Arousal and Performance: How Stress and Fear Affect Tactical Performance

The current state of the research on fear and arousal is that while they do have some negative effects, other factors like goal orientation are more important. Arousal can be used to your advantage in survival situations as it may improve performance if you are fighting for freedom or seeking revenge.

Biofeedback is a type of feedback where the body sends information back to the brain. It can be used to help people control their stress and fear levels, which in turn helps them perform better at tasks that require high-level cognitive performance.

Warrior color code white yellow orange red gray black.

To view a bigger version of the picture, click here.

Consider the last time you were under a lot of psychological pressure. For instance, after a fender mishap or before delivering a major speech in front of hundreds of people.

What were your thoughts at the time? Are you a little disorganized?

Because of how shaky your hands were, could basic actions like writing or tying your shoe become difficult?

If you’re like most individuals, you’ve probably had minor cognitive and physical breakdowns as a result of anxiety and stress. When we are confronted with stressful events, our bodies are inundated with chemicals that raise our heart rate in preparation for fighting or fleeing. Our bodies get energised and ready to take action, which is a wonderful thing. However, if we get excessively energized, our physical and cognitive abilities deteriorate, which is a very negative and possibly deadly thing.

Consider how you would react if you were in the thick of a shootout with a bad man.

What do you suppose you’d be thinking then? Would you be able to think at all?

Would you be able to answer with the same ferocity, or would you freeze like a deer caught in the headlights?

It’s typically the psychological stress that kills a guy in life-or-death circumstances, whether it’s a gunfight or an emergency evacuation. Or, more precisely, his incapacity to cope with the pressure.

In today’s piece, we’ll look at some new study that demonstrates how stress affects a man’s capacity to perform in high-risk situations. Furthermore, we’ll introduce a color-code system developed by one of history’s best shooting experts, which many warriors (soldiers, fighters, cops, first responders, and even average joes interested in above-average training) use to assess their mental and physical preparedness in life-or-death situations. We’ll wrap off this piece by talking about a few of the research-backed stress-reduction tactics that fighters all over the globe are starting to use, enabling them to perform at their best even in the midst of a crisis.

While most of the research and information in this article is aimed at helping you become a better sheepdog, the ideas and practices may also be used to handle stress in daily settings, such as a difficult task at home, at work, or on the playing field. Even if you don’t intend to engage in a close-quarters gunfight anytime soon, this knowledge will come in handy.

The Stress-Performance Inverted-U Theory

Inverted u theory of stress and arousal diagram graph illustration.

According to the Inverted-U Hypothesis, rises in stress are often followed with improvements in performance quality… But only up to a point. When you reach a particular level of stress, you start to see diminishing returns, which means that increasing stress actually causes you to perform worse on some activities.

Several sports performance researchers in the 1970s and 1980s discovered that at various stress-induced heart rates, athletes had boosts and losses in certain motor abilities. Fine motor abilities, such as writing, begin to degrade when pulse rates exceed 115 beats per minute (BPM). Complex motor abilities, such as tossing a football or pointing a pistol, are at their greatest when heart rates are between 115 and 145 BPM. In this range, cognitive performance is also at its highest. Complex motor abilities begin to deteriorate at 145 BPM, although gross motor skills such as sprinting and lifting stay at peak performance. When heart rates exceed 175 beats per minute, ability for all skilled jobs deteriorates, and people begin to suffer catastrophic cognitive and physical breakdowns.


While much stress and performance research has focused on athletes, academics studying combat and tactical settings are starting to use the Inverted-U hypothesis to assist warriors of all types become better fighters and responders. Warriors who understand how stress affects their performance in life-or-death circumstances might take efforts to lessen the effects of stress via training or stress-management strategies.

Physiological vs. Psychological Stress

When we talk about arousal (in terms of stress and heart rate) and how it affects performance, it’s crucial to remember that there’s a major distinction between physiological and psychological stress. When your heart rate rises as a result of physical activity, you’re unlikely to notice a significant drop in cognitive and physical performance. For example, you’re unlikely to have tunnel vision following a series of wind sprints to raise your heart rate.

The severe negative impacts of stress arousal are often only felt when your heart rate rises fast owing to psychological stress (e.g., terror in a lethal force incident).

The Arousal Color Code for Stress

Gun fighting specialist Jeff Cooper developed forth a color coding system in his landmark book, Principles of Personal Defense, to assist fighters measure their attitude for combat situations. Each hue indicates an individual’s possible level of awareness and concentration. Cooper’s color coding scheme employed just white, yellow, orange, and red at first.

