updated 12/6/2010 6:48:45 PM ET 2010-12-06T23:48:45

Art Markman, a cognitive psychologist who studies the brain’s performance under stress, had his research put to the test last September when a masked man entered the University of Texas campus where he works and opened fire with an assault rifle. Markman spent the next four hours locked in his office, stressing over what he might do if the gunman came to his corner of campus.

Like many people in his situation, he wondered if he would be shot at or taken hostage, if he could run, duck, or hide fast enough, if he could reason with the gunman, and if he could perform vital first aid if anyone were wounded.

“It’s obviously a helpless feeling,” he told Discovery News. “Thinking about stressful situations can create stress, so we don’t like to talk about them until we’re faced with them.”

Tune into the Discovery Channel Saturday at 10pm ET/PT to watch "Hijack on Flight 73" in the "Get Out Alive" series.

Increased media coverage of situations like that one is forcing Americans to contemplate crises more often. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that imagining or simulating stressful scenarios can actually give you the mental confidence and agility to confront and survive them, experts say.

“The more averse you are to putting yourself into a stressful situation, the more that stress is going to affect your performance when you finally have to encounter it,” explained Markman.

That’s exactly why his colleague Sian Beilock, a psychology professor at University of Chicago, set out to examine who is more likely to succeed under stress in her new book “Choke: What Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To.”

Drawing on studies for everything from math anxiety to sports, Beilock found that the brain keeps its cool with a combination of practice and positive reinforcement.

For example, athletes tend to flub if they start thinking too much about the mechanics of their moves instead of feeling their way through something they have repeatedly rehearsed. Most people tend to flub on exams when they suppress rather than acknowledge fears, or dwell on negative stereotypes of themselves.

So, simulation of high-stress situations, meditation and even positive self-affirmation serve as important brain nutrients.

“A lot of research suggests that if we mimic just a little bit the types of situations we encounter, that’s enough to get us accustomed in a real do-or-die situation,” she said, adding that’s why law-enforcement officials spend so much time in drills.

Gauge Your Chances

Jonathan Tait-Harris could not agree more. Several years ago, the British war crimes investigator began training journalists, aid-workers and diplomats in risk assessment and response planning for hostile and war-torn environments. He says there are some correlations between an ATM machine hold up in Middle America and an abduction by Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

For starters, you’ll need to gauge your chances of escaping verses surviving a “hostage” situation, whether it lasts the duration of a bank card withdrawal or months in captivity. The United States Bureau of Justice told Discovery News that people who actively defend themselves against a violent offender are less likely to lose property, but more likely to be injured.

“The power of the brain is much better than the power of the fist or the kick of the shin. The people taking you are usually stronger and better trained, and you’re not Jean Cleade Van Damme,” said Tait-Harris.

You also need to think about when and if you can reason with an assailant.

“People generally do these things to others because they see them as different, so if there’s some way to show that you’re just the same, it might just ease the situation,” Tait-Harris said, but warned, “In a few scared moments, it’s very difficult to build rapport, and if you’re the noisy, aggressive one, they might just shoot you to shut you up.”

Of course, each situation is unique, and that caused several crime response organizations to shy away from giving any advice or comment to Discovery News. However, most of the experts consulted for this article said our sense of empowerment will likely increase with every crisis we emulate and confront.

“Every little bit of specific work is going to help. That’s why the fire department tells you to have a specific plan,” noted Markman.

“You won’t necessarily stick with the plan, but if you have a plan you won’t be fumbling,” Tait-Harris added.

Types of Training

The U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics show that crime is down. Homicides went from 23,400 in 1990 to 15,240 in 2009. But increased reporting on these kinds of scenarios creates plenty of alarm.

There is no one-stop crisis management center to ease that worry, but individuals can pick and choose courses that meet their greatest concerns. For example, local fire departments, community colleges, and the American Red Cross usually offer first-aid and CPR courses, and FEMA, CERT, and American Red Cross offer broader-based community response courses for dealing with disasters at work, school or out on the street.

Self-defense courses are harder to vet. Tait-Harris’ recommends the hostile environments program for people who move in particularly high-risk environments, but says any self-defense training is helpful, as long as it is comprehensive.

Carol Middleton, director of DC IMPACT Self-Defense in Washington, says many people prefer the widely-available 25-hour IMPACT program because it gives students an array of violent scenarios and an even broader array of physical and verbal techniques for handling them.

“Everyone has a freeze response but training reduces that,” she said, noting that IMPACT helps the brain to develop a mental filing system wherein you intuitively correlate a real situation with the one it most resembles from training. If that fails, your brain grabs the next file.

Middleton says crisis and self-defense students may become hyper-vigilant at first, but ultimately they feel more confident.

“We teach people that you’re never out of strategies. After training, they no longer feel helpless because they have a more realistic understanding of violence and how to deal with it,” she said.

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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