Thursday, April 22, 2010

To go, or to go off!...

The following article was written by Mr Drew Guest of Bushi Dojos Self Protecton (Australia) and is reproduced here with his kind permission.

Fear and the fight or flight response...
Time seems to slow down and it seems you are looking through another's eyes. You can't think properly and repeat, "this isn't happening" or similar over and over in your mind. Your pupils dilate and your field of vision narrows; your hearing becomes more focussed on your immediate surroundings. You can clearly hear and feel the throb of your pulse in your head as your heart rate, the force of your hearts contraction, and blood pressure increase. After an initial intake of air, your breathing becomes shallower, but more efficient. Your legs are so primed for action that they begin to shake with anticipation. Your face and hands feel clammy from the sweat even though it's a cool night. You feel nauseous because your stomach wants to empty itself. Your bladder and bowel wants to evacuate their contents. This is what it means to "have the crap scared out of you" ... this is fight or flight.

The above is an account of some of the sensations you may experience when the fight or flight response is triggered. It could be due to the threat of violence such as a mugging or an attack, or it could be because you are about to give a talk in front of a large audience. In fact it can be triggered by any physical or emotional stress, especially when fear is involved, but not limited to it.

Fight or Flight Defined
The fight-or-flight response, also called the acute stress response, was first described by Walter Cannon in 1915, in his printed work "Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage: An Account of Recent Researches into the Function of Emotional Excitement". His theory states that animals react to threats with a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system, priming the animal for fighting or fleeing. This response was later recognised as the first stage of a general adaptation syndrome that regulates stress responses among vertebrates and other organisms.

The Stimulus
Lets take a closer look at what actually goes on when in fight or flight. We'll look at what happens, how it happens and why it happens.

The first part of the equation is the stimulus - the trigger that sets the entire process off in the first place. For a stimulus to trigger the fight or flight response it must be perceived as stress inducing or introduced suddenly and unexpected. Stress can be physical, such as with intense exercise, or mental/emotional such as fear. The stimulus that produce an initial fight or flight reaction can generally be categorised into "E situations" such as Exercise, Emergency, Excitement and Embarrassment.

The Trigger
Our senses detect the stimulus, though sometimes our imagination creates it, specialised areas of the brain then process it and determine it to be stressful enough to respond with fight or flight. Recent research suggests that reaction to a stimulus may occur in two stages. The first is a quick response based on an initial reaction to the stimulus. This involves a circuit running from the thalamus to the amygdala and leads to an immediate response. The second path travels from the thalamus to the cortex and then to the amygdala, this circuit allows a more cognitive appraisal of the stimulus based on stored knowledge and goals. The second pathway is longer and thus takes more time, this could result in a secondary response, which could either, support the initial reaction (of the first circuit) or stop it. Both pathways end up traveling to the Hypothalamus via the amygdala.

Impulses from the Hypothalamus stimulate sympathetic preganglionic neurons, which release acetylcholine (Ach), which in turn stimulate the cells of the adrenal medulla to secrete epinephrine and norepinephrine. Yep that went over my head too, all these long scientific words are simply names, don't get too caught up with them, it's their role that we are primarily concerned with. Basically the Hypothalamus is a cone shaped part of the brain ending in the pituitary gland. Its main role is to maintain the body's status quo; it keeps the body in a stable state of equilibrium. It regulates the balance between the parasympathetic and the sympathetic division of the Automatic Nervous System (ANS). It is the sympathetic side of the ANS that deals with the fight and flight functions. It is via the parasympathetic division that unconscious body functions are regulated, functions such as heartbeat, breathing, body temperature, etc. During the fight or flight process, the Hypothalamus tips the balance of the ANS towards the sympathetic division.

Acetylcholine (ACh) is a neurotransmitter, (in fact the first one ever discovered), that is released via the firing of pregangleonic neurons - these are nerve cells that are located in the brain or spinal cord and are actually part of the central nervous system. The firing of these neurons triggers the automatic or sympathetic ganglion to release the ACh, which then travels along the neuropathways to the adrenal glands.

Enter The Adrenaline Dump
The two adrenal glands are located on top of each kidney. 80 to 90% of each gland is made up of the adrenal cortex, the balance being the centrally located adrenal Medulla. It is the adrenal Medulla that is primarily stimulated by the ACh. This stimulation releases the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine (aka adrenaline and noradrenaline). This is the infamous adrenaline dump. The adrenal cortex also secretes hormones called Glucocorticoids (mainly cortisol) that influence glucose metabolism, have anti-inflammatory effects and depress the immune system. There are many more chemicals and hormones involved in the process, but it's not necessary to list them all here, they all contribute to the process either directly or indirectly.

