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Handling Fear & The Chemical Response

February 13, 20218 min read

Handling Fear & The Chemical Response

            Fear, what is it good for?  To misquote Frankie goes to Hollywood.  Well, quite a lot.  It can be thrilling.  Make us feel alive?  Keep us alive? Get us killed.  Oh wait, that’s the bad one.  And that is the problem with the perception of fear, it gets a lot of bad press.  But without fear “man would have survived in the world only four minutes, not the four million years we have supposedly walked the earth”, to quote Peter Consterdine.

            Before I continue, I must stress that whole books have been written on this subject and will cover the topic in far more depth than I intended to in this article.  (A selected list of recommended books will be at the end).  Obviously, we are looking at fear in respects to personal protection.  What fear is, what happens within the human body and what we can do to mitigate its effects. 

Before we get to that, I want to mention, the two rules that Gavin De Becker puts forward in his excellent book, The Gift of Fear.  In it he states:

            “There are two rules about fear that, if you accept them, can improve your use of it, reduce it frequency, and literally transform your experience of life…

Rule 1.  The very fact that you fear something is solid evidence that it is not happening.

Rule2.  What you fear is rarely what you think you fear – it is what you link to fear.”

That’s fear in the large, take chances in life kind of way.  Not the dry mouth, sweaty palms, feel the need to relieve yourself, when faced with some scumbag spiting and shouting in your face.  Fear keeps us out of situations and consequences that would cause us harm.  Fear is what made our ancestors run when a sabre-toothed tiger jumped out in front of them.  We come from a long line of survivors.  There are no future generations from the humans, when faced with that sabre-toothed tiger, went “Oh what a pretty putty cat”.  Our ancestors were already running away, knowing they didn’t have to out-run the tiger just the schmuch who stood still a fraction of a second too long admiring it.

We come from a long line of survivors.  Its built into our DNA.  Our ancestors listened to their instincts, their intuition.  Something modern society is less good at doing.  Anxiety and stress are ripe in our culture as people worry, make themself sick, and live in “fear” of things that may never happen.  The downside of this is people wander around, never listening to their instincts, ignoring the signals fear is sending them, until a threat appears in front of them and they become a victim of crime.

Fear is now a weapon of the criminal.  Fear of violence or violence itself causes fear.  And fear is a powerful emotion that can seriously affect how we perform (or not) in a violent situation to tragic results.  There is nothing wrong with fear, as I teach in our word of the week program, courage is not the absence of fear, but continuing despite it.

Fear can be a good thing, it keeps us safe, given time is allows us to weigh up options and stops us putting our lives in danger.  In life it is sometimes seen as a good thing to face your fears, causing us to learn from those fears and rise above them.  Fear of failure, fear of loss, the fears we associate with our identity can cause us to push ourselves to stive to do and be better.  It all depends how we manage fear.

An attacker uses fear and surprise to hurt us.  To cause panic, diminish resolve, make you feel helpless and in general freeze.  But we can cause him to freeze when we explode into action, bust his nose, reset his OODA loop, and make him freeze.  If we can manage our fear. 

The more awareness we have on the street, the more time/distance we will have to observe a threat, the more we observe the less we will be taken by surprise.  The less surprise the better we can handle the fear.

It is important to understand the difference between the emotional effects of fear and the chemical responses of adrenalin.  We call it adrenalin, or the adrenalin dump, but in reality, it is a cocktail of chemicals that floods the body.  Under extreme stress various glands in your body release hormones into your bloodstream that have a profound effect on you physically and mentally.  This is one of the hardest things to address in training.  The mind you train with will not be the one you have when attacked. 

This means skilled techniques degrades under stress.  And it degrades a lot.  This means trained martial artists degrade more than untrained people.  This sound counter intuitive but here is why.  If an untrained person gets attacked, freaks out and flails about wildly.  Their drop in skill is small because they had no skills prior to the attack.  However, if a martial artist is attacked, someone with good “fighting” skills, and they freak out and flail and flap about wildly, their skills have degraded more because they were supposed to be a good fighter.  Evolutionarily there may be a reason for this, “no amount of fine and complex motor skills will drive that sabre-toothed tiger away, but flailing (gross motor activity), focused (tunnel vision), repetitive (behavioural loop) attack might”, says Rory Miller in Meditations on Violence.

