Effects Of Adrenalin & Self Protection

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.

 

Tunnel Vision/Hearing

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.

 

Throwing Up

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).

 

Freeze

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”?

 

Pain Resistance

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.

 

Immune System

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.

 

Aftermath

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.

 

Who The F*** You Looking At? (Part 2)

Following on from Part 1, many people will tell you that fighting is more mental than physical and that is especially true of the pre-fight build-up as discussed in Part 1.  The aggressor shouts, swears and threatens to intimidate you and take away your will to fight.  At the same time, he is building himself up and preparing himself for his assault.  It is at this stage that fights are very often won or lost, before any blows are exchanged.  This is why (as previously mentioned) I think it a good idea for people to do some kind of scenario/adrenalin training fairly early in their martial arts training.  At the bottom of this post are some links where you can go to find some of this type of training.  It is by no means exhaustive, so if you know of any other resources where people can get this kind of training to supplement their martial art, then please feel free to add more links in the comments section below.

Traditional martial arts do however have some built in factors to deal with the effects adrenalin, albeit a much longer route.  One method is the emphasis on perfecting techniques.  The continual repetition of technique builds up a strong neural pathway in the brain.  When under pressure, we know that our technique will not be 100% perfect, but the stronger that neural pathway is, the better that technique will be and it will fire under pressure without having to think about it.  The worst thing under pressure is for you to have to stop to think, “how” do I punch/kick/strike/strangle/whatever.  You want to be able to just think “punch”, the neural pathway fires and body just does it.  You don’t want to be thinking, “I should twist my fist at the end of the punch” or “I mustn’t pull my hand back before I punch”, or any other such detail of the technique.  By the time you’ve thought it, its too late.  Training good basics over a long period of time will ensure a reflex responses which could be vital at that split second when you most need it.

Also, as mentioned in Part 1, an effect of adrenalin is that blood goes to the major muscle groups when threatened.  Well in the main, our basic techniques primarily utilise the major muscle groups, so they are designed to work under these pressures.

The pre-arranged sparring is also useful, especially as you get onto the higher level exercises.  Now people will criticize these exercises as unrealistic, and to a certain extent they are.  Thugs do not step back into a stance, announce their attack from safely out of range, then attack you with a nice clean cut martial arts technique.  They are more likely to be up in your face, shouting and swearing, posturing (pea-cocking) rather going into a formal stance or guard, then launch a surprise attack.

However, our formal sparring exercises do serve several functions.  They help us to learn a sense of timing and distancing.  After you have bowed and taken up your position, you should have an expression of deadly seriousness.  No smiles or nods to your training partner because he’s your friend.  This is where you learn to apply psychological pressure to each other.  You learn to project it and to receive it.  This is not quite the same as the scenario based training mentioned above but it does have some similarities.  When somebody steps back into his stance, looks you straight in the eye with a deadly serious expression, even though you may know his attack in advance, you also know that it will be fast and powerful and if you don’t block or evade it, you’ll get hit with it.  This is a form of pressure training.  If you are used to doing this exercise in a “friendly” manner with your training partner, then you are missing the point!

What about Kata (forms/patterns)?  When practising, you should put your full intent into your movements.  This is a mental exercise as well as a physical one.  In an earlier posting, Kata: Training Beyond Technique, (which I recommend you read if you haven’t already) I described an old basketball experiment involving 3 groups of volunteers.  Each group shot balls at the hoop.  One group practiced, one group did nothing and the third group just visualised shooting balls through the hoop.  I’m not sure of the exact results, but it was something like this:

The group that practiced improved by about 24%.
The group that did not practice made no noticeable difference.
The group that merely visualised (but did not actually practice) made about 23% improvement.

You see, the subconscious brain does not does not recognise the difference between what is real and what is imagined.  If you watch a scary movie, you find your heartbeat increase . . . . yet your conscious mind knows that you are safe and sound snuggled up on your sofa.

The subconscious mind however, reacts to the fantasy of the film and your body responds accordingly.   When practicing your kata, you should not just practice to perfect the movements (though that is important too), but you should visualise yourself fighting real opponents.  Visualise with as much intensity as you can, actual combat as you practice your moves.

In the words of Gichin Funikoshi (who introduced Karate from Okinawa to Japan and founder of Shotokan):

“Since karate is a martial art, you must practice with uttermost seriousness from the very beginning. This means going beyond diligent or sincere training. In every step, in every movement of your hand, you must imagine yourself facing an opponent with a drawn sword. Each and every punch must be made with the power of your entire body behind it, with the feeling of destroying your opponent with a single blow. You must believe that if this punch fails, you will forfeit your own life. Thinking this, your mind and energy will be concentrated, and your spirit will express itself to the fullest.
No matter how much time you devote to practice, no matter how many months and years pass, if your practice consists of no more than moving your arms and legs, you might as well be studying a dance. You will never come to know the true meaning karate”.