The Effects
Activation of the sympathetic division and release of hormones by the adrenal medullae set in motion a series of physiological responses that are collectively referred to as the fight or flight response. They include:
* The pupils of the eyes dilate.
* Heart rate, force of heart contraction, and blood pressure increase.
* The Airways dilate, allowing faster movement of air into and out of the lungs.
* Inhibition of tear glands and salivation
* The sweat glands become active
* The blood vessels that supply the kidneys and gastrointestinal tract constrict, which decreases blood flow through these tissues. The result is a slowing of urine formation and digestive activities, which are not essential during exercise or emergency situations.
* Blood vessels that supply organs involved in exercise or fighting of danger-skeletal muscles, cardiac muscle, liver, and adipose tissue-dilate, allowing greater blood flow through these tissues.
* Relaxation of bladder
* The liver increases breakdown of glycogen to glucose and adipose tissue increases breakdown of triglycerides to fatty acids and glycerol, raising blood levels of these molecules for greater ATP production. (ATP is Adenosine triphosphate. It is the main energy currency in living cells; used to transfer the chemical energy needed for metabolic reactions.
* Release of glucose by liver increases blood glucose levels for greater ATP production.
* Processes that are not essential for meeting the stressful situation are inhibited. For example, muscular movements of the gastrointestinal tract and digestive secretions slow down or even stop.
* Cognitive thought is reduced to its basic primal state as your brain activity moves away from the outer edges towards the central brain ( also known as reptilian brain , monkey brain or the primal brain)
. (Jenkins, Kemnitz, & Tortora (2007 pp. 532-533))

All this is done to put your body in the best state for action and allow you to most efficiently deal with the threat. Your eyesight and hearing become more focused on the danger. The increase in heart rate and pressure moves more blood to the action muscles and the increase in breathing rate means the blood carries more oxygen to the muscles. Combine this with the higher levels of blood glucose and it's like throwing fuel on the fire, or like a turbo charger for your muscles. Shutting down non-essential systems, such as the digestive and reproductive systems, allows your body to focus all it's resources on overcoming the threat, similar to when the old man used to turn the air conditioner off when driving up a hill. You sweat to help keep your now supercharged body cool. And your hairs may stand up to aid in cooling and also to help you look bigger (we were a lot hairier before we became human).

Fear and Fight or Flight.
It's important to recognise that what you are feeling is not fear; it is simply your body's preparation to respond to a threat or danger. Fear is often associated with the sensations of Flight and Fight, but fear only plays an initial role in the triggering of the response. It actually comes into play beyond the initial stimulus. The stimulus must first be observed before it is interpreted as dangerous, fear acts as a warning mechanism within this interpretation phase. Simply put Fear is our measure of danger and threat. The things that produce the greatest fears in us are the ones that pose the greatest threat. This should not be confused with Phobias, which are irrational fears of specific stimuli, it is still fear but the threat of the stimulus is exaggerated and often it has little "actual" or current threat. Although irrational and exaggerated the response process is still the same.

Fear is often seen as a negative phenomenon, and in the case of phobias it generally is, but really fear is much more of a positive experience. It acts as our built in "stupid prevention mechanism", that is, it stops us doing stupid and dangerous things. When we do over ride this mechanism and do things that are risky, then fear heightens our awareness of the danger and thus enables us to counter that danger. Fear is actually very empowering, the bodies response to fear, the fight and flight response, prepares your body for action, in fact action that is faster and stronger then usual, as mentioned earlier your body is like it is super charged.

The danger is not in the fear itself, but in the refusal to accept that fear. Apathy and denial, "this is not happening" or "why is this happening to me", results in the person being over fixated on the fear itself instead of dealing with the cause of the fear. It results in the freeze syndrome, and is a major cause of failure for martial artists (and non-martial artists) in real violence. It's not the lack of skill or ability that fails us when real world violence presents itself, the street thug isn't better then the martial artist, the martial artist is just not prepared for that level of intensity of fight or flight, they read this as fear and become fixated on it. The fight or flight felt in the dojo or the ring is not nearly as intense as it is when there is a real risk of losing your life.

The thing that causes humans to freeze during the fight and flight response is unfamiliarity and indecision, or more accurately, having too many choices and not being able to choose the best option (or any option). The brain gets stuck in the void of an indecision loop where it hovers between options, unable to go to (or even see) one option because of the "pull" of the other options.

Can you control fight or flight response?
You can't control the actual response as such, once triggered it is automatic. The control comes at the interpretation point of the process. In most cases fear is the determining factor for the intensity of the response, the greater the fear the greater the response. A related factor is the perceived level of threat, the greater the level of threat the greater the fear associated to it. You can't control the response process but you do have a say over the intensity. The key is to control the fear.

