This is a subject that to be honest I’ve avoided writing about up to now because it’s already been written about in so many other places. However, as I aim to make this website one of the internet’s most useful one-stop resources for martial artists, I decided to cover it for completeness.
Any martial artist who is interested in real world self protection (rather than just sport or the artistic side of martial arts) should know about the effects of adrenalin and how it might affect them in a real life confrontation as adrenalin (sometime spelt adrenaline) has both negative and positive effects.
First of all, what is adrenalin?
It is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands on the kidneys in response to stress. The stress can be something as simple as being stuck in a traffic queue whilst late for an appointment. In this case adrenalin is really a completely inappropriate response from our bodies, but society has evolved much faster than we have as a species. Our bodies still respond as per our cave man ancestor’s “wiring”, to modern problems that did not exist when evolution first put that adrenal response in place. In fact much of our adrenal response is the same as many animals so it pre-dates even our caveman ancestors!
What is an adrenalin dump?
When something very dangerous and/or scary happens to us, we tend to produce large amounts of adrenalin very quickly. Another stress hormone called Cortisol is also released as is a whole cocktail of hormones and chemicals into the bloodstream. This chemical cocktail has both positive & negative effects which we often refer to as preparation for “flight or flight”!
Below we look at some of the effects of an adrenalin dump. Although many things can cause adrenalin to be released, being a martial arts website we’ll be looking primarily from a self protection point of view. It should be noted that these will vary from person to person and not everybody will react the same. Some people will have several or even most of these effects whilst other (normally experienced people) may have very few of them.
Blood Goes To The Major Muscle Groups Of The Body
If you need to either defend yourself (fight) or run away (flight), your muscles need a lot of oxygen, which is of course transported there by the blood. This often causes the limbs to shake as they receive more oxygen than usual. Shaking is often seen as a sign of fear or sometimes even cowardice, but it is more accurately a sign of the body preparing itself for action. The extra oxygen will increase the levels of strength and speed.
Blood Goes Out Of The Brain
The blood rushing to the major muscle groups does so at the expense of the blood supply to other parts of the body including the brain. This means that the rational thinking part of the brain tends to shut down. When this happens, we tend to go by experience, “what did I do last time I was in a similar situation”. If the last time you were in a similar situation you cowered and begged for mercy, then that is what you a likely to do again. If last time you fought back, you are fairly likely to fight again this time! This is not a hard and fast rule, just the most likely outcome.
In more extreme cases (panic) we may resort to what is often referred to as the “Lizard Brain” which in evolutionary terms is the oldest part of our brain. This deals with survival and rhythm and has no logical capability. This is like the drowning person pushing even loved ones down so that they can get just one more breath of air.
Loss Of Fine Motor Control
With the major muscle groups pumped full of blood and the brain functions depleted, we tend to lose some of our co-ordination and fine motor control. Big easy techniques such as punches and kicks that do not require much accuracy tend to work better than say locks or pressure point grabs that do require accuracy. If the limbs may be shaking they may be strong and fast, but the shaking will affect accuracy.
Another possible effect is that you fixate on the threat immediately in front of you. You get tunnel vision and you tend to block out sounds coming from the sides or behind you. Your most trusted friend could be shouting to you with a solution to the problem and you may well not hear them. You may lose your peripheral vision, which leaves you open to an attack by an accomplice of whoever is the immediate threat in front of you.
The antagonist may also appear bigger than they actually are.
Emptying The Bowels
Sometimes your bowels and bladder want to empty; hence that expression that somebody “was shitting themselves”. Now going back to our caveman ancestors, this could be useful as it gets rid of any excess weight which we don’t need if we’re running away from a sabre tooth tiger. However, it’s not so useful if we’re fully dressed and then have to carry it around with us inside our clothing. Potentially very uncomfortable and distracting!
It’s another example of our society evolving much faster than we have as a species.
Digestion takes up a lot of energy, that’s why we usually feel sleepy after a big meal. When we are about to run or fight for our lives, we can’t afford to waste that energy, so that body gets rid of it fast, allowing us to divert all our energy into the more pressing needs (running/fighting).
Most people normally quote “fight or flight” as the main response to adrenalin. However, it is more accurate to say “fight, flight or freeze”. Freezing again goes back to the dear old caveman and beyond. The eyes pick up movement quicker than they pick up shapes. So if our good old caveman ancestor stepped out of his cave one morning and spots something huge, furry, with enormous sharp teeth (before it spots him), then freezing could be useful (no movement, big tooth might not recognise the shape). Many species still do this today, and we have the phrase that somebody was like a “rabbit caught in the headlights”. Of course the rabbit doesn’t realise it’s a cars headlights; all he knows is that he’s tasty to other animals and this could be one of them.
However, today (with very few exceptions) we don’t really have any predators that actually want to eat us. So the freeze response which is still hard-wired into us is totally and completely useless when somebody makes that impolite inquiry that we all hate to hear, “who the f**k you looking at”?
Somebody who is heavily adrenalised does not feel pain in the normal way (similar to somebody who is high on drugs or very drunk). This is obviously an advantage to you as you can endure more than you usually would and keep going. However, your attacker will likely be adrenalised as well (even if they started it), so they may not feel as much pain as usual either. This is why it’s important to make the first strike count.
This doesn’t really relate directly to self protection, but I’ll add it for general interest. In simple layman terms, there are 2 main parts to your immune system. They are the antibody’s which fight invading germs and viruses; and the white cells which clear away damaged unhealthy cells within the body.
Now if you are unfortunate enough to have to fight/defend yourself, you risk injuries. Injuries such as cuts or any wound that opens the skin are vulnerable to infection. For this reason, when adrenalised, the body boosts antibody production, but slows down white cell production. So somebody who is under long term stress, even if it’s nothing to do with self protection, will have the white cell production depleted for a long period of time. This is why stress contributes to many illnesses where the body goes wrong from inside (including cancer), rather than from infections.
When we have been in altercation, or even threatened with one, the adrenalin can stay in our bloodstream for many hours afterwards. So your brain remains partly shut down, yet you suddenly have an urge to talk about it like you just entered the World Talking Olympics! This can get you into a lot of trouble if you have to make a statement. The police are used to the bad guy getting the best of an altercation as the bad guy normally selects people he/she knows they can beat. So if you’ve been in a fight and won you may be viewed with suspicion however justified you were in defending yourself. Check the law in your country, but in most country’s you can get a lawyer before making a statement. In the UK, you don’t even have to make a statement straight away and can defer till the next morning when you’ve had a chance to calm down.
Well I hope you’ve found this useful. If you can think of anything that I’ve missed out, please leave a comment below and let me know.