Success in Spite of Stress

Published: February 28, 2009

In one of his seminars, Dr. Randall Atlas described how a convenience store clerk was shot and killed by a frustrated armed robber after she was repeatedly unable to punch in a combination to the store safe due to her severely shaking hands. Although she opened the safe every day, she had never had to do so with a gun to her head.

The clerk probably experienced a loss of fine motor skills most likely accompanied by blurred vision because of the way her body and mind were conditioned by nature to react to an imminent threat to her life. Human beings are genetically predisposed to have a burst of gross muscle group energy at the expense of other abilities — such as fine motor skills — due to the body’s reaction to danger. Sadly, this victim is not the first person, nor will she be the last, to die because of her inability to counter the natural effects of stress on the human mind and body.

Through the years, leading authorities have made connections between extreme stress and the difficulty people can have performing seemingly simple tasks, such as firing a handgun, dialing a telephone or locking a door. As he points out in his book, Sharpening the Warrior’s Edge, Bruce Siddle explains that people can suffer significant impact on their fine motor skills when their heart rate climbs above 115 beats per minute due to the stress of an incident and/or physical exertion. Impairment increases even as the heart rate rises. Siddle’s and others’ discoveries in this arena have significant implications for campus safety plans, training, equipment selection and emergency procedures.

Severe effects resulting from stress, such as tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, degradation of cognitive reasoning ability and reactions known as hypervigilance and irrational behavior, can seriously impair performance. These effects have caused law enforcement officers to re-holster their weapon after firing at a suspect and missing; soldiers to fail to see an enemy soldier at close quarters; school teachers to have extreme difficulty getting a key out of their purse to lock a classroom door; and emergency room doctors to botch emergency surgical procedures.

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Experts have been studying these types of effects on human behavior for more than a century, and top athletes, military personnel and public safety agencies have learned and applied techniques to reduce the effects of extreme stress on human performance. Crisis control breathing, visualization drills, training, drills and exercises, physical arrangement of emergency supplies and equipment, and other techniques have been shown to actually help people reduce their heart rate and mitigate the effects of stress on the mind and body.

These steps are already in use by some K-12 and university crisis teams. They dramatically improve the ability of officials to respond effectively to catastrophic events, such as a campus shooting or major hazardous materials event. Simple changes could include creating plans that are intuitive and making sure they are printed in large font. Staff should also be trained on breathing techniques and understanding how stress affects human performance.

Something as simple as not listing the steps to dial 9-1-1 could result in an employee under stress repeatedly dialing 9-1-1 without first dialing an “8” to get an outside line. The effects of stress can be that powerful, particularly for the average campus employee who does not regularly deal with life or death issues under the time constraints of an emergency.

Thankfully, techniques are available to prepare campus crisis team members and other employees to perform at high levels when faced with extremely challenging situations. Manufacturers of campus safety equipment and technology have also begun to consider the effects of stress in the design of their products.

Make sure your campus preparedness measures consider the powerful effects of stress on the people who must make the plans a reality when catastrophe strikes.

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Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series