» WHAT YOU DO IN THE FIRST FIVE SECONDS OF A DEADLY force incident can save lives or cost them. Think about your reaction plan. About 17 years ago, I was working in the Bronx. School had just let out and kids of all ages were walking home. As I was walking into a store to get a cold drink, I heard gunfire in rapid succession. A girl standing right next to me dropped to the floor as shots rang out around me. It was bedlam as everyone panicked and ran for cover, including a couple of cops who were on the scene. Their reactions were no different than the pedestrians they were sworn to protect, although, I didn’t elaborate upon this as the evening news interviewed me after the incident.

Covered in the girl’s blood, I told the New York area what happened that day.

I wasn’t carrying that day, but the two men who were and could have stopped the sniper hid under a car while I plugged my finger into the bullet hole of the poor girl gunned down by her ex-boyfriend. Paramedics later told me it kept her from bleeding to death.

Bullets zipped past my ears. I looked around to see if I could find where the sniper was. After a few shots, I spotted his location in a building across the street.

The ambulance was quick to be on the scene. The sniper continued to fire, aiming for the ambulance. To call the situation tense would be an understatement.

When the ambulance drove away, I led the officers around to the alleyway of the building where I saw the shots. As we made our way over, the officers saw the gun in the window in an apartment on the third or fourth floor. They sent in a couple of men, and a few minutes later, they had the suspect in custody.

As the news vans rolled in, the officers refused to give an interview and instructed reporters to speak with me, the guy who was responsible for taking down the sniper. Covered in the girl’s blood, I told the New York area what happened that day.

The Five-Second Phenomenon and Mental Game

When I teach people about self-defense, they are often surprised when I approach it as a mental game. Because of my training as a corrections officer and a psychotherapist, I am well aware of the importance of mental games for managing stress in life-and-death situations. And the five-second phenomenon is a key element in the self-defense mental game.

The five-second rule refers to a person’s initial reaction to a life-or-death situation. Will you run? Will you freeze? Or will you stay calm, observe your surroundings and figure out how to stay alive?

If you don’t have the right mental plan, you won’t be very effective, no matter how close your gun is.

The first two reactions are common physical and mental reactions. They are automatic, almost like reflexes. The last reaction is common of someone who has done the training and the mental preparation in order to stay alive through management of the physiological and mental components of over-the-top stress levels.

That first five seconds will affect you for the duration of an emergency situation, and maybe longer. But most certainly what you do at the beginning of an emergency situation will impact how that situation ends.

Your mental game is your plan to effectively manage the stress and/or fear occurring within that first five seconds. You must do the mental work to help prepare for that moment. It’s a moment we all hope we never have to live through, but we prepare for the possibility that it could occur.

If you have your weapon by your side, you have the chance to use it appropriately. If you don’t have the right mental plan, you won’t be very effective, no matter how close your gun is. Life-or-death situations can be turned around in an instant, and usually, your only chance of turning the tide in your favor is within those first five seconds.

How You Can Master the Five-Second Phenomenon

Knowing how to manage your stress in this five-second window is paramount to being the most effective in an emergency situation. If managed efficiently, you could turn the tide and save lives.

Gun owners need to know how they will react to the five-second phenomenon, because there is always the possibility that you will have to use your firearm to protect your life or the lives of people you love. If you can learn to handle the ridiculously high levels of stress compacted into a measly few seconds, you can master your self-defense situation as well as other stressful situations in your life.

People interested in self-defense can do a few things that will help them improve their chances of being ready when an emergency occurs.


Know your weapon and practice with it. Handling your weapon is a big part of being able to take advantage of the five-second phenomenon and to respond to emergency situations. It’s all about repetition, rehearsal and practice.

This might seem like an obvious statement, but it’s not really. How many people do you know who own a weapon, have it hanging around for self-defense in their home, but never practice with it, never pick it up, never shoot at a target, never think of gun placement in their homes and never practice possible break-in scenarios? I know a few myself.

An error in judgment clouded by fear could result in a mistake you will have to live with for the rest of your life.

Everyone always hopes and envisions himself being able to handle an emergency situation. If you never practice with your gun and wear it as people wear jewelry, as the two guys from the Bronx who dove under the car proved, these heroic fantasies will never come to fruition.

Your gun is your weapon, a tool you use to help protect yourself. If you don’t know how to use this tool responsibly and properly, it will at the very least be useless and could be dangerous to the people you love. The last thing you want to happen is to be in a situation where you want to save the lives of the people you care about but cannot; or even worse, you harm them instead.

How you handle stress is as important as how you handle your gun. An error in judgment clouded by fear could result in a mistake you will have to live with for the rest of your life.

Attend a Competition at Least Once a Year

One way to help you overcome kneejerk reactions is by attending as many competitions as you can and working specifically on your mental game.

Competition helps give you confidence to handle life-and-death situations. Attending International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) matches, which are built on life-and-death scenarios, will help increase your training in handling your gun and envisioning these types of scenarios to ensure your success.

Attending shooting competitions also helps you become aware of any emotional issues that come up. How you handle and cope with stress is all going to come out in competitive situations because the competitive shooting situation also contains the five-second rule. If you don’t react when that buzzer goes off, you lose your chance to do well in competition. It’s react or go home. It’s a great way to get to know yourself better and the issues that might interfere in a real-life self-defense situation.

Practice brings increased confidence but doesn’t guarantee that you will be ready for that emergency situation. This is where improving your mental game comes in.

Work on Your Mental Game

As you train for and participate in competition, you have the opportunity to work on your mental game.

With regular competition, you will learn how you handle stress. While this is not at the level of a life-or-death situation, repeatedly placing yourself in a competition atmosphere will present you with opportunities to learn how to handle your stress, which is most apparent when you perform in timed events. The faster and more accurately you shoot through your event, the higher your score.

A few different issues impede competitive performance. These can be translated into the way you handle stress in other life situations.

Your Past Can Stand in Your Way

Your past can haunt you and at the wrong times. What flashes through your mind can block you from becoming successful at anything in life, in competition and when it’s time to stand up and take action. As you compete, pay attention to those thoughts.

Guns Are Not the Only Things that Have Triggers

You have triggers too. As you notice what flashes across your mind five seconds before that buzzer sounds, notice the feelings you get from those thoughts and images. Do they make you angry? Cause you pain? Fear? Sadness? These are issues that need to be worked out. The situation you are in is triggering a memory, and attached to that memory are emotions, which can block you from taking action in that first five seconds.

Build Your Visualization Skills

The nice thing about IDPA matches is they create scenarios that will help you visualize yourself in various self-defense scenarios. This helps your mental game because you get to feel what it’s like to perform in various real-life places, such as on a school bus, a passenger plane, a train or at a mall — any place they can dream up. With the timed rounds, the competitions do a pretty good job at creating these types of scenarios, which helps your ability to visualize what you should do and how fast you should do it.

Training to Be Ready

It’s every gun owner’s responsibility to train with your gun and be ready for a real-life emergency. You could be the next person who gets to save a life or two. However, you have to work through your issues. At any moment, fear can override any plan. If you continue to practice, learn your gun well and place yourself in competition situations where you have to respond in an instant, it will help you feel ready. Managing your mental game, fear and stress will help you be ready for that first five seconds.