Fear and the Flight or Fight Reflex – Part 6 of 6

By Jim Harrison (Originally Published By MA Success Magazine)

Obviously, I can’t go out looking for street fights to prove my martial arts skills are effective. That would be contrary to the self-defensive nature and philosophy of peace practiced throughout the martial arts. So how will I know if my skills will work in real life?

Today, we are rarely allowed to even protect ourselves physically because of decisions made by people who control our rules, laws and courts. We must “turn the other cheek” even if it kills us. Further, because of the senseless violence, misuse of weapons and the cowardly “gang mentality” prevalent in today’s society, it’s extremely dangerous to defend yourself.

I strongly recommend avoiding most confrontations. There are simply too many inherent dangers – physical, legal and civil – to justify fighting nowadays. If, however, you are attacked, you are not only justified to fight back but are forced to. If you wish to live and / or avoid injury, you have no choice.

When that happens, you can rely only on your martial arts training and ring experience to carry you through and help you survive an attack. If that training has been tough, practical and realistic, you will, more often than not, prevail. Remember, however, your attitude is more important than your skill.

President Theodore Roosevelt once stated – so poignantly – “It’s not the size of the boy in the fight. It’s the size of the fight in the boy.” Truer words were never spoken.

Here, I speak strictly for myself, and not for anyone else reading this. If I’m personally confronted with a serious threat, I invariably take appropriate and aggressive measures to protect myself – regardless of whatever potential legal or other consequences may result. I can worry about any of that later because, if I don’t win that encounter, I may not have to worry about anything since I could be crippled or dead!

Suppose I’ve trained in the martial arts mainly for fitness and health. Does that mean my skills might never work in a real self-defense situation – because I might or might not freeze out of fear? How can I know?

You can’t! Like the student skydiver who climbs into the airplane, like the rookie fighter pilot who takes off on his first sortie, or the beginner boxer climbing into the ring for the first time – they never knew if they could perform effectively, if at all, that first time. However, most do; and few completely freeze.

For one thing, you won’t have any choice in a street confrontation. If you cringe and cower when attacked, you may very well be killed. Therefore, your only chance will be to go for it!

Secondly, understand that you will not normally perform in a real fight as well as you did in practice. Fear does cause us to be uptight emotionally and, consequently, hinders or restricts our ability to think quickly and accurately. Fear also tightens us up physically and makes our moves – in this case, punches and kicks – stiffer and slower than normal.

However, there are a rare few, natural fighters who actually “turn on” in real and serious fights or in battle. But even these rare types also draw on their previous practice and experience.

Fear-driven stiffness is totally unavoidable. Only experience will allow you to loosen up. Often, however, as a real fight progresses, you’ll find that you will loosen up, too. Further, the sum total of your training sessions and ring experience will promote self-confidence, which leads to a more relaxed attitude in combat. The less you think about what can happen to you, the more you can focus on what you have to do to defend yourself.

And finally, when another person picks the fight with you or assaults you, he’s the one in the wrong. You are right! And being right, especially feeling right, empowers us immensely. So, in any attack situation, give yourself a big dose of “righteous indignation” and go for it. Don’t lose your temper. Keep cool, calm and collected. And explode into action.

Fear and the Flight or Fight Reflex – Part 5 of 6

By Jim Harrison (Originally Published By MA Success Magazine)

What is the third and final stage in this training process of overcoming fear?

Stage Three involves the street or combat zone. Tournaments and ring fights are always planned in advance. You know the date and even the approximate time that you will fight. Consequently, you normally have plenty of time to think, and to worry, about the possibility of losing.

Street fights, however, are normally spontaneous eruptions and, consequently, you have little, if any time to anticipate them and little time for the flight adrenalin to activate. In most self-defense situations, you know only that there is impending danger. As a Law-enforcement officer, you realize that a combat situation might develop but not always. In military combat, and certainly with a SAD (Search And Destroy) Team, you know that combat is definitely impending, it’s just a matter of when?

In police situations and military combat, you also know that there’s a very likely chance you will be wounded, crippled or killed. In the sport ring, of course, the chance of injury, and especially death, is much more remote.

Therefore, there are two different types of fear involved in these two different environments. The fear of humiliation and possible injury in the sport context, as opposed to the fear of serious injury and possible death in the others.

In competition, ring fights to the knockout are more decisive, but still conducted with restricting rules and a referee who can stop the fight. In combat, it’s a fight for life or death, with no rules and no referee – only your brains, skill, experience, conditioning, determination and luck. Without rules, the man with the best ability to improvise, and who will take the greater risk, is usually the winner – providing that plain luck doesn’t interfere.