Combat researchers like Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Bruce K. Siddle added two additional levels, gray and black, in recent years, for reasons we’ll get into later in the piece. They also coupled Cooper’s approach with the Inverted-U chart of arousal and performance to build a framework that links a color level to arousal level in the heart rate. This synthesis is summarized using text and graphics below.

White in color.

White color code illustration.

When you’re in Condition White, you’re utterly unconscious of your surroundings and unresponsive to them. You’d be caught off guard if a danger appeared, and you wouldn’t be able to react appropriately. In Condition White, our visual and cognitive response times are substantially slower, and we’re more prone to Normalcy Bias. Condition White is the norm in civilization since most individuals are sheep, not sheepdogs. The only time you should be in Condition White is when you’re safe and sound in your own house, or while you’re sleeping. Condition White should be left behind when you leave the home.

Yellow in color.

Yellow color code illustration.

Relaxed alert is the best way to characterize Condition Yellow. There’s no immediate danger, but you’re keeping your head up and your eyes open, taking in your surroundings in a comfortable but aware way. You’re less likely to be caught off guard by a sudden danger while you’re in Condition Yellow, and you’re better prepared to react if one does appear. Fine motor abilities and cognitive function are not affected since the heart rate is normal.


Warriors should always be in Condition Yellow, according to tactical experts. Many Air Force pilots, in fact, wear a yellow dot on their watch or in the cockpit to remind them to remain in Condition Yellow.

Orange Condition

Orange color code illustration.

When you detect a particular danger, you enter Condition Orange. Something isn’t quite right, and you’ve noticed it. While in Condition Orange, your aim isn’t to take action. Rather, it is to become extra watchful so that you can assess if a potential hazard is a threat that requires action. Maybe you smell burning, or you see a person in the water who could be drowning, or you see a strange man approaching you on a dark side street. You’d want to be in Condition Orange in all of those circumstances.

While in Condition Orange, make a plan for what you’ll do if the danger is confirmed, such as “If there’s a fire, I’ll phone 911,” “If he’s drowning, I’ll jump in and rescue him,” or “If he takes out a pistol, I’ll pull mine out and shoot.”

When you’re in Condition Orange, your stress levels and heart rate both rise. You should not, however, notice any cognitive or movement impairment.

It’s not a good idea to maintain Condition Orange’s enhanced attention level on a daily basis since it may be psychologically and physically draining. If you confirm that a potential danger isn’t a threat, you should return to Condition Yellow’s relaxed alert mode right away. However, if you are certain that something or someone is a danger, you should go to…

Red is the condition.

Red color code illustration.

You’ve confirmed the danger; now it’s time to put your action plan into action, which you devised while in Condition Orange. Your mind and body are poised for action while you’re in Condition Red. Your heart rate is between 115 and 145 beats per minute, and adrenaline is pouring through your veins. According to studies, this is the best level for tactical and survival situations. The apex of complex motor skills, visual response speeds, and cognitive reaction times has arrived.

Fine motor abilities, such as writing or threading flex cuffs, degrade in Condition Red, whereas complex motor skills and visual and cognitive response times are at their peak.

Gray in coloration

Gray color code illustration.

Condition Gray wasn’t part of Cooper’s original color scheme, but Grossman and his colleagues added it after studying years of data. Your heart rate climbs over the ideal range of 115-145 BPM to 145-175 BPM when you reach Condition Gray. As a result, the fighter’s mental and physical performance deteriorates considerably, putting him at danger of being hurt or killed.

Tunnel vision and a lack of depth perception are prevalent, which means a fighter might overlook other hazards in the area. Tunnel vision may sometimes lead combatants to “lose sight” of innocent bystanders in a battle. This occurrence is one of the main reasons why most firearms instructors nowadays advise students to check their surroundings after neutralizing a danger. Looking from side to side might assist to break up tunnel vision.


Another typical sign of Condition Gray is auditory isolation. Fighters who have been subjected to auditory exclusion claim that they were unable to hear their partner’s gun fire, despite the fact that the gun was firing immediately next to him. They will, however, recall hearing yells from their companion.

In Condition Gray, complex motor abilities like as gun usage and non-armed fighting begin to deteriorate. Gross motor abilities such as running, leaping, pulling, and pushing remain at peak performance.

