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Stress reactions and the first-time shooter: No, you aren't weak. Yes, you can do this.


Do you remember the first time you ever fired a gun? For those of us who are shooting enthusiasts, that memory may be a pleasant one. We may well recall that powerful feeling of a controlled explosion happening just feet from our face, and the satisfaction of seeing a hole appear almost magically in our target (or perhaps watching our target, a watermelon or full Coke bottle, explode in a glorious mess downrange). We may also have been shooting for so long that we can't even remember that first shot. Shooting feels as natural as walking or dialing a phone because we have done it so many times and for so long.

For new shooters, especially adults who have had negative past experiences with guns and shooting, the first instructive shot they ever take is often not pleasant at all. The stress of the sudden loud BANG, the burning smell of gun smoke, the hard recoil against the untrained hands, and possibly the loud noises of other shooters in adjacent stalls, can overwhelm and frighten someone who isn't accustomed to them. It's not uncommon for new shooters, particularly female shooters, to cry.

Crying is a common physiological reaction to stress, especially in women. Where men may swear, experience angry feelings, or simply want to flee the area and recover in private, women may simply begin to cry, perhaps even against their will and always completely unexpectedly. Women may also exhibit the more aggressive responses I listed above, of course, and men have been known to cry at the range too.

In fact, I have witnessed the crying reaction so many times that I now caution my more anxious students, male and female alike, that it might happen. Before we ever set foot on the firing range, I tell them that there's nothing to be ashamed of if it does, and that we will deal with it however they want, in their time. We can dry our eyes and keep shooting, or we can take a break and get a drink of water and then try again, or we can quit our session and regroup another day.

How you handle sudden extreme stress is something you can work on and eventually control to a certain extent, but for the most part it is due to the catecholine hormones like adrenaline that are coursing through your body and creating a "fight or flight" reaction. Once that reaction wears off and the body begins to calm down, the need to survive imminent danger subsides and we allow ourselves to feel again--and then tears (of relief, of fear, of trauma) may ensue. Everyone's body is different; everyone's physiological reaction will vary. But there is something you must know: if you react to the stress of shooting for the first time by bursting into tears, it doesn't mean you are weak. It doesn't mean you aren't cut out to be a shooter, or that you wouldn't be able to defend yourself if you needed to. It just means that your reaction to shooting was to cry. That's it.

And maybe you experienced something more than just a physiological stress reaction. Maybe you had unresolved emotional baggage surrounding guns--not uncommon, and totally okay. It's also fixable. Our culture attaches so much negativity and emotional currency to firearms and the act of shooting, but when we get right down to it, guns are just heavy machinery. With the proper training and universal safety rules of operation, they are no more likely to jump up and kill someone than a forklift. They are no more immoral to own and practice with than a chainsaw. They can be very dangerous in the wrong hands, like any heavy machine. But guns are neither good nor bad; they are inanimate objects subject entirely to the intentions and skill level of their operator. Once you fully understand and have internalized this at the deepest gut level, your guilt and fear about shooting and owning guns should subside a bit. They are simply machines, after all.

The crying stress reaction is why I strive to offer a friendlier, gentler style of firearms instruction than one typically finds in concealed carry and tactical shooting classes. No one should assume that because they suddenly felt overwhelmed and teary-eyed after firing their first gun that they are weak and have no business in a gun class. Actually, after that first teary reaction, my students often feel a sense of relief and even victory: they confronted a fear, conquered it, wiped their eyes, and are ready to move on and start focusing on learning how to shoot. If you recognize yourself in this post, please remember that we all started somewhere. I can assure you that the steely-eyed shooters you see around you weren't always so comfortable behind a trigger. And with enough work and dedication, you'll get there too one day. Just maybe bring a few tissues in case the newbie in the stall next to you needs them.

Be strong, shoot confidently, and stay safe out there!

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