Where is the turning point in overcoming fear?

Whatever game we play that involves risk, it is essential that we prepare ourselves, both mentally and physically. However, to enter the game we must normally push ourselves to enter it, and that is the critical turning point. We must actually – and perhaps often – force ourselves to step on the mat or into the ring, to climb out on the wing of a plane, or paddle into the rapids, and so on. Basically, to take that step from which we simply cannot retreat.

The rest is easy. Because there you are: In the match, in the air, in the canyon, or in the fight. Then you simply do your best to not only survive, but to excel and to win. It just takes that first difficult step, jump or leap.

More often than not, once you take that crucial step you will find the experience exhilarating! So go for it. Even when you lose or fail, you will feel better for having tried. Then you say to yourself, ‘I’ll do better next time.” And with that attitude, “next time” will surely come.

Overcoming fear is a matter of courage. Not being afraid is stupid. To stand and advance into the jaws of fear is simply to conquer, first, yourself, then your opponent. And conquering your opponent may be easier.

How can I develop your kind of attitude, one of unadulterated confidence in the ring or in combat?

I don’t know that everyone can. I can only relate my experience of how I did it, and how many of my students and the fighters I’ve coached have. But I do know that, unless you try, we will never know if you are one of those people who can or not.

One, you begin by initiating the steps I set forth earlier. By working out in a tough training hall, including a tough instructor / coach and tough teammates / sparring partners. By competing in sport contests, formal bouts and matches. And finally – if this is your desire – by testing your skills, conditioning, attitude and fortitude on the street in self-defense and / or in combat.

Like I said, to learn to swim you’re going to have to get wet.

Fear and the Flight or Fight Reflex – Part 4 of 6

By Jim Harrison (Originally Published By MA Success Magazine)

Where do you start the process of learning to overcome fear?

Stage One starts in the dojo or gym. There, the training should be rugged and demanding, sometimes even brutal and intimidating. And it often is, especially so in the case of boxing gyms, judo dojo and wrestling and sambo halls. In fact, if the training isn’t tough and hard, you might as well forget about becoming a real fighter.

Instead, you will simply be, and remain, a wannabe, with only dreams and wishes. Because, in any lesser or weaker atmosphere like that found in the run-of-the-mill or the average karate, aikido, kung-fu and taekwondo school – you will develop a considerably lesser amount of actual fighting ability and warrior-like attitude. Worse, you may develop false confidence. False confidence will always betray you when you need the real warrior’s attitude gained only from true confidence.

It’s very simple. If you want to swim, you have to – at the very least – get wet. And to be a champion swimmer, you’re also going to get tired, cold, and half-drowned – regularly. And if you are forced to swim with sharks, you better train for it as if your very life depends on it. Because, usually, it does!

What would be required of me in that kind of tough training environment?

In the tough dojo or gym, you must attend classes, practice sessions and workouts regularly and consistently. Don’t permit yourself excuses for missing practice, unless your reasons – like injury, illness, etc. – are honest and legitimate.

You must train daily, preferably, or at least every other day. You must work hard and train hard. You must work through fatigue and discomfort, through all obstacles except potentially disabling injuries and mental stress. Further, you don’t ever slack off. You must be willing to shed sweat, blood and even tears.

You should organize a schedule and curriculum that is more demanding than you think you can endure, and stick to it. And then increase it. You must train yourself to be tough before you can be tough. The tougher and rougher you train, the rougher and tougher you will become.

Training tough and consistent is the first step in overcoming fear. Learn to overcome the fear of work, regimentation, discomfort, pain and frustration. Take any setbacks in stride and overcome them as quickly as possible.

To put it in brutally frank terms, strive to reach the point where you simply cannot, will not, and do not accept failure!

You cited three stages in this process of overcoming fear. Wouldn’t Stage One – rugged training – accomplish this alone?

No! Now you must put your training skills to the test. Robin Webb, a former British Isles heavyweight boxing champion and a former sparring partner of Muhammad Ali’s, once said: “No coward steps into the ring twice.” To successfully build courage, you will have to step into the ring for perhaps the first time in your life, and no matter what happens, then step into it again and again.

Stage Two involves competition on the mat, in the ring, and in the arena. Having the determination to prepare as well as possible, and the fortitude to show up and do the job as well as you can, is the mindset needed to overcome your natural, inherited and genetic adrenal dispersal – no matter how it is proportioned. It is a matter of mind over fear! Courage!

So, after you have prepared (Stage One), you must systematically test yourself somewhere, sometime, against a worthy opponent in a competitive environment. That takes courage. Then you must continue to select or challenge more and more worthy opponents. And each time you choose a worthy opponent, it will require of you more courage.

