Monday, September 26, 2011

Fight-or-Flight & Learned Helplessness Comments

Recall my last blog discussed a learned behavioural response to a threat stimuli - learned helplessness. I received the following two comments which I thought I'd respond to via a blog.
1. Great post John. What an awful story about the young lady. I certainly hope things are better for her now. Disturbing. I think it's important to understand how people can be affected by some stressors. Being a type A, solution driven, "do this to fix your problem" kind of guy, I need to remind myself that listening and accepting is often more important than suggesting solutions. Definitely food for thought for us all.

2. What a terrible trauma that young woman was suffering from, do you know what happened to her in the long term? Another question: do you make any distinction between physiological stress and psychological stress? If so is burnout physiological or psychological?
Firstly, the postscript to the story. The young woman ended up fleeing the country in spite of her previous concerns that her stalker would turn his attentions to her siblings. The family sold their house and moved away. I've not heard from them again.

It is important to understand how people can be affected by stressors - including in a survival sense. Those disciplines which study stress (collectively the stress discipline) have hijacked the fight-or-flight concept and focus primarily on the physiological response to a threat stimuli, aka a stressor for the stress discipline.

The following is an extract from my work last week:

I deliberately referred to Kim Lebowitz in the previous chapter when discussing stress defined as a stimulus or a response. Lebowitz is the director of cardiac behavioural medicine at Northwestern Memorial. She was recruited in 2004 and became the first psychologist in the United States to be hired full time by a hospital cardiac unit. The medical community, based on research, are coming to appreciate that the mind and body influence each other. The mind-body connection as it is sometimes referred to as. In his book dedicated to psychophysiology, Hugdahl explains that psychophysiology ‘is concerned with how mental events, like feelings and thoughts, may have pronounced effects on bodily processes, including effects on health and disease’ (1995: 3). He explains that ‘psychophysiology shares common features with other specialities in the larger field of biological psychology, such as physiological psychology, neurophysiology, psychosomatics, and cognitive neuroscience. All these disciplines have an interest in the interaction between behaviour, brain, and body physiology’ (1995: 3). You can add Lebowitz’s speciality, behavioural medicine, to that list of disciplines which are interested in the mind-body connection.
My understanding of our survival process is consistent with this mind-body approach, which you can see in Hugdahl's explanation.

In a previous blog I referred to a systems approach being adopted to understanding our survival responses and the survival process. A comment to that blog expressed interest in how I apply systems theory to understanding these phenomenon. A systems approach is a 'way of seeing the trees and the forest'. It attempts to understand the whole by looking at the parts and how they interact with each other to perform the function of the system. The interactions are just as important as the individual components. I've adopted a systems approach to understanding our survival responses and the survival process - a first to the best of my knowledge.

This approach enables us to better understand our survival responses and process. It enables us to understand the methods that have been devised to intervene in the process and manage the responses. It enables us to better understand Siddle's theories; and answer some of his questions. It enables us to identify the limitations and possible shortcomings of some of the proposed methods. More importantly, it offers the possibility of developing new and more complete solutions to problems which our survival responses may be responsible for.

The holistic approach being adopted in medicine, which is a feature of systems theory, and which I'm using to study our survival responses and the survival process, offers opportunities of developing new ways to manage our responses. Stress exposure training and stress inoculation training have as stage one in a three stage process: education about the stress process. I believe that my approach to understanding this process is superior to that offered by these stress training regimes - which focus on stress and the stress disciplines theories and concepts.

Firstly, my work integrates the theories and concepts of two disciplines studying the same process but which focus on different parts of the same process and with a different definition on the outcomes of the process. Secondly, it doesn't initially demonise stimuli and responses by calling them stressors and focusing on the negative effects of these responses. This demonisation in itself can produce a stressor, a threat stimuli, eliciting their own responses because you are concerned about the negative effects these responses can have on combat and survival performance. Thirdly, it offers help to manage post traumatic stress for those who have experienced behaviours which they do not understand, nor does society; behaviours which are judged by themselves and society causing feelings of anxiety, guilt, and confusion leading to more responses, more post traumatic stress, more mental and physical health problems, and even suicide.