The old Okinawan masters understood the power of visualisation and training the mind.  Today, we often focus too much on the form of the technique rather than the function.  This does not train our mind (and I’m guilty of this too).  If we train as Funikoshi says, we introduce on-going scenario/adrenalin training into every aspect of our martial art.

An arguement sometimes put forward is that the finer applications requiring fine motor skills and co-ordination will not work well in an adrenalized state as the blood goes to the major muscle groups and away from our brain and smaller muscles.  However, I partially disagree.  Note . . . I said, “partially”.

If you train as Funikoshi says, will utmost seriousness, imagining that you face a man with a sword (or bottle/knife), then you train these fine skills under the regular effect of a small amount of adrenalin.  If you only train for form, or if you only train with a very “friendly” training partner who does not put you under pressure, then yes, I agree that your fine motor skill will not work under the influence of an adrenalin dump.  The power of your mind and imagination is a very important tool for making your martial art much more functional as it was designed to be.

In the words of Albert Einstein:

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

Here are links I mentioned at the beginning where you can go to find scenario/adrenalin based training (please feel free to add more in the comments section below) : –

United Kingdom

http://britishcombat.co.uk

http://www.kevinohagan.com (Bristol)

http://www.completeselfprotection.com (Al Peasland)

United States of America

http://www.fastdefense.com

Who The F*** You Looking At? (Part 1)

More and more these days, people are talking about the effects of adrenalin during a fight and/or fight build up and a number of training programs have been built up around it.  But should traditional martial arts alone be enough to prepare us for the effects of adrenalin and what did the masters of old do about it?

For the sake of this article, I will focus on an average thug, trying to pick a fight with you, rather than a professional mugger/rapist, whose tactics may be a bit more slick.  From the moment that somebody starts to pick a fight with you, and enquiries of you with great verbal eloquence and dexterity, “who the f*** you looking at”, what are the effects of adrenalin that you can expect to experience?  Well this will vary from person to person, especially if you compare somebody who is an experienced street fighter against somebody who is not.

Quite a lot has been written about this in recent years, but if you are new to this subject then please let me recap for you.  One of the main effects of adrenalin is that blood flows to major muscle groups in preparation for fight or flight.  Side effects of this are:

  • limbs shake (especially legs).
  • the brain does not function so well and you can’t always think straight (less blood).
  • fine motor skills deteriorate (accuracy) as gross motor skills improve (stronger, faster).

Other possible effects of adrenalin include:

  • sight becomes tunnel vision, focusing on your antagonist (making you vulnerable to surprise attacks from other directions).
  • you may feel the need to empty your bowels (this is the body trying to make itself lighter for fight or flight).
  • voice may become higher.
  • you freeze!

It is important though to note that these effects will vary from person to person.  The street predators or an experienced street fighter may not seem to show these effects quite as much as they are used to “training” in the adrenalin zone.  Probably the worst side effect of all is that you may “freeze”.  People often talk about “fight or flight”, but they forget about the “freeze”.

First of all, why do we freeze?

Well its an out of date defence mechanism that goes back to caveman times.  If Mr Ugg gets up in the morning, walks out of his cave on his own, without his spear for a quick stretch and yawn and spots a sabre tooth tiger, he has no way of out-fighting the beast and is unlikely to out-run him either.  If he freezes, the beast may possibly not notice him and move on (many wild animals do this).  Of course this is no longer an appropriate defence mechanism when we are dealing with human predators who want to mug, rape or beat us up, as opposed to a large furry or scaly predator who wants to eat us.  It is however, a mechanism that plays straight into the hand of the human predator.

The eye detects movement much more quickly than it detects shapes.  Before you can identify a shape, you often “catch something out of the corner of your eye”.  I have read that the British SAS (special forces) when working in a jungle will walk for 10 minutes, then stay still for 20 minutes; walk 10, still 20, etc.  With so many different shapes and colors in a jungle, this ensures that they see the enemy before the enemy sees them.  It can be difficult to make out a human form in all that foliage, but you will see the movement.  Hence even our special forces intentionally “freeze” for 20 minutes out of every 30.

