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How to Maintain Cognitive Function & Fine Motor Skills During High Stress

Written by
September 30, 2015
Updated April 11, 2018
Category: Lifestyle

The stress encountered by firefighters is extreme at times and must be addressed in training if you are to be prepared to meet the challenges faced in the line of duty. The natural physiological response (“fight or flight response”) to stress may limit firefighter performance by impairing cognitive function and inhibiting access to fine motor skills. It is critical that you learn to manage incident stress in a safe training environment to optimize performance, prevent injury, and return home safely.

Stress Physiology

Firefighters operating at an emergency incident often experience activation of the sympathetic nervous system. This is also known as “survival stress response,” “fight or flight response,” or “adrenaline surge.”  “The activation of the sympathetic nervous system increases heart rate, which in turn, has a crucial effect on motor performance, visual processing and cognitive reaction time”.

The body cannot differentiate between the stress experienced during an emergency incident and the stress experienced during a high intensity workout.
As we approach or exceed heart rate maximum, an immediate impact on performance may be noted. Tunnel vision, difficulty speaking clearly, short-term memory loss, diminished hearing, and loss of coordination are very real symptoms of the survival stress response. It is critical that firefighters learn to mitigate these symptoms as they occur and recover quickly from maximum heart rate in a safe training environment.

Mitigating the Survival Stress Response

Fire Fighter Survival Stress Management The body cannot differentiate between the stress experienced during an emergency incident and the stress experienced during a high intensity workout. Rapidly approaching and exceeding heart rate maximum elicits the same stress response whether it is induced by a real physical threat, or an emotional/symbolic one. Firefighters should not experience this survival stress response for the first time during an actual incident. In fact, being unprepared to deal with this response could have lethal consequences.

Participating in high intensity training once or twice a week while focusing on maintaining cognitive function and access to fine motor skills will help to prepare for this experience in the field. Learning to breathe properly and move efficiently can help to control the heart rate response during high intensity exercise. Consistent physical training will allow you to do more work while maintaining a submaximal heart rate. You will condition your body to avoid adrenaline surge longer, and you will minimize stress response symptoms by recovering quickly once maximum heart rate is reached.

Survival Stress Management

The techniques described here may be incorporated into many metabolic conditioning protocols. We have selected the “4 minutes work / 1 minute recovery” protocol for this workout. This protocol requires tremendous focus and skill to maintain proper technique while controlling breathing, counting repetitions, and managing heart rate.

You will also perform simple cognitive tasks and fine motor skills during your recovery periods between exercises. This will help condition your body and mind to manage the survival stress response while building confidence in your ability to perform in the field.

Warm-Up: Perform each warm up exercise for 1 minute.

Training: Perform continuous repetitions for 4 minutes at maximum effort with proper technique. Recover for 1 minute between exercises. Complete the cognitive and fine motor tasks as described below during the first 30 seconds of each recovery period. Move to the next exercise station. Complete all 4 exercises. Add repetitions for each exercise to calculate total score for this training session. (Right side repetition + Left side repetition = 1 point)

Cool Down: Perform each cool down exercise for 1 minute. Repeat circuit up to 3 times.

*Recovery Periods 1 & 3: Perform cognitive tasks such as routing, hydraulic formulas, map exercises, scene size up, etc.

*Recovery Periods 2 & 4: Perform fine motor skills such as knot tying, hose coupling, chainsaw disassembly/assembly, etc.

Stress Management Workout

Stress Management Workout


1. Backstroke Shoulder Rotations
2. Tai Chi Twist
3. Knee to Chest/Heel to Glute
4. Closed Chain Knee


1. Walking Sandbag Lunge/Recover with a Cognitive Task
2. Clubbed Arm Cast/Recover with a Fine Motor Skill
3. Med Ball Slam (Perpendicular)/Recover with a Cognitive Task
4. KB Clean & Squat/Recover with a Fine Motor Skill

Cool Down

1. Trigger
2. Clasped Hand Shoulder Bridge
3. Spinal Twist
4. Upward Facing Dog

Workout Key Points

► Perform each exercise with no breaks for 4 minutes.
► Minimize transition time between left side and right side during 4-minute round.
► It is critical that you maintain excellent exercise technique. This is a big part of maintaining skills under stress. Slow down or stop briefly if you can no longer maintain proper technique.
► Count your repetitions and record your score after you have performed your recovery period task. This will require tremendous focus when training at or near high intensity for 4 minutes.
► Control of your breathing is the key to managing stress and optimizing performance in training and on scene. Exhale as your body compresses and inhale as your body expands during each exercise. This should feel effortless
► Move efficiently. Do not “tense up” your face or create tension in your body where it is not needed.

Calculating HR

Wear a heart rate monitor when you train. It is important to know when you are approaching and exceeding maximum heart rate. You should know what this feels like and how it affects you. Exercise intensity is based on percentage of maximum heart rate:

► 65-75% is low intensity
► 75-85% is moderate intensity
► 85-95% is high intensity

Calculate your personal heart rate zones:

1. Calculate your estimated maximum heart rate (HRmax = 220 – age).
2. Count your resting heart rate (RHR) as soon as you wake up each morning. Document the average over 3 days.
3. Calculate your heart rate max reserve: (HRmaxRESERVE = HRmax – RHR).
4. Calculate target heart rate for desired percentage of HRmax: (HRmaxRESERVE x %) + RHR.

For example, a 40 year old firefighter with a RHR of 60 wants to train at high intensity above 85%:

1. HRmax : 220 – 40 = 180
2. RHR = 60
3. HRmaxRESERVE: 180 – 60 = 120
4. Target heart rate: (120 x .85) = 102 + 60 = 162

Training at a heart rate of 162 and above is considered high intensity for this fire-fighter. Incorporate these techniques into your regular physical training and utilize breath, movement efficiency, and heart rate control when you are called upon to perform at a stressful incident. You will find clarity in your thought process and you will have full access to the occupational skills that you have trained so hard to develop.

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