Think that all the techniques that helped you earn all your forms and sparring competition trophies will protect you on the street. Think the deadly techniques espoused by your martial art will protect on the street. Well, maybe they will, that is maybe they will–if you are not so scared to death at the moment that you can’t use them.
Watch some YouTube videos of Don Fry fighting in ultimate fighting matches. He was a master of the stare-down. Not only was he a big, powerful, and tough-looking guy, he capitalized on his appearance by using stares and facial expression to make you think he wants to break you into small pieces, and, by many accounts, this is not an act. Imagine accidentally bumping your car into his car at an intersection one lonely night just after he just lost a tough fight. You get out of your car to check the damage and suddenly he leaps out of his car and comes raging toward you. I do not care who you are or how good a fighter you are– you will be scared sh*tless.
How will you react? Will you even be able to react or will you be paralyzed with fear? Even the best combat-trained police officers and soldiers have experienced “freezing” when faced with moral danger.
When faced with mortal danger, the human body instinctively reacts by releasing an enormous surge of adrenaline, the most powerful hormone in the body, which causes certain predictable physiological and psychological responses within the body. This reaction is often called the “fight-or-flight reflex." Although these effects may be lessened by intensive training, they occur involuntarily and cannot be consciously prevented.
Therefore, the fight-or-flight reflex is not a matter of courage or lack thereof, it is an instinctive response controlled mostly by the autonomic nervous system. When the brain senses mortal danger, your sympathetic nervous system instantly dumps a variety of hormones into your body that cause a high arousal state known as fear.
In this state, your body operates differently than it normally does, and sometimes you have no control over its actions. These changes take effect immediately and may last for a long time, so their effects may linger long after the actual threat is removed. One common effect precipitated by these effects is the distortion of perceived time, called tachypsychia.
Ever had the following happen to you or heard of it happening to someone else. You are sparring at a tournament and really getting into the fight. Suddenly, it seems that everything is happening in slow motion, giving you plenty of time to block and attack. It all seems so effortless. Alternatively, you are really into a fight, and suddenly it is over; you cannot believe it went so quickly.
There is a term for this phenomenon; it is called tachypsychia, a neurological condition that distorts the perception of time, usually brought on by physical exertion, physical stress, drug use, a traumatic event, or a violent confrontation. It is believed to be caused by a combination of high levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the body.
When under the effect of tachypsychia, perceived time may lengthen (brought on by the increased brain activity caused by epinephrine), making events appear to slow down; or perceived time may contract (caused by a severe decrease in brain activity caused by the "adrenaline dump"), making events appear to move in a speeding blur. Martial arts instructors often call this effect the “Tachy Psyche effect.”
Upon being stimulated by fear or anger, the adrenal medulla automatically injects the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline) directly into the bloodstream (the so-called adrenaline dump). This can have numerous effects on the body, including:
- Increased heart rate (200 to 300 beats per minute) and increased blood pressure, which may cause fainting; and the body may constrict itself into a fetal position in preparation for a coma.
- Dilation of the bronchial passages, permitting higher absorption of oxygen.
- Dilated pupils to allow more light to enter.
- Visual exclusion (tunnel vision) occurs, allowing greater focus but resulting in the loss of peripheral vision.
- Release of glucose into the bloodstream, generating extra energy by raising the blood sugar level.
- Auditory exclusion, or enhancement, of hearing.
- Increased pain tolerance.
- Loss of color vision.
- Short-term memory loss.
- Dry mouth.
- Tingling sensations.
- Urge to urinate and defecate.
- Decreased fine motor skills.
- Decreased communication skills.
- Decreased coordination.
- And a distorted perception of time.
The distorted perception of time, as well as the partial color blindness and tunnel vision, cause people to have serious misinterpretations of their surroundings, causing them to take seemingly inappropriate actions. Temporary paralysis may occur, momentarily causing you to freeze as your body desperately tries to catch up to the sudden awareness that your life is in danger. The severe lack of adrenaline after an event may mimic post-traumatic stress disorder, where people may appear extremely emotional and overly tired, regardless of their actual physical exertion.
Loss of martial art skills
Some of the effects of an adrenaline dump can be:
- A sudden surge in muscle strength.
- Increase in speed of movement due to the increased strength.
- Insensitivity to pain.
