Building Pre-Traumatic Stress Resilience – Part 1

By Dustin Salomon and John Prucha

This will be the first of two, maybe three, articles introducing what will be one of Building Shooters’ core focus areas as we move forward as a business. That is, development of stress resilience through training design—what we are terming Pre-Traumatic Stress Resilience (PTSR) development.

There has been a lot of movement on the subject of traumatic stress over the past several decades. Unfortunately, some of what we are seeing indicates that it may not all have been in the optimal direction.

These are very important issues that impact a lot of people in very real ways, so let us be crystal clear on two points. First, these articles are intended to explain, then propose, a theoretical framework for addressing operational stress and performance through training design. The intent is to air the ideas for public discussion.

Our proposals are rooted in both detailed reviews of scientific literature and our experiences in training and real-world operations. This does not make our ideas gospel any more than previous ideas have been. We believe significant research needs to be conducted on this subject and hope that this will be at least part of a starting point for that research, which may either validate or invalidate our theories.

Second, NOTHING written here should be interpreted as being critical of people who have proposed or carried out other approaches to addressing these issues. Even where we may be critical of the ideas or results, we intend no criticism of the people involved in either proposing or executing methods of developing operational performance in stressful environments.

Training people to go into, work in, and come back from environments that are designed to destroy human beings on every level is a daunting task that often results in failure. We have nothing but admiration and thanks for everyone who does this and genuinely cares about the outcomes.


Over the past several decades, the tactical training industry has developed a general method for addressing performance in combat environments. Sometimes called stress exposure training, the basic approach has been to continually expose students to stressful, combat related stimuli.

In most circles this involves a combination of video simulators and force-on-force training. In some situations, hyper-realistic training environments that are, literally, Hollywood movie sets are also used.

Over time and exposure, students gain the ability to exert some control over the responses of the sympathetic nervous system. Performance during first exposure to combat then improves. This leads to improved survival rates in the field.

This approach has been effective at producing operational results. However, there may also be a dark side to the methodology. 

It has been a disturbing trend in recent years that upwards of twenty veterans or active duty service members per day take their own lives. Link to the 2019 VA Veterans Suicide Prevention Report can be found here.  Debilitating, combat-related psychological injuries (as opposed to more manageable conditions such as personality changes, or occasional flashbacks in response to specific acute stimuli) also seem to be occurring in armed professionals such as combat veterans and police officers with greater prevalence than in years past.

It is important to acknowledge that apparent trends such as these tell only part of the story and may be misleading. For example, data collection tools and methods are different today and much greater focus is placed on addressing and researching these issues.

Improvements in both medical practices and battlefield protection also result in many more soldiers leaving the battlefield alive than perhaps would have during past conflicts. Factors such as these may cause direct data comparisons with previous conflicts to have limited value.

Regardless, it is important for us, as an industry, to look at our practices and methods with a focus on understanding what our training is doing to the students.

Training developers, administrators, and trainers should continually ask not just what can be done to improve training efficiencies and combat performance but also what, if anything, can be done to also improve long-term outcomes for armed professionals.

Double digit self-inflicted deaths per day from a demographic representing a small fraction of the general population that should have been trained to achieve greater than average psychological resilience is clearly something that should give us some pause.

A View of the Brain

Discussing and evaluating these issues can rapidly become a quagmire of confusion. There are several reasons for this, one of which is the fact that there are several different common-use models for how the brain and its psychological responses work.

As with most evaluation tools, it does not appear that any single model or viewpoint is capable of accurately capturing the brain’s function. It is, after all, the most complex system yet discovered in the universe and our tools for measuring and understanding it are still rudimentary. 

However, these limitations do not mean that the models themselves are without value. They simply mean that everything must be understood in context.

Here we will apply a mechanical view of the brain. In other words, we are going to look at the brain as a biological electro-chemical information system governed by the laws of physics and chemistry.

We acknowledge that this vantagepoint may not, in fact, be adequate to explain or understand the whole of the human system. However, it can still greatly inform our understanding of how and why the system performs and responds as it does.

Defining Trauma

Before attempting to discuss trauma, it will be helpful to both define it and attempt to understand it. Keeping in mind the purely mechanical viewpoint being used for this discussion, trauma can broadly be understood as a physical change to the brain with a negative consequence. 

This does not necessarily mean impact or concussive trauma (although these factors may often play a role). It simply means physical changes to the brain that, literally, change how it works at a fundamental level.