But be careful. There’s an old saying, “Don’t bite off more than you can chew, but don’t spit it out if you do!”

Fear and the Flight or Fight Reflex – Part 3 of 6

By Jim Harrison (Originally Published By MA Success Magazine)

What can an individual do about his or her personal degree of flight and fight adrenalin?

Absolutely nothing! Each human being has inherited a specific amount of flight and fight adrenalin. Consequently, we must accept our normal reactions to fear, regardless of how desirable or undesirable, how acceptable or unacceptable, it may be to us.

So many people, especially fighters – and even would be fighters – berate themselves because of their personal “fear factor.” By this, I mean those feelings of fear that they encounter prior to – or at the initial outset of – a confrontation, a match or a real fight. Although it is normal to feel irritation or disappointment in ourselves because of our fear, it is absurd to blame ourselves for something we had absolutely no control over- something we were born with or without.

We have inherited all of our physical characteristics, our mental faculties, and our emotional responses. Certainly, every parent would give his or her child every desirable asset and attribute they could possibly think of- beauty, brawn, brains and bravery – if they possibly could. They can’t, and we can’t.

Are we, then, helpless to change our inherited condition? Can we, despite our inherited degree of fear, develop more courage than we were born with?

What we do to change, control or counter any undesirable or unacceptable characteristics we were born with is greatly, if not entirely, up to us – although parents, teachers and mentors can help guide us considerably. Nevertheless, we as individuals are the only ones who can deliver the goods – through desire, discipline and determination.

If you lack intelligence, for example, you can improve your knowledge through education and determination. If you are physically weak, you can improve your physical structure and strength through hard work and determination. If you lack emotional discipline and fortitude, you can, again, improve your attitude, discipline and self-control through sheer desire, will power and determination.

Determination is based on desire – the desire to strengthen any inherent weakness you might have, whether internal or external. And the degree of passion behind your desire will largely determine your outcome. How badly do you want to improve? And how willing are you to do what it takes to succeed at self-improvement.

Only you can answer those questions.

So, does that mean I can learn to control my fear?

Absolutely! Human beings can learn to improve and/or control virtually any characteristic or handicap they have. That is, if they sufficiently desire to, and have – or will develop – the will and the determination to do so.

As a martial artist or a fighter, how can I learn to control my natural, or genetic, fear?

First, by understanding what you are up against. That, again, is why the preceding technical information was used to initiate this chapter. It’s essential for you to understand the problem before you can affect a remedy.

Second, you need to find a solution to the problem. There is a solution, and it must be worked at in stages. So, third, you must learn those stages that a fighter will normally need to improve his level of bravery, and you must then, systematically, follow them.

There are three stages to the process of overcoming your natural fear and increasing your courage. But I must point out that every stage of this solution will be a very difficult challenge for anyone who has not traveled this path before. But then, what goal in this world is not difficult if it is worthwhile?

Fear and the Flight or Fight Reflex – Part 2 of 6

By Jim Harrison (Originally Published By MA Success Magazine)

What is “flight adrenaline” and what does it do to us?

Flight adrenaline (norepinephrine) is a hormone that’s secreted by the adrenal gland when a human being – or, virtually any animal, but specifically, mammals – anticipates danger. Flight adrenaline greatly increases our awareness and alertness.

In addition to making us considerably more alert and sensitive to our immediate surroundings, it also increases our peripheral awareness. To put it simply, it opens up our senses to detect danger. It allows – or actually forces us to tune in to danger and/or the possibility of danger.

Flight adrenaline fine-tunes our receptive and responsive abilities. It especially increases our desire and our ability to avoid danger, because there is normally less risk in avoiding danger than in confronting it.

There’s an old Zen parable that best illustrates the distinction between these two reflexes:

A Zen master out for a walk with one of his students pointed out a fox chasing a rabbit.

“According to an ancient fable,” the master said, “the rabbit will get away from the fox.”

“Not so,” replied the student. “The fox is faster.”

“But the rabbit will elude him,” insisted the master.

“Why are you so certain?” asked the student.

“Because” answered the master, “the fox is running for his dinner and the rabbit is running for his life.”

What responses does flight adrenaline cause in humans?

Flight adrenaline (norepinephrine) signals us to be ready to run. It also enables us to run earlier and much faster than normal. That’s because, again, we are much better off to avoid danger than to confront it. In other words, it’s better to flee than to fight. Whether you believe it or not, we can actually run much faster when afraid.

What is “fight adrenaline” and how does it affect us?