The reason for degradation is the chemical cocktail in the body.  And they can produce some profound effects both good and bad and ugly.

The good

  • Increased heart rate

  • Increased blood flow to major organs

  • Increased glucose for immediate energy

  • Increased awareness

  • Increased sweating to warm the muscles for action.

  • Less bleeding, as blood is pulled from the limps into vital organs.

  • Less Pain.

  • More speed.

  • Increases strength.

The bad

  • Dry mouth.

  • Decreased blood flow to the skin.

  • Increased pupil dilation.

  • Broken or high-pitched voice.

  • General clumsiness from loss of motor skills.

  • Muscle twitching and shaking.

  • Peripheral vision is lost, resulting in tunnel vision.

  • Depth perception is lost or altered.

  • Auditory exclusion occurs.

  • Blood pools in the internal organs.

  • Perception and memory can be wildly distorted.

  • Time seems to slow (tachypsychia).

  • You can have irrelevant thoughts.

  • Behavioural looping is quite common.

  • Out of body experience can happen but is uncommon.

  • Post incident fatigue.

Let’s look a little closer to the chemical cocktail.

Adrenaline – This hormone increases the heart rate, air supply to the lungs and blood supply to the muscles, also promoted the supply of glucose into the blood for immediate energy.  In effect it prepares the mind and body for immediate action and help counter some of the effects of fear, stress, or violent exercise.

Endorphins – These natural painkillers are produced at times of stress such as trauma, and strenuous exercise.

Dopamine and Norepinephrine – These natural “uppers” bring the brain to full attention and speeds up nerve impulses in the part of the brain that controls muscle contractions. 

Noradrenaline – causes vasoconstriction and raises blood pressure.

Cortisol – Reduces the effects of shock.

The combined effect of all this on an untrained person with no time to fight or flight is to simple freeze.  There is an optimal stage of adrenalization.  Bruce Siddle, author of Sharpening the warrior’s edge, has listed stages of adrenalization and indexed them by heart rate.  He states that around 115-145 BPM reaction time and fighting skills are maximized.  Knowing these numbers won’t help you if you are taken by surprise and your heart rate hits 220 BPM.  If we have conditioned an effective response, one our attacker does not expect (because of their poor victim selection) it can kick their heartbeat off the chart and level the playing field.

If we have not conditioned a correct response fear and adrenalin will result in stoppers.  Therefore, we train action triggers.  Predetermined response and decisions made well before any assault.  Deciding what is worth fighting for, a spilt pint, hopefully not, your life, hopefully yes.  Decide to get angry.  Anger can suppress fear.  Break the freeze and get you moving.  Remember self-protection is 90% mental.  With decisions made possible years before an assault ever happens.  So, flip that switch in your head now to decide to fight for yourself, that you are worth fighting for.  Practice hard in the dojo but also get used to doing it in the dojo.  Here your kata and partner drills come into the fore.  You bow at the start of your kata and immediately switch to a focused, determined, aggressive mindset until the kata ends.  The same must be done within partner drills.  Of course, practice is essential but also essential is doing it for real with the correct visualisation.  Our brains are not good at differentiating between real and imagined.

Proper training and or experience can maintain a good level of skill in an encounter and beat the freeze.  If you have trained for the real things, understood what happened within your body, why you behaved a certain way, that you tactically did the correct thing, escaped (relatively) unharmed, that you did not choose this encounter, that it was forced upon you by a criminal, these things will severely reduce the PTSD you will feel after a violent encounter.  And unless you are a psychopath you will experience negative feelings after the fact.

Understanding fear and the chemical response should change the way you train, change the way you react in a real encounter, and change the way to deal with the aftermath.  All in all, a vital piece of information.

Recommended Reading

Streetwise by Peter Consterdine

The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker

Meditations on Violence by Rory Miller

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