Produced by the adrenal glands in our body, adrenaline is released when the body experiences high-stress mental or physical situations. It stimulates a variety of bodily functions, including increased heart rate, increased blood to muscles and increased oxygen flow to the lungs, etc. It can be used to increase your performance in sport or self-defense, making you faster, stronger and less affected by pain. It can also enable you to process information while taking actions at a rapid rate, making you more responsive to threats. These reactions, however, are not a given. Everyone has different reactions to adrenaline and the stressful situations that causes its flow. This article explores these reactions and how to train yourself to have more useful reactions for martial arts and self-defense.
Fight or Flight
We all have inherent tendencies when we react to stressful situations. Some people are more likely to engage the situation head-on, others are more likely to shy away from the conflict. How one chooses to react to a conflict situation isn’t necessarily right or wrong. Either can be beneficial or detrimental depending on the situation. That being said, if you want to be able to apply martial arts skills when faced with a potentially violent situation on the street or the controlled violence of the competitive arena, you need to have the option to choose to face the violence head-on.
Those who tend to shy away from conflict have habituated the flight reaction and it shows when they come to face stressful situations both on and off the mats. When they take a solid hit when sparring, they might have a tendency to cover up, close their eyes and shrink away from their opponent. During belt tests, they might freeze up when yelled at by an examiner, or worse, when they need to react in a self-defense situation.
Those who have a habituated “fight” reaction are the ones who tend to hit back more aggressively when they are hit and bring up their levels of performance when put under pressure. This is a form of the fighting “spirit” which was discussed in ‘Size/Strength vs Technique vs Spirit in the Martial Arts.’ If this reaction is not controlled, however, it can lead to the person getting themselves into potentially worse trouble in self-defense situations when tactical disengagement may be a wiser choice. It can also lead to them using too much force on training partners potentially leading to injuries. This topic was addressed in greater detail in ‘How to Keep Your Adrenaline Under Control for Martial Arts.’ As martial artists, we ultimately want to have the ‘fight’ reaction, but be able to keep our heads enough that we can choose our reaction to the stress that created it so that it best serves our needs.
How to Engage & Develop the “Fight” Reaction
The quickest way to engage your adrenaline is by using your imagination. The mind is a powerful tool and can bring us to do amazing things when properly motivated. It’s about making the stakes high enough that our desire to fight overpowers our desire to flee. In our Vancouver BC women’s self-defense courses, we teach women to make themselves angry. We tell them not to fight as though they’re defending themselves, but to fight as though defending a loved one to shore up the power of their intention. We tell them to imagine that if they don’t fight off their attacker he will rape and murder their daughter, or something similar, whatever it takes to get their anger to take over, leaving their fear by the wayside. The imagination works differently for everyone though. For someone else, say someone who is passionate about writing, they might imagine that if they don’t fight back and get out of the situation, they might suffer brain damage and never be able to do what they love ever again. Whatever you use to fire yourself up, it should be personal to you. This is a good tool to start with, and something you can always go back to if needed. Ultimately though, in the martial arts you want to have a less emotionally-based way of establishing a fight reaction to get a habituated reaction that can be used more tactically if you choose to do so.
To develop your fight reaction you have to be familiar with your body’s reactions to adrenaline. The more familiar you are, the more you’ll know what to expect, the more likely you are to be able to utilize it. Every person’s body reacts differently to adrenaline. Most people experience some sort of perceptual narrowing; tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, in some cases the brain simply doesn’t register everything going on around them as they mentally focus in on a threat. Some report that time seems to pass very slowly, for others it seems to pass very fast. To figure out what your own reaction is, you have to experience a rush of adrenaline directly, preferably in controlled circumstances so that you can write down what you experienced afterwards (many people forget what their physical experience was soon after the adrenaline subsides). Doing so helps you devise strategies for minimizing detrimental reaction and maximizing beneficial ones. Below are a number of forms of training that can increase one’s adrenaline.
- Discomfort Training. When exploring your reactions to adrenaline, it’s a good idea to start at lower levels if it’s new to you. If there is something that causes you discomfort in your training, that is probably a good place to start. If you’re afraid of being hit, you might put on a mouth guard and head gear and have someone wearing 16 oz boxing gloves punch you in a controlled manner. If you’re afraid of being held down, you might have someone bigger than you hold you down, again in a controlled manner, so you can explore your adrenal reaction to that fear. Some people experience adrenaline rushes from performance anxiety. Performing in front of the class or doing training circles is another way of exploring adrenal reactions. Whatever you do, it should always be done in a way that is mindful of your safety.
- Live Training. When you don’t know what attack is going to come next, you naturally experience a higher level of stress as compared to training with a compliant partner. When a person achieves a level of ability in which live training can be done more or less safely, it is something that allows them to learn how to apply their skills under higher stress situations. This can come in the form of sparring, grappling, or even self-defense applications in which the attacker is not fully compliant (must be done with a reasonable amount of control).
- High Stress Training. In our style of martial art, Can-ryu Jiu-jitsu, we introduce ‘high stress sparring’ at higher levels. These involve sparring against multiple attackers, 2-on-1, 3-on-1, and other similarly stressful sparring scenarios. There are some rules that are followed for safety. No strikes to the back of the head, throat, spine, kidneys, and knees. Participants, both attackers and defenders, wear helmets, mouth guards, groin protectors, shin guards, etc. In these drills an instructor oversees each interaction and is ready to stop the action to maintain a safe training environment. In dealing with multiple attacker situations, the defenders can better identify their experience of perceptual narrowing, finding it harder to keep tabs on all the attackers. This is just a very loose description of what we do, however. I don’t recommend setting up this form of training without qualified instructors leading the activity. It’s not unusual to hear of higher level stress training methods being used for military personnel, police, fire fighters and others with careers that face high levels of stress, methods like flying a person on the underside of a helicopter by a harness to help them deal with a fear of heights, or roleplaying a scenario in which a live fire fight erupts (complete with rubber paintball bullets).
Obviously every person has different tolerance levels to stress and it’s especially important for people who more naturally engage in flight reactions to start their exploration at the lowest levels of stress gradually increasing the stress as they gain more confidence in engaging fight reactions. Too much, too soon can make a person delve more deeply into their natural flight reaction, making it even harder for them to make the switch.
What do you do in your own martial arts training to develop your “fight” reaction? Please share your experiences in the comments.