Her hands were shaking and her breathing ragged, rapid. Her voice came out half-an-octave above her usual pitch. I stood next to her, spoke calming words. She fired her first shot and burst into tears.
Was this woman working through some deep trauma? Maybe, maybe not. She had definitely experienced an intense adrenaline dump, which sometimes includes unexpected tears. I helped her set the gun down safely, then asked gently if she wanted to continue. She did, so I watched her place another round in the magazine and load the gun. Eventually, her physical responses settled down. The target looked good when we were done.
At the end of the class, she came up and asked, “What was that all about?” Taking care not to assume anything, I asked if she had brought some emotional baggage with her to class. Had something bad happened in her background, something related to crime or guns? It had not. She had never handled a gun before, but she hadn’t consciously been afraid of them either. That’s why she was puzzled.
Just a physical reaction, then. It happens sometimes. I explained that she had felt a normal, though somewhat uncommon, variant of adrenal response. Most people have a physical reaction to firing a powerful handgun for the first time. Some feel that response in unexpected ways: they feel sick to their stomachs, or their eyes start to water, or their voices wobble. Often their hands shake. All of these things are simple physical reactions to adrenaline. Human bodies produce adrenaline in response to a new experience. These physical responses don’t mean anything is wrong. They simply mean, that’s how your personal body reacts to that type of stimulus.
She wanted to know if it would happen again the next time she went to the range. Probably not, I told her. Most people seem to feel the most extreme response the first time they shoot. After that, they feel a slightly lower adrenal response every time, because it’s no longer a new sensation. She could safely visit the range again, confident that her reaction to gunfire would be less overwhelming the next time out.
In fact, I told her, there’s something surprising about target shooting. Although the first trip to the range often causes a strong adrenaline rush, that changes over time. Experienced shooters usually find that shooting helps them calm their nerves and find their center in the same way yoga or other types of meditation can do.
But that’s a different story.