Personal Defense, Adrenaline, and You

Think about the last time you were scared – I mean REALLY scared. Think about the sequence of events that led up to your being terrified, and then think about what happened afterward.

Got it?  Good.

In the fall of 2003, I was involved in a car accident that naturally scared the hell out of me. A transfer truck (tractor trailer, big rig, whatever. It was HUGE!) turned right from the left lane of traffic – right over me and my Mitsubishi Mirage. I remember hearing glass shatter and the sound of screeching tires (as I was dragged sideways), and I recall my vision zooming in on the rig’s passenger door. Everything else is a blur.

When I got out of what was left of my mangled car, I had difficulty standing, forming coherent speech, and focusing on my surroundings.

Adrenaline and cortisol. What a rush!

Under the stress of a violent encounter, our bodies will respond in a very predictable way – our vision narrows, our hearing becomes rather selective, and our fine motor skills disappear.  This hormonal cascade and its subsequent physiological effects beg the question: why do we spend an inordinate amount of time in ‘self-defense’ classes learning how to perform all sorts of intricate wrist grabs, joint locks, and technical maneuvers?

Want to try a quick experiment*? Go outside and sprint down the street for 30 seconds. Then turn around and sprint home. Flat out as hard as you can. As soon as you are back in your front yard, try dialing your home number on your smart phone.

If you are like normal people, you will find yourself needing to take several deep breaths to slow your heartbeat before you can even unlock your phone much less dial it. Even if home is the first of your speed dial options, dialing the number is going to take strict focus and concentration.

Now, to see the difference, do the same sprint as above, but this time throw a jab/hook/knee combination as soon as you get back to your yard. Yeah, you will be sucking wind when you throw the combination, but throw the combination you will.

In a threatening situation, your body reacts similarly to the sprinting experiment. Your heart rate will accelerate rapidly and your body will experience a hormone dump as cortisol and adrenaline hit your system. The big difference, of course, is that you will not have the luxury of taking a few deep breaths as your attacker is carrying out his crime. Your survival will depend on your ability to perform under the restricting effects of stress-induced loss of motor function.

I mentioned in Hick’s Law and Self-Protection that I teach one defense for a haymaker (which suffices as a defense for a hip tackle, a single-hand lapel grab, and a bunch of other attacks). That defense is essentially to jam a shuto (chop) into the striking arm and another shuto into the clavicle/neck area. Basically, I’m engaging in a gross motor movement (stick your hands out).

And it works incredibly well. Not because it’s fancy, but because it is a movement that doesn’t require fine motor skills.  Take an alternative defense for example: the threat throws a bar-room haymaker, so the defender ducks and deflects the punch. Now behind the attacker, our defender grabs the attacker’s wrist, jams an elbow into the attacker’s arm, and drives him to the floor, at which point the defender uses wrist and arm control to subdue the attacker.

Or, as I like to call it, BS.

In a real threat situation, particularly for a defender without significant experience in violent encounters, everything after ducking the punch is going to be a hodgepodge of jumbled movements that will likely precede his getting his ass kicked. Big movements like ramming hands into an attacker’s body or launching a knee into his nads (or bladder, or abdomen) are going to be far more practical than the nuanced wrist locks, finger-grabs, eye jabs, and nerve strikes.

While we are on the subject, it is worth noting that small targets are going to be really REALLY hard to hit under stress. The solar plexus might be a great target, but under the effects of stress-induced hormones, hitting it will take a remarkable amount of luck. Same is true of small-point targets like the eyes and nerve meridians. A skilled martial artist with years of training might be able to hit those small targets under stress, but someone who takes a 16-hour self defense class will probably not be as successful

In self-protection situations, it is imperative to train in gross-motor movements. Those responses are going to be the most effective by virtue of their simplicity and ‘bigness’. Intricate joint manipulations and small-target strikes are going to be difficult (if not impossible) unless the threat screws up and gives you a ‘gift’ in the form of a tactical mistake.

As I mentioned in Our Top 4 Human Weapons, I focus on 4 big movements with my novice students: hammer fist, palm heel, elbow, and knee. These are natural weapons that do not require a lot of nuance in their use. Even the most inexperienced student can graduate from never throwing strikes to brutalizing a striking shield within a few classes. We even create a chaotic situation in which students have been worn down physically (simulating stress) and then required to throw repeated strikes at a striking shield while the instructor yells at them like a drill sergeant. Every time, students manage to drive solid strikes into the shield.

Under the stress of a violent encounter, big movements win.

*Consult your physician before engaging in any rigorous physical activity.

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