You overcome this fear the same way as you would with any fear or phobia; you face it. You become accustomed to it. When you become familiar with the cause of the fear, eventually your fear of it is reduced. Practice makes perfect, practice dealing with fear and you become better at dealing with it. I'm not suggesting you go out and seek street fights or muggings. Instead, utilise adrenal stress familiarisation in your training, see below.

Confidence is one of the main factors in overcoming fear. Your level of confidence in dealing with a threat will influence your perceived fear of that threat. The more confidence you have in successfully handling the danger the less you fear that danger. A simple way of building confidence is via familiarisation. The more exposure you have to a stimulus the more confident you become at facing it. Familiarity brings about confidence through reinforcement. It is important to focus on success in handling the threat and not any failure. It is the continued success or improvement towards success that truly brings confidence and reduces the fear of the stimulus.

Lets look at the some common treatments for phobias, the principles of which can be assimilated into self-protection training. There are, of course, a number of different psychological treatments available for phobias; here we are going to concentrate on exposure therapies as they relate directly to what we have just been talking about. We will use arachnephobia, or the fear of spiders, as an analogy.

Exposure Therapy is a phobia treatment involving the exposure to the phobic stimulus in a safe and controlled setting. One method of exposure treatment is via "Flooding". Flooding is where the person is immersed in the fear reflex until the fear itself fades away. The person is literally flooded with the stimulus, to a point where the subject becomes accustomed to the stimulus and the resulting fear. Many adrenal stress familiarisation drills utilize flooding Senshido's "Emotional Invocation Drill" is a great example and Geoff Thompson's Infamous "Animal Days" involve a great deal of flooding type experiences. Flooding has the downside of being very overwhelming, and highly stressful to the participant.

Similar to flooding but undertaken in a progressive step-by-step fashion is "Systematic Desensitization". Here the subject is exposed to the stimulus in increasing degrees. The treatment for arachnophobia (fear of spiders) frequently involves Systematic Desensitization. Typically the person will be exposed only slightly to the stimulus, they may just look at a photo of a spider. The next step is to look at a plastic spider and then handle the plastic spider. Next they may observe a real but dead spider and then touch the dead spider. Next they will observe a live spider at a distance and behind a class shield and then without the shield and so on until eventually they are able to physically handle a real live spider. This approach can easily be adopted in self-protection training by exposing the student to increasingly "realistic" scenarios including more and more variables, greater contact more aggression and so on. This approach is often used by Martial arts clubs for sparing; lower grades start with no or little contact increasing the level of contact belt by belt or step by step until they are able to properly spar full or near full contact.

The benefits of increasing the level of familiarisation of a fearful stimulus gradually are pretty obvious, but the real benefit of the therapy is derived from the inclusion of "Counter-Conditioning". Here the subject is encouraged to substitute another response for the fear response when exposed to the phobic stimulus. Relaxation is often a substitute as it is incompatible with feeling fearful or anxious. By consciously relaxing and controlling your breathing (deep, controlled breath facilitates relaxation) when exposed to the stimulus you effectively counter the intensity of its fear-induced effect. Fight and flight will probably still be invoked, but because you train yourself to relax the fear is perceived as less stressful and thus the fight and flight response operates at a lower intensity.

It doesn't have to be relaxation that is used as the substitute; you can train yourself to react in any particular way when in the presence of the stimulus.

You could, for example, train yourself to automatically raise your hands, or drive forward etc

Training and the Fight or Flight Response
The RBSD (Reality Based Self Defence) movement has influence many systems, and now there is more pressure testing and adrenal stress training happening across our industry. In my opinion this can only strengthen the ability of martial arts to provide effective self-defence.

Incorporating adrenal stress familiarisation into your current training can greatly improve your ability to defend yourself if the need arises. There are many ways to do this, scenario replication that simulates real life violence, including the yelling, shoving, threats, foul language, in your face posturing and so on is a good way to start. Add some padding for protection or you could even go as far as a full padded assailant suit to allow the "victim" to feel what its like to land full power shots under stress and pressure. The important aspect is to have the participant perform under the effects of fight or flight ideally your aim is to induce an adrenaline dump in the participant.

Becoming familiar with the way your body responds to adrenaline and fight and flight, as well as feeling the limitations and what it's like to perform under it's stress, will go a long way to allowing your martial arts skills to do their job if the need arises.

Jenkins G.W., Kemnitz C.P., &Tortora G.J. (2007p 646-651). Anatomy and Physiology: From science to life. Hoboken NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc
Cannon, Walter (1915). Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage: An Account of Recent Researches into the Function of Emotional Excitement, New York: Appleton & Co.
Westen, D., Burton, L., & Kowalski, R. (2006). Psychology: Australian and New Zealand edition. Brisbane: John Wiley.

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