If we train regular martial arts, should we be concerned about this.  Well, even trained martial artists have been known to freeze when confronted with the raw aggression of a street predator.  I have attended a FAST (Fear, Adrenalin, Stress Training) Defense Course, where part of the training is to subject people to this type of aggression in a controlled environment to teach them to deal with it without freezing.  One lady on the course who was an experienced Tae Kwon Do exponent started to cry when the instructor yelled at her that she was a “f***ing bitch”.

Now for many of us who train in a Dojo/Dojangs where swearing is not allowed, it may seem very strange that an instructor should use this type of language, but that is the language of the street predator or abuser.  The lady’s TKD experience had not prepared her for this kind of verbal abuse and had that happened on the street, it could all be too late at that point!  In fairness to this particular lady, she recovered her composure, stood her ground and completed the course.  She probably took a much larger step forward that day then anybody else on the course, so I have full respect for her.

But it goes to show that traditional martial arts training often does not prepare you for this type of raw aggression.  It does not always prepare you for the pre-fight build up ritual.  And it usually is a ritual, as the aggressor builds themselves up whilst psyching you down at the same time.

In his book, Dead Or Alive, pioneering author Geoff Thompson describes how the dialogue can almost show a countdown.  The sentences get shorter and shorter until they are just one syllable, then they strike.  It start with something like; “You looking at me, you want a piece of me”, to “come on then”, to simply “yeah”!  Geoff emphasises that it will not go like this every time, but if it does then you are listening to a countdown, so be ready.  Better still, strike first.

People who have experience as a street fighter (as many experienced martial artists have in younger days) sometimes have trouble relating to how this is a problem for those that have not had much real life experience.  They see dealing with aggression as common sense.  But as the old saying goes, “common sense is not very common”.

What do you actually do when you hear those dreaded words, “who you looking at”?  If you act passively, you fuel their confidence.  If you jump into your fighting stance and say “come on then, I do Karate”; sometimes you may face them down, but sometimes it will be taken as a challenge so you end up in a fight you didn’t want anyway.  Not only that, but you’ve just tipped him off on how you are likely to fight so he will be a bit more cautious.

Even if you match your aggressor with shouting, threats and abuse so that he feels fear and he actually wants to back down, he may not back down if his mates are watching.  Sometimes they will risk taking a beating rather than loosing face.  And even if you win, that’s your night ruined as most normal people do not enjoy fighting.

If you are confident that you can hit hard and you believe that if you are able to land a good clean shot that you can finish the fight (or at least knock them down long enough for you to escape) then another tactic is to act passively and scared to lull them into a false sense of security.  You let them confidently puff themselves up, so that they don’t feel the need to put up a guard, then when they get close enough and you have a good target, you hit it as hard as you can and then get out of there.

Now these tactics sound quite straight forward.  However, as mentioned above, when you have just had an adrenalin dump, blood goes to major muscles and goes away from your brain.  You are therefore not able to think as well or as quickly as you would in the dojo/dojang.  Under these circumstances, because the brain is a bit impaired it will tend to resort to it last experience in a similar scenario.  If the last experience in this kind of scenario is cower, that is what you are likely to do again (not always, but in most cases).

Traditional martial arts usually train us for when the punches start flying, but we often do not train for the pre-fight ritual.  When we’re not even allowed to swear or yell at each other in the dojo/dojang, how can it prepare us?

For people who have little or no real life experience at street fighting, some kind of adrenalin training is very important.  If nothing else, when the adrenalin hits the blood stream and the brain does not function at full capacity, then the last experience is one of action, not one of cowering, so that should be the experience that the person falls back on.  Adrenalin training is scenario based, whereas traditional martial art training is technique based.

By scenario based, I mean that the participants actually act out a scenario with one person playing the role of aggressor, shouting abuse and swearing whilst the defender learns to feel the adrenalin, operate under its influence and become de-sensitized to the abuse and threats.  Scenario based training can give you very quick results in a short space of time, the main result being that it will help to overcome the “freeze” reflex.  Technique based training will take very much longer to achieve this.

To summarize, scenario based training will give limited results, but gives results very very quickly.  It won’t make you a fighter, but it may help you to diffuse a possible fight so that you don’t have to fight at all.  Technique based training can take you to very high levels of speed, power, accuracy and co-ordination; but it takes a long time to learn.  It can also take some many many years for a timid person to overcome that timidity in the face of raw aggression.  That’s a lot years that a timid person stays vulnerable, however good his/her technique may be.

I personally believe that the two go hand in glove with each other and that every martial artist should at some point do some scenario training, preferably at the beginning of their martial art careers.  It is often said that fighting is more mental than physical and a brilliant technique in the dojo/dojang is completely useless if it freezes on the street.

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