“Bullet time,” a mental phenomena in which everything around you seems to be moving in slow motion, a la The Matrix, is one probable and good indication of Condition Gray. Bullet time may help a boxer think more clearly and respond faster. Dr. Alexis Artwohl examined police officers who had been involved in fatal force situations and discovered that roughly 62 percent of them had experienced slow-motion time.

It’s termed “Condition Gray” because Grossman feels that additional study on arousal levels between 145 and 175 BPM is needed. While most untrained men would begin to undergo the mental and physical degradation described above, certain fighters will still be able to perform at their best in Condition Gray, according to Grossman’s book On Combat. According to research, fighters may “push the boundaries” of Condition Red into the higher heart rates of Condition Gray with adequate training and stress inoculation.

Black in color.

Black color code illustration.

The United States Marine Corps added Condition Black to Cooper’s original concept as well. When you achieve Condition Black, your heart rate exceeds 175 beats per minute. A fighter’s mental and physical performance suffers catastrophically at this level of arousal, even if they are well-trained.

Other signs of Condition Black include tunnel vision, auditory isolation, and degradation of sophisticated motor abilities.

The majority of combatants will empty their bladders and bowels – in other words, they will crap and pee their trousers. Sphincter and bladder control aren’t a priority for your body in high-stress, life-or-death circumstances. It also tries to get rid of as much waste as possible so you can fight or flee more effectively. At this time, your physical body’s choices take precedence over any cognitive ones. In his book On Combat, Lt. Col. Grossman goes into considerable length about this topic. While many troops and combatants would not confess to peeing or defecating in battle, one-quarter of soldiers acknowledged to peeing and one-eighth admitting to defecating in anonymous polls performed after WWII. Grossman feels the figure was probably substantially higher.

Condition Black is characterized by severe vasoconstriction. Vasoconstriction occurs when blood arteries narrow and blood flow is restricted. Your body wants the majority of your blood to remain near essential organs and big muscles that may be utilized to fight or run in life-or-death circumstances. One advantage of this is that if you have a wound, vasoconstriction helps to reduce the quantity of bleeding you get. Because all of the blood has been diverted away from the skin’s surface to more critical areas of the body, extreme vasoconstriction causes individuals to appear “white with dread.” While this is a survival strategy, it does result in the loss of intricate motor abilities.


Another physical response is for your forebrain (executive portion of your brain) to shut down and your more primitive middle brain to take command. This is what Grossman refers to as the “puppy dog” brain. You’re more prone to illogical fighting or running if you don’t have good executive functioning. Many troops fighting on the frontlines in WWI and WWII recounted witnessing friends dash out from behind cover and into enemy fire for no apparent reason. “In Condition Black, you can run and fight like a giant, hairless, clawless bear, but that’s about all you’re capable of,” Grossman says.

Dr. Artwohl discovered in the same research that only a tiny fraction of police officers reported freezing or momentary paralysis after a lethal force incident. In these situations, the body does not fight or flee; instead, it just pauses, leaving the warrior exposed.

Arousal Control in High-Stakes Situations

Let’s look at some of the things that researchers have discovered that assist alleviate the impacts of stress now that we know how it affects our performance. While you can’t always control where your heart rate goes in a stressful circumstance, understanding and applying certain tactics may help you decrease it and increase your stress resistance, enabling you to function at your best for as long as possible. Make tactical breathing a habit. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman invented tactical breathing. During firefights, troops and police personnel employ this approach to swiftly cool down and remain focused. This is how you do it:

  1. Inhale slowly and deeply for 4 seconds.
  2. Inhale for 4 seconds and then exhale for 4 seconds.
  3. Exhale slowly and deeply for 4 seconds.
  4. For 4 seconds, hold the empty breath.
  5. Rep until you have complete control of your breathing.

Simple. What’s difficult is maintaining the discipline to do so while you’re pressured.

Tactical breathing isn’t simply for lethal force situations. Use it if you’re feeling pressured and need to reduce your arousal levels back down to normal.

Meditate. Individuals who meditate may rid distracting and unpleasant ideas (such as anxiety) from their minds faster than those who do not meditate, according to studies. In high-stress scenarios like lethal force confrontations, this kind of talent comes in useful.

With its new recruits, the US military is experimenting with mindfulness meditation training. The goal is that the stress-relieving advantages of meditation will help troops keep out of Condition Black while in battle, as well as recover more swiftly afterward.