The idea behind stress education in stress training programs is so that the trainee can process what is happening in their mind and body on an intellectual level rather than on an emotional level. 'It is likely that preparatory information reduces negative reactions to stressful events in several different ways, by enhancing familiarity, predictability, and controllability' (Performance Under Stress 2008: 274). I can vouch for the efficacy of this approach as I'm having to apply it to manage my stress related condition, burnout. This approach is being used to treat post traumatic stress and it is also used to treat chronic pain.

The holistic, mind-body understanding answers the question raised about physiological stress and psychological stress. (a) There is no generally accepted definition of stress, so it makes it a very difficult area to come to grips with. Stress has been defined as stimuli, as a response, and as a process. It has been critically described as being the cause of itself, being itself, and being the result of itself. (b) We experience the physical and psychological together, and they affect each other due to their interconnectedness. Affect one and you can affect the other. When exposed to danger, control your breathing (physiological) reduces your anxiety (feeling/emotion) and leads to a less threatening appraisal of the situation (appraisal) with different behaviours (behaviour), e.g. not panicking and running away.

It is a fascinating area.

PS: The image used above is of the emotion process, but is a very simple one located on the internet. The one I wanted to use, the one I'm using in Beyond Fight-or-Flight could not be located.

PPS: Reflect on this. Why would you refer to the stress discipline when attempting to understand and explain our evolved survival response? Is that the primary interest of the stress discipline? And doesn't our reference to stress bias our view of our evolved survival response?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Fight-or-Flight - What are we really qualified to speak on?

Many in activities involved in preparing a person to survive a violent encounter refer to fight-or-flight. The instinctive behavioural response to a threat is to fight or flee which is facilitated by an automatic physiological response.

In 1999, a friend referred a friend to me because their 21-year-old daughter was traumatised after being relentlessly stalked since her early teen years by an unknown predator. The parents were well-to-do, both doctors, and they lived in an up-market neighbourhood. When I visited their house, it was not so much a home as it was a fortress, albeit well disguised in this up-market neighbourhood.

The house was surrounded by a large wall with electronically controlled entrances. The windows had iron gratings which could never be described as decorative. I saw mattresses in the loungerooom and in the corridor. A purpose purchased Alsatian roamed the grounds. There was a sterility to the interior of the house which was not reflective of a home.

The young lass travelled everywhere with the dog. She was studying at a veterinary school, and everyone thought it was so cute that this prospective vet attended classes and went everywhere with her dog. This dog had been trained as a guard dog.

The parents sold their holiday home after finding the stalker had found and broken into it. Underwear would go missing off the clothesline. He would appear at windows, and once appeared in the car park at her university. The young lass had contemplated moving overseas, but, she was concerned this predator might turn his attention to one of her siblings.

Of course this had been reported to the police, but every time they attempted to intervene the predator would disappear. Once the police retreated, the predator would return.

When the young lass and her mother came to see me, along with the dog of course, the mother suggested I speak to her alone. She didn't want to influence anything. Quite remarkable under the circumstances. The young lass told me of her experience. She told me the police no longer believed her (a fact I later confirmed). They'd been involved a number of times, and each time there was no predator to be seen. All I did was believe her, and she broke down in tears. I was the first person in a long time who believed her. She was so grateful, an overreaction, but an understandable one given her experience.

I agreed to try and help her.

The 21-year-old lass, good looking and personable, once her guard was down, had never been on a date. She had never gone to a party. She had never gone out for coffee with friends. She had never done sleepovers. She had never gone to the movies with friends. She had never been to the beach with friends - something which is as natural to Australians as breathing. She didn't go shopping - which, based on my adopted nieces experience, is as natural as breathing to most young females.