- You will become super strong, very quick, and super alert
However, these feelings will be a foreign feeling to you, making your actions clumsy and your timing will be off. Also, there will be a dramatic loss of fine motor coordination. Any self-defense movements that require precise movement probably will not work for you, such as grabbing the thumbs of the attacker or performing some intricate wrist lock. For those who carry a firearm, fast drawing, aiming, and reloading will become difficult to perform.
No matter how realistic your martial art training may be, you are never training under the condition of sheer terror. Therefore, do not fool yourself into thinking you will react any differently than any other human would react to a terrifying event.
Under fight-or-flight conditions, your ability to think rationally and creatively will likely be reduced or even blocked, which will have a deleterious effect on your ability to choose the correct self-defense response and determine such things as what should be the appropriate use of force. This impaired thinking will be prevalent when your initial actions do not work as planned and you must improvise or take another action. The more complex the self-defense moves you have trained to use, the more likely that you will bungle them.
Some fight-or-flight effects on the body include tunnel vision and auditory exclusion, also known as "tunnel hearing." These effects not only can affect your ability to react properly to the threat, but they may also cause you to harm innocent bystanders or yourself.
I had a Shiba Inu dog. Shibas are extremely good hunters. If a Shiba sees a rabbit, it will pursue the rabbit until it catches the rabbit. The Shiba will not respond to anything during its pursuit, no matter how well trained. It sees and hears only one thing, the rabbit. One problem is that the Shiba will run into traffic or over a cliff if the rabbit does the same; this can be a problem for the Shiba, and the owner.
Likewise, once the human body is set up to run or fight, its only concern is dealing with the threat, either by escaping or by eliminating the threat. We still see and hear everything around us, but it does not matter, the cortex of the brain screens out anything that does not pertain to the threat and we do not react to it.
With tunnel vision, you lose your peripheral vision and depth perception, you only see that which is directly in front of you and you may not see what else lurks behind the foremost threat or any other threats on your flanks. Another problem is that you lose sight of your arms and hands, which can mean that they may not be where you expect them to be when you act. If the attacker has a weapon, you may fixate on the weapon, and not see any other threats.
Along with tunnel vision comes tunnel hearing. The hearing is directed at the threat and any other sounds seem muffled and distant. You may not hear shouts that warn of danger or such things as the commands of responding police officers.
For those who have never faced mortal fear before, amaurosis fugax (hysterical or temporary blindness) may occur. This is sort of a visual "whiteout" that occurs because the mind has seen something so terrifying that it refuses to look at it any longer.
People may also experience a denial response, a feeling that this terrible thing cannot be happening. This may cause a state of fugue, where the person appears to be in a zombie-like state. Sometimes the person feels disconnected from events, even from the things he or she is doing. The person may feel he or she is watching the entire scene from a distance.
How to deal with it
Soldiers and martial artists use a technique called a conditioned response where they use combat breathing, cycle breathing, or autogenic breathing to manage the "adrenaline dump" that occurs after an event to increase their performance during stressful situations. It involves breathing in through the nose to a count of four, holding the breath for a count of four, exhaling through the mouth for a count of four, and holding that for a count of four, and then repeating the four-part cycle, breathing deeply and methodically, and filling and emptying the lungs with each inhalation and exhalation.
All of this means you cannot count on some complex self-defense system to help you when you need it most. Complex moves may work when controlling a person not intent on killing you, such as an unruly drunk or a mentally ill person, and they may work in a life or death situation if you can overcome the effects of your fight-or-flight response. Weak, complicated sport sparring techniques may be awkward and ineffective when you are in fear of your life.
To be more certain of how you will perform under these circumstances, you should learn simple, basic, powerful, and potentially deadly techniques that do not require a lot of thought and are easy to execute. Then you should train at using these techniques until you can use them instinctively so no conscious thought process is needed.
I once fell off a roof onto a wood deck. When I regained consciousness and opened my eyes, I was staring at a blue sky wondering where I was. After an injury self-assessment, I slowly got up and walked around with no problem. I began feeling strange, so I went to the emergency room. After an exam, X-rays, and an ultrasound, it was found I had no injuries.
For a few days, my body felt like I had been hit by a truck and when I thought about the fall, I had this intense feeling of dread. The feeling was probably what I felt at impact just before I went unconscious. I remembered the fall in detail up to impact. I remember thinking that it was a stupid thing to let happen, and then I remembered thinking about my judo training, in what seemed like slow motion, to rotate my body so I hit flat on my back, to keep my head up so it did not impact, and to not reach in an effort to break the fall. In judo, you constantly train to fall properly until the movements become instinctive. That was my moment of experiencing tachypsychia.