Fight adrenalin (epinephrine) is an adjacent hormone also secreted by the medulla section of the adrenal gland. Epinephrine, however, works in many ways almost entirely opposite of flight adrenalin. It decreases our peripheral senses and actually focuses, or tunnels, our perceptions and responses.

Fight adrenalin not only triggers our emergency senses, but also our emergency reflexes, to aid us whenever we cannot, do not, or will not avoid danger. It makes us quicker and stronger, assets that we sorely need to confront and meet danger.

In addition, fight adrenalin greatly increases our pain threshold anywhere from mild to superhuman, just as it can our strength. It also increases our dysfunctional override capacity- the ability to resist and even aggress after incurring physical damage. It can allow us to function despite a dislocated joint, broken bones, etc.; or after the breath has been knocked out of us, or even when we have been knocked almost unconscious!

How can you best describe the differences between flight and fight adrenalin?

Here’s the best analogy. Flight adrenalin is what rabbits have 99.99% of the time. Fight adrenalin is what grizzly bears are imbued with 99.99% of the time.

Only the rarest of rabbits, in the rarest of instances, will fight. Even in the most extreme cases – when cornered and being eaten alive – rabbits will simply acquiesce into shock,or continue their attempt to escape.

The grizzly very rarely thinks of avoiding danger, much less running from it. Grizzlies have been ftlmed attacking automobiles! They normally only run to catch, and/or attack, a meal, and very rarely to escape – and then only from conditioned reflexes such as to run from men with dogs and rifles. But quite often, not even then.

Each human being also has a certain proportional amount of rabbit and grizzly reflexes, obviously in vastly different degrees per individual. The proportion depends completely upon a person’s inherited genetic DNA dispersal.

Fear and the Flight or Fight Reflex – Part 1 of 6

By Jim Harrison (Originally Published By MA Success Magazine)

Fear is a natural human emotion that causes a person who’s facing imminent danger to have one of two completely opposite – but mutually instinctive reactions. You either run away from the danger to totally avoid it, or you confront it head-on. This is the “Flight or Fight Reflex.”

Fear is a subject of particular importance to martial artists, yet one that has been inadequately addressed and perhaps even grossly overlooked in the field’s collective literature. No matter how much martial arts you learn or how proficient you become at it, if the time comes to face a genuine life-threatening situation you will experience the two-edged sword of fear – fight or flight – and will be forced to exercise one or the other.

When the human organism thinks it is being threatened, typically the person’s heart pounds like a triphammer, and he becomes short of breath, sometimes almost to the point of hyperventilation. There is nausea, often described as “butterflies,” in the stomach. Some individuals experience an inability to control their bowels. The degree of emotional and physical intensity varies with the person.

As undesirable as all these powerful symptoms may sound, they are actually indicators that the body is ready to perform at its highest level. World-class athletes and people who freeze from terror under stress, both experience the same series of physiological reactions. What determines how successful the outcome will be, is how rapidly the individual is able to either retain or regain control of his instrument.

Fear is stimulus-specific. There are people who evidence few, if any, of the usual biochemical reactions, as cited above, to what are traditionally considered life-threatening circumstances. They are considered “fearless.” Yet, each of these people has some particular personal situation in which he finds it difficult to maintain his composure.

For example, there are people who are unperturbed by the sounds of gunfire, sirens and screaming, yet who become rubbery-kneed at the sight of a baby’s soiled diaper. So, the threshold for what would be considered overwhelming stress varies drastically from person to person.

Although considered fearless by most of his peers, Jim Harrison readily admits to being scared before every match, gunfight, firefight or battle. In these excerpts, he clearly explains, based on real experience – in the ring, on the street, and in the battlefield- what fear is all about and how you can overcome it.

What exactly is fear?

The dictionary defmes fear as “an emotion of alarm and agitation caused by the expectation and realization of danger.” However, a topic as important as fear requires a far more technical elaboration. This technical analysis is essential to your full understanding.

A medical dictionary informs us that fear is “a somatic (part of the body) disturbance or expression of anxiety (stress), neurosis (nerves), or an anxious psychotic (mental disturbance), which may stimulate hyperthyroidism- an excessive condition of glandular secretion by the thyroid.  This includes an injection into our system of a hyper-adrenal, another glandular secretion of hormones, chief among which, and this is important, are norepinephrine and epinephrine- “flight” and “fight” adrenaline, respectively.

This common human condition is what is known as the “Flight or Fight Reflex” (or Flight or Fight “Instinct”or “Response”).

In the upcoming series of excerpts, Mr. Harrison will explain, in a question-and-answer format, the many aspects of fear – and how to train to overcome it.