrenaline dump.

Jim Davis served in the PA Dept. of Corrections for 16 ½ years as a corrections officer in the State Correctional Institute at Graterford and later at SCI Phoenix. He served on the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT), several of those years as a sniper, and also the Fire Emergency Response Team (FERT). For 25 years, he was a professional instructor, teaching topics including Defensive Tactics, Riot Control and Tactical Operations, Immediate Responder, and cognitive programs as an adjunct instructor at the DOC Training Academy. He was then promoted to the title of corrections counselor, where he ran a caseload and facilitated cognitive therapy classes to inmates. His total service time was close to 29 years. He was involved in many violent encounters on duty, including incidents of fatalities.

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