Mental benefits of marksmanship shooting a cognitive behavioral therapy perspective
|Therapy shooting with Gamo replay 10x magnum IGT 22 cal.
Many security professionals carry the burden of some form of physical illness or injuries they may have gotten in the course of their security work, such as a twisted ankle after chasing a perp or getting injured in the process of making an arrest. These injuries may have an unpleasant effect on the day-to-day function of job effectiveness and off-the-job daily tasks. While many security professionals allow for physical injuries and try to live with physical pain until they heal, they rarely allow themselves the same flexibility to manage the effects of psychologically related issues such as stress, anxiety, depression, sadness, or PTSD.
Many years throughout my security consultant and contractor career, I have seen security and police professionals work with physical injuries and try to "tuff it out." And the "tuff it out" attitude has pulled a few through in some cases. In other cases, they needed time off or physical therapy to heal and return to normal. Meanwhile, I have seen professionals attempt to deal with psychological wounds. The "tuff it out" attitude made the psychological problems spiral out of control, leading some to alcoholism, abusive behavior, PTSD, and in some cases, suicide.
Psychological wounds that lead to anger or lashing out can also lead some professionals to self-abuse, abuse of others, or suicide. This untreated problem is all the more reason psychological issues are the leading cause of premature stress-related deaths. The security profession has a bit of a macho egotistical attitude regarding psychological issues. Many professionals do not seek treatment, counseling, or therapy. And this is a burden on the profession. This stigma has many in the security industry not seeking help, so they keep it a secret. Other coworkers may see their partners that are struggling with these issues as weak and incapable. So they further spread the stigma to the detriment of themselves and their partners and the profession.
These same people that claim it is not "tuff" to seek mental health treatment, are at times themselves going through stress-related health problems due to not seeking help. And in many cases will die from stress-related health problems or commit suicide. There is nothing "tuff" or "macho" about offing yourself. In the security as well as police professions, "offing yourself"is a sign of weakness and nothing heroic about it and is looked at as "cowards way out" (Henry, 2004, p 164)
Professionals need to understand that these mental "injuries" are very formal and common to all human beings regardless of gender or race. These psychological injuries like a twisted ankle and broken rib can, in many cases, be healed and the person returns to normal activity. The security professional does not have to "tuff it out" as they say and have tried to live with it. Like an unset broken bone that grows wrong and makes things worse, so does an unfixed mental trauma effect on a person's behavior and health.
The therapy discussed here focuses on essential behavioral modification related to relaxation, focus, stress control, and anxiety control by using a rifle. In my 30 years as of this writing, as a firearms instructor, I have repeatedly heard students share stories on how relaxing and out of this world these shooting sessions are. And from hearing this for the last 30 years, I wanted to take a psychological science perspective on the subject and research how and why this is happening. It is not the purpose of this article to bypass getting help from licensed psychology professionals. Still, it is here to give you tools that you can use as an aid in conjunction with professional therapy. Many clients use these methods as part of the CBT healing therapy, not as a replacement for it.
What is cognitive-behavioral therapy?
Many security professionals know very little about cognitive-behavioral therapy. According to the American Psychological Association, CBT "is a form of psychological treatment that has been demonstrated to be effective for a range of problems including depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug use problems, marital problems, eating disorders and severe mental illness." https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/cognitive-behavioral
Treatments with CBT have to do with changing persons thinking patterns and thereby changing behavior. In this context, CBT's focus is to face one's fears, learning to calm one's mind and relax one's body through this specific method of treatment, and learning to face one's fears through focus and concentration. https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/cognitive-behavioral
Wenzel stated that a person could say that CBT works and is useful for many forms of disorders and that CBT is known for its evidence-based psychotherapy (Wenzel et al., 2016, p. xx)
My background in the shooting sports
I have been an active sports shooter since the mid 80ees from my teenage years, which typically involved shooting co2 rifles and pistols. As I got older, I was introduced to my first 22 caliber long rifle and started target shooting without much education outside of keeping my finger off the trigger and point the gun downrange. Typically I would go out to the desert and plink away with my 22 caliber for hours on end, and the fun never stopped. As I got more shooting experience, I slowly graduate up to a 223 caliber and 12 gauge shotgun. This, of course, is only in the context of this story regarding rifles and does not include my many pistols ranging from a 38 special to 357, 9mm, and finally my 45 caliber. My shooting experience is quite broad in both rifle and pistol. But for the sake of this post, I will limit it to the 22 caliber air rifle as a tool for relaxation, stress relief, and overall mental health benefits.
