How to Keep Adrenaline Under Control for Martial Arts (Or Anything!)

Adrenaline can be a great tool for self-defense or martial arts sports. It can give you an extra rush of energy when it really counts. It can help you cope with taking hard hits. It can make you more aggressive when aggression may be needed to give you the edge. But it also has its downsides for self-defense, sport or even when you’re just training. It can narrow your field of vision, make it difficult to hear (whether it’s your attacker’s buddy coming in to help or instructions from your coach while in the ring). It can even cause you to use more force than necessary to quell an attacker.

When it comes to martial arts training, it is important to learn to how keep your body reaction to adrenaline under control. When you’re training there is a level of cooperation with your partners so that you’re learning to deal with stressful situations, but in an environment that keeps it safe. When you’re cool and collected, there is usually no issue keeping this fact in mind, but sometimes you get adrenalized when training, like when you’re sparring, free grappling, doing training circles, or even during belt tests. If you’re a higher level student sparring with someone with similar experience, you can afford to let the adrenaline flow a bit more because they have the skill level to handle the intensity. But if your next sparring partner is someone new to it and you’re still adrenalized, they might take on more intensity than they can handle. The same is true for grappling or if you just finish a particularly intense training circle and you go in to be an attacker for someone else. And when it comes to street applications, you may need to keep your head so you can make sound decisions as to how to act (particularly important for people in law enforcement).

Here are a few things you can do to help control your body reactions to adrenaline:

1. Breathing. Keep your breath flowing freely as you train. If you’re sparring or doing training circles, breathe out on your strikes, throws and locks and submissions. If you’re grappling, take smooth breaths as you move and transition, or even when you’re still. Many people have the tendency to hold their breath or take short, rapid breaths when under duress, which causes the body to have an even more intense reaction to adrenaline. If you have a few moments before moving on to your next engagement, take long breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth standing upright. You can increase the benefits of this by raising your arms up as you breathe in and down as you breathe out to increase the amount of air you can take into your lungs.

2. Calming Mental Imagery. If you have a moment to pause between engagements it can be very beneficial to use a mental relaxation to dial things down.  There are a variety of ways to do this. You can count backwards from 10 to 1. You can picture a relaxing scene, such as a leaf floating to the ground, or waves flowing and receding from a shore. Closing your eyes, if it is safe to do so, can help enhance the effects. Try to relax tension each time you breathe out.

3. Cue Words or Phrases. Another techniques is to come up with your own cure word or phrase that you learn to associate with a state of calm (like ‘focus’, ‘breathe’ or ‘smooth and steady’). You can create this mental association by doing short meditations on it here and there throughout the day when you have a moment’s pause. Simply close your eyes, say the word (out loud or in your head), and take long, smooth breaths as you do so, relaxing any tension you find as you breathe out.

All of these techniques take some getting used to. It can be hard to remember (or sometimes impractical) to do these things when you’re in the thick of it. At first, even in a controlled training environment,  it may take you more time to calm yourself down after an adrenaline rush, but the more you train yourself to do this, the more you’ll shorten the time it takes. You can even learn to direct the energy of adrenline dumps for practical purposes while toning down the negative body effects. To practice this though, you need to put yourself in an adrenalized state in your training. The more you do it, the better you get. The above techniques also have practical applications outside the martial arts like when dealing with every day mental stress, at work or in your home life.

Do you have any special techniques for controlling the effects of adrenaline or stress? I’d love to hear about them in the comments. 🙂

Comments (9)

9 thoughts on “How to Keep Adrenaline Under Control for Martial Arts (Or Anything!)

  1. Music!

    The song playing in my head during training (be it jiu jitsu training, or lifting heavy things in the gym) is either meant to provide some kind of tempo focus (for breathing), or thematic encouragement (pump-up or chill out).

    Personal favourites include: “Ordinary” by Lucky Boys Confusion, “Give it All” by Rise Against, “Take a Minute” by K’Naan, and “Get Your Ass Up” by KC Roberts and the Live Revolution.

    (For bonus points, it’s good to pick something that works in either half or double-time.)

    1. Interesting idea. I’m sure many people would relate to that. Thanks for sharing! (P.S. Non-sequitur: City Pizza, the one we got our butter chicken pizzas from, burned down last week. :()

  2. I am finding breathing to be so important in my study of BJJ. When you are pinned under someone you have to know how to get air and learn to relax. And calming words, such as “slow down, be patient, and wait for an opening” work so well. Great post Lori!

  3. I’m a 38 year old female. I’ve always dealt with my overwhelming presence of the fight or flight response (adrenalin) by keeping myself occupied at all times, mentally and physically. I’ve always been crazy athletic and I can never satisfy my hunger for more information. This article helps me understand how to train this gift I have and how to use it when needed.

    1. Yes exactly. Like when I’m boxing(in the ring), it’s helpful to cope with the situation when it comes around.

  4. What I struggle with is calming down after training. I’m new to training in Muai thai, BJJ and Kickboxing and find that I can’t get to sleep until 2am (I finish training at 9pm), which whilst it feels natural to do, it does carry over to the rest of the week and makes me fatigued. Are there any tips for shortening the after effects or is it just because I’m new?

    1. Hi Lee,

      While I don’t have any sources to share with you at the moment, as someone who’s struggled with sleep issues all my life, I know that the experts recommend you avoid intense physical activity in the evening in order to help with sleep. This obviously is difficult for people with jobs and physical hobbies. I’ve found that a full stretching regime post training, along with a short meditation (2-3 minutes), can speed up the cool down process. Mix that with a night long hot shower, etc, and hopefully you can relax yourself enough to fall asleep.

      I’ve never been one for meditation, though I’ve found a few different apps on my phone have assisted when I’ve needed anything beyond a minute or two to calm myself. Otherwise, I just put on a relaxing piece of music, sit in a comfortable chair, or lie down, and focus on smooth and deep breathing for a few minutes and that can really unwind both body and mind.

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