One common example, one that is detailed in Dustin’s 2016 book Building Shooters, is the instantaneous formation of permanent associative memories that can occur during periods of stress or fear.

Most people can listen to a discussion or look at a scene and, within a very short time period, remember little to nothing about it. Within days or weeks, if not hours, virtually everything that occurred will be gone from consciously accessible memory.

If the event is horrific though, this equation changes. Truly traumatic events can often be captured as a snapshot in memory. Though the actual event may be fleeting, it may still end up permanently etched, in graphic detail, within the victim’s long-term memory. Events such as these can often become life-defining moments in the worst of ways.

Why is this?  Why are horrible things captured forever while the normal is gone almost instantly?  At least part of the answer appears to lie with how the brain works at a fundamental level.

The brain, mechanically, can be thought of as a bundle of bio-chemical electrical circuits. It is heavily dependent on chemical reactions to function. The chemicals, and levels of different chemicals, that exist at any given time are highly impactful on its performance.

It is intuitive and commonly understood that highly emotional events such as periods of high stress or fear involve the release of chemicals into the brain and bloodstream. When this happens, the chemical saturation of the tissue is altered. This can fundamentally alter how things work inside the brain.

One of these alterations appears to involve the creation of near-permanent memories in areas that would normally be reserved for short-term storage. This can be thought of as being similar to a chemical burn that occurs due to high levels of stress-related chemicals that flood into the brain tissue.

When these high chemical saturation levels exist, signal transmission through the brain tissue causes what is, in effect, permanent scarring. From a mechanical perspective, this scarring is trauma. It is an actual physical brain alteration that results from electricity flow and chemical reactions in the tissue.

Traumatic Injuries in Training?

If you have made it this far in the article, you may be wondering why this information matters, for you, as a trainer. Consider the following:

Based on the considerations we have outlined above, neurological trauma (or at least an important aspect of it) is simply a function of signal propagation through brain tissue that contains a high saturation level of stress-related chemicals.

The traumatic scarring—physical change—results from the chemical reactions inside the brain, not from the actual events that occur outside the brain.

Take a tactical pause, re-read that, and process it for a moment.

From at least a mechanical perspective, the actual external events that occur are not particularly relevant to the formation of neurological trauma. Rather, what matters is the chemical composition of the brain tissue as electrical signals are passed through it.

This helps explain why the same event can have tremendously disparate psychological impacts on different people. It also should give us some serious pause as we evaluate many of our standard assumptions and approaches to training people for combat.

It is simply a fact that combat is tremendously stressful. Therefore many, if not most, trainers assume that one of the most important parts of effectively preparing students is attempting to replicate the environment in training—to include the creation of similar stress levels.

These assumptions and methods are incredibly well-intentioned. Implementing them requires tremendous effort on the part of the instructor. Generally, an instructor who goes all out to do this really cares about the students.

Unfortunately, the assumptions these methods are based on may also be incorrect. The methods may also, ultimately, end up doing permanent neurological damage to the students. Even when they are effective for producing combat performance, it is possible that the long-term results are nevertheless devastating.

If trauma, as viewed mechanically, is a function of stress chemical saturation combined with signal transmission through the saturated tissue, then what happens when a training event floods the brain with stress chemicals and requires signal transmission through the brain tissue?

That’s right. Trauma happens. Actual neurological damage may occur to the brain.

Does this accomplish any of our goals as trainers? Does anybody have “Create permanent neurological damage to the student’s brain” on their list of training objectives? We hope not.

The objective should be to make the students ready to perform in combat and give them the optimal chance to survive and thrive in the worst environments possible. It is not to damage them permanently before they ever get anywhere near actual contact.

Fortunately, brain-based training design methodology may hold the keys to accomplishing these operational objectives, without causing neurological trauma in the process. In the next article, we will explore a theory of training design that may help us accomplish exactly that.

Mr. Salomon is a former naval officer. He is the Founder of Building Shooters Technology LLC, and Author of, Building Shooters: Applying Neuroscience Research to Tactical Training System Design and Training Delivery. Mr. Prucha is a former member of the 3rd Ranger Battalion. He graduated cum laude with degrees in Religion – Christian Counseling and Marriage & Family, and has completed advanced graduate studies in Crisis Response & Trauma. Currently he is completing the requirements to become a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Georgia.

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"Easily one of the more important books of our time when it comes to preparing police, military and armed civilians for armed lethal combat."
-Kenneth Murray
Author, Training at the Speed of Life
Co-Founder of Simunition