As a certified firearms instructor since 1992 in self-defense shooting, as well as rifle, shotgun, and pistol, I have seen the benefits of firearms sports on many clients, both as stress relief and a way of getting outside and enjoying the great outdoors in context of sport of shooting. I will not discuss in this post firearms for hunting, self-defense, combat shooting, or any such things, but merely using a rifle to enhance mental health and well-being.
Equipment and space
For this training, we will be using only air rifles, some may choose to use powdered rifles instead, which is all well and good, but for the sake of this training, we use 22 caliber Gamo high-powered rifles. One main benefit is cost and less anxiety in shooting a high-powered rifle such as 308, 223, etc. The point here is shooting for mental health benefits not only for nonshooting clients but also for shooters.
Tools to aid in this form of Cognitive behavioral therapy.
(Beware! These are very high-power air rifles and can seriously maim you or potentially result in death). In addition to target practice, these rifles are small to mid-size animal hunting rifles.
Gamo Black Maxxim IGT Mach 1 22 cal.
Single-shot high power hunting rifle
Gamo replay 10x magnum IGT 22 cal.
10 round magazine and does not require barrel break and load.
Gamo cf-x 22 cal. Single-shot fixed barrel high power.
This rifle is perfect for those that lack the strength to break the full barrel. The under crack requires half the strength without sacrificing power. No, I am not a GAMO rep. I am just using these above rifles as examples because these are what we use in our sessions, but you can use any brand so long as it is accurate, safe, and does the job.
Whether it's air or powder, the benefits are the same. When it comes to cost and location choice, the benefits are with the air rifle all the way. When using the air rifle, the shooting skills are the same for hunting rifles, sniper rifles, defense rifles, and security use. Those basic skills are sight alignment, trigger squeeze, and breath control. The therapy outcome is the same if you are using an air or gun powder rifle if you are an experienced shooter; for non-shooters or inexperienced shooters, the air rifle is the safer bet.
The therapy "space."
In this particular space, we used a shooting range. Due to the vast nature surrounding, we use any quiet spot where there are little to no people walking around with a propper backdrop to manage where the pellet will hit. You are responsible for where that bullet stops, so a non-pedestrian nor vehicle traffic aids in a relaxed and non-stressful shooting experience due to ongoing distractions. Know your target and what is beyond!
After a long and stressful day on the job and knowing that there is not much I can do about anything stressful, I get prepared to go to my "therapy shooting" class. With high anticipation and looking forward to forgetting about family stresses, job stresses, and the global craziness, I unpack my tools that I will be using for my CBT. My choice of instrument for this session is the Gamo cf-x 22 cal. And a silent forest with no one but the counselor by my side. The goal for this therapy session is to get focus, gain a sense of calm, and calm my nerves.
The task is to hit the target, but I do not necessarily mean the bullseye downrange, but the target of serenity or "zen." The rules for shooting are sight alignment, breath control, and trigger squeeze.
As I aim my rifle downrange, I must slow my breath to slow my heart rate. I breathe, 1, 2 in, 1, 2 out and repeat slowly and as much as necessary to calm the nerves, slow the heart rate as I prepare to take my shot. I place my finger on the trigger, softly yet firmly, feeling my heart rate slow, and a sense of calm took over. As I focus on my front sight of the rifle and it stops moving in a rhythmic motion, I take my shot, crack goes the shot, pop goes the target 25 meters away! SATISFACTION! Achieved, as I look down and see the hole placed to the right side of the bullseye in the black. Nice, I think to myself as calm, excitement, and satisfaction rush through my mind.