Meditation isn’t all that complicated. Simply sit in a quiet spot and concentrate on your breath as it passes through your nose and out your mouth. Don’t become agitated if a distracting notion comes to mind. Simply identify the idea, let it go, and return your attention to your breathing. If you’re anything like me, you’ll discover that your thoughts readily distract you when you first start meditating. Don’t give up; your mind will calm down with time, and your capacity to discard undesirable ideas will increase.


Begin with a single 10-minute workout each day and gradually progress to 20 minutes. If you have the time, try a 20-minute meditation session in the morning and a 20-minute meditation session at night.

Visualize what you want to achieve. According to new study, fighters who imagine hypothetical high-stress events do better in real-life high-stress situations than those who don’t. Officers who participate in visual exercises, for example, have higher marksmanship than those who do not. There’s also evidence that picturing good high-stress scenario management lessens a combatant’s anxiety and stress reaction when the events really happen, enabling the fighter to remain in Condition Red for longer.

Here are some basic rules for doing a visualization exercise:

  • Make your vision as real as you can. Use all of your senses and emotions.
  • Imagine issues and stopping places, but always visualize yourself successfully conquering the difficulty or hurdle – and this is the most important element. Never see yourself failing.
  • Never depend just on visualization. It’s critical to mix it up with tactical drills and role play.

Use instructive self-talk that is pertinent to the work at hand. Talk yourself through complicated activities as if you were a teacher to counteract the negative performance consequences of stress. Many police officers, for example, are instructed to use the acronym BRASS to shout out loud at every phase of the pistol shooting procedure.

  • Breathe
  • Relax
  • Aim
  • Sight
  • Squeeze

When you face a gun jam, cry out “Tap, Rack, and Go!” Another example of task-relevant instructive self-talk is to yell out “Tap, Rack, and Go!”

Don’t be concerned if others think you’re insane. This kind of self-talk has been found in studies to improve performance on both cognitive and physical activities.

It’s important to keep this sort of self-talk short and constructive.

Maintain an active and publicly directed mindset. Sebastian Junger offers an intriguing study done on a Special Forces squad during the Vietnam War in his book War (which I strongly recommend). The unit was stationed in a remote facility near the Cambodian border, and they were well aware that the base might be entirely taken by a Vietcong force. Surprisingly, researchers discovered that, in contrast to officers, enlisted men’s stress levels reduced before an anticipated assault and soared after the attack did not occur. “The members of this Special Forces team…were action-oriented people who typically spent little time in contemplation,” researchers said. When faced with an environmental hazard, they erupted in a frenzy of activity that quickly dissolved the anxiety.” As Junger points out, “laying C-wire and mines about the base was something they knew how to do and were adept at, and the sheer act of doing so eased their anxiety.”

Take a tip from the Special Forces: instead of navel-gazing, bouncing your leg up and down, and getting your pulse rate up before anything occurs, keep yourself engaged with preparations – check your equipment, mentally rehearse your mission, and so on.


Inoculation of Stress Using Realistic Training

Remember the ancient soldier’s adage: “In battle, you don’t rise to the occasion; you descend to the level of training.”

As a result, the most effective strategy to avoid the negative effects of stress on performance is to completely inoculate oneself against it via constant, realistic training.

In terms of self-defense, this implies you’ll need to do more than simply practice your marksmanship at the gun range or pound the heavy bag in your garage. You’ll need to practice your tactics under pressure similar to what you’d find in a real-life scenario. This may be accomplished using simunitions or airsoft pistols for handgun training, and live sparring for hand-to-hand self-defense can provide equivalent stress levels to a real-life battle.

You can hone your body to function at peak levels even when the going gets rough with effective, regular, and realistic training.

You can hone your body to function at peak levels even when the going gets rough with effective, regular, and realistic training.


Bruce K. Siddle’s book Sharpening the Warrior’s Edge

Dave Grossman and Loren W. Christensen’s book On Combat

Dr. Michael Asken, Loren W. Christensen, Dave Grossman, and Human Factor Research collaborated on Warrior Mindset.

Ted Slampyak created the illustrations.



The “art of manliness masculinity” is a book that discusses the effects of stress and fear on tactical performance. The author discusses how these emotions can affect people in different ways, and what tactics should be used to combat them.

Related Tags

  • art of manliness willpower
  • art of manliness lifelong learner
  • the art of being a man
  • art of manliness’ heading out on your own
  • semper virilis