As this above scenario continues for the next 60 minutes, all things are tuned out from every mundane distraction and stress, no yelling, no stress, no news drama, no social media nonsense, and no anxiety. Peace, pure and simple basic human back to basics peace takes over my spirit. It feels like time stops and nothing else exists, but that moment in time and the 60 minutes spent in this therapy is like you are temporarily out of this world. Time seems to stop, your problems seem to melt away, and your attention and focus become super sharp, which is the best way to describe this mental state. It is awesome!
Stories like the one above are the norm for CBT shooting therapy, and this testimony is just one of the tens that I have heard over the last 30 years as a firearms instructor. Reported benefits are common in these therapy shooting sessions. The clear and most observable benefits are focusing and a certain calm and clarity that comes over the person. The feeling of confidence in achievement in hitting the target and, most importantly, the achievement of calm and mental balance as the shooting session's goal.
The physiological stress-reducing benefits typically observed are lower heart rates due to the shooter having to focus on breathing in and out in a controlled manner, thus supplying the blood and brain with oxygen. While in this calm state, a mass reduction in stress hormones such as cortisol is felt, thereby aiding in that no-stress "ZEN" feeling, thereby positively affecting the heart and nerves and the cardiovascular system as a whole.
Relaxation through proper breathing
Since the shooter must focus on the three basics of rifle shooting, breath control trigger squeeze, and sight alignment, you must incorporate adequate relaxation levels and no distractions to hit the target. As you sit there looking down the open sights or scope, you must practice breathing properly to control your heart rate and keep the sights aligned before the shot is taken. In turn, as you focus on breath control, you start to breathe in and exhale with a purpose. This puts oxygen into your lungs, blood, and brain cells to aid in focus, also of course to a rhythmic mode that aids in timing.
Stress relief by focus and escape
Tune the world out and focus focus focus! Many of our students report that tuning out the world when it comes to focusing on the target to be shot helps them develop a calm state. This calmness aids them in breathing which in turn helps them to relax. They apply this shooting technique of "breath control" to real-world stress that requires focus and calm. By breathing, it helps them calm their nerves to get the project of therapy complete.
Mental focus to aid in goal
The mental focus of the shooting skills required to hit the target teaches how to tune out peripheral distractions by having a laser-like focus on the target ahead. Focus on the target and tune everything else out is key to hitting a small target 25 or more meters away. And so, this precision exercise was reported to aid in staying focused on life's goals as well as work-related project completion success.
Mood when it comes to focusing is also aided by breathing and concentration. When the mood is mad, thought to get clouded, and these clouded thoughts affect physiological control. In this case, the trigger finger needs to relax. When the mood is off-balanced by uncontrolled emotions, it causes the finger to shake, thereby pulling the trigger improperly and thus having a bad target hit. As we know, having a bad mood affects us physiologically; from shaking trembling hands to sweating the rapid heartbeats, a bad mood steals our patience to focus when trying to get good results. Shooting sports through a combination of breathing, self-control, and discipline can positively change the mood from negative to positive.
Shooting as a therapy is not a replacement for therapy that a professional psychologist will treat you for deeper psychological stress. Still, it can be used hand in hand to help you heal and aid in recovery. The testimony above needs to be expanded on by sports psychologists or psychologists that use shooting sports as a mean to the treatment of stress or anxiety-related issues that may or may not have been made manifest as a result of work-related issues or even non-work-related issues. The purpose of the post is to consider shooting sports as a means of treatment and relaxation. There are many ways of using CBT sessions in conjunction with sports for therapy. Each person must find what works for them.
Anshel, M. H. (2005). Applied exercise psychology: A practitioner's guide to improving client health and fitness. Springer Publishing Company.
Henry, V. E. (2004). Death work: Police, trauma, and the psychology of survival. Oxford University Press.
Mack, G., & Casstevens, D. (2002). Mind gym: An athlete's guide to inner excellence. McGraw Hill Professional.
Wenzel, A., Dobson, K. S., & Hays, P. A. (2016). Cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques and strategies. American Psychological Association.