I invited her to coffee, lunch, and movies (not shopping); normal activities which every teenager engages in, but which she had missed out on. She came to accept these invitations; I confess I was nearly in tears, and rage, when I saw her raw fear, and joy, in partaking in these simple activities.

We talked about self defence training. Not just for her, but for her whole family. I talked about this situation with Jan de Jong. He was in. He was prepared to do anything to help them. He offered to provide private lessons for the entire family at his private dojo free of charge. I cannot tell you the specific advice he gave me concerning how to deal with this predator - suffice it to say that his World War II Dutch Resistance combat experience may have influenced and shaped his specific advice.

This lovely young, preyed-upon women did not take up the offer of self defence training. She told me of two instances when this predator physically attacked her. Once when he was armed with a knife. On both occasions, she managed to fend off her attacker and escape.

There was no way in the world I could convince her that she was capable of defending herself against this predator, EVEN when she had done so with no training whatsoever. I might as well have been suggesting she could fly unaided when I suggested she could defend herself - even though she had actually done so before.

Now, NOW, I understand what I might have been dealing with. Learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is a learned behavioural response to a threat.

Seligman and Maier, in 1967, after subjecting dogs to electric shocks, found that under certain circumstances, dogs would do nothing to prevent themselves from being shocked. They accept their uncontrollability over the situation and simply did nothing. No fight or flight, just nothing. This, they referred to as learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness runs contrary to fight-or-flight. It runs contrary to Pavolov's classic conditioning. It runs contrary to Skinner's operant conditioning. Learned helplessness runs contrary to most mind sets of those involved in preparing a person to survive a violent encounter. But, learned helplessness completely explains the abovementioned young woman's belief that she could never defend herself against her predator, even though she had already done so.

What would you do if confronted with the same attitude? How many cliches would you bring out? How many motivational speeches would you attempt to convince her that she can defend herself? Belief is reality. How unaccepting would you be that her belief that she could not defend herself was her reality? How unaccepting would you be ... Would you be part of a solution, or, part of a problem? Unfortunately, based on my knowledge now, and then, I would suggest I was not part of a solution.

Surprisingly, or maybe not so, the US Army First Aid Manual advices to have 'respect for others' feeling':
Accept the soldier you are trying to help without censorship or ridicule. Accept his right to his own feelings. Even though your feelings, beliefs, and behavior are different, DO NOT blame or make light of him for the way he feels or acts. Your purpose is to help him in this tough situation, not to be his critic. A person DOES NOT WANT to be upset and worried; he would 'snap out of it' if he could. When he seeks help, he needs and expects consideration of his fears, not abrupt dismissal or accusations. You may be impressed with the fact that you made it through in good condition. You have no guarantee that the situation will not be reversed the next time.
I have a far greater appreciation for the value of this advice now that I am currently engaged in my own struggle with a stress-related condition - burnout. The person who is not contributing to my recovery by suggesting I snap out of it is me.

There is one other thing to consider in this regard. Recent brain imaging has shown that the anatomy of the brain changes under certain circumstances. It is the only organ in the body which can change because of words and ideas. Bones cannot change their anatomy based on words and ideas, but the brain can. Those suffering from post traumatic stress, learned helplessness, etc. may not be able to 'snap out of it' because the actual anatomy of their brain has changed. Those who advocate, albeit with the best of intentions, that they snap out of it, may in fact become another stressor eliciting another round of stress responses and be another problem rather than part of a solution.

We, as self defence/martial arts instructors, are often involved with people who are fearful concerning their ability to survive violence. Be it based on past experience or not. We postulate. We advise based on superior knowledge. But what do we actually know beyond the behavioural responses we teach in response to a threat? What do we know beyond our simplistic understanding of fight-or-flight, in itself a simplistic concept. It behoves us to become better informed. I've only come to appreciate this fact since I began researching Beyond Fight-or-Flight.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Fight-or-Flight - Response to a Comment

I received the following comment to my previous blog titled 'Fight-or-Flight - What do you really know about it?':
Thought you may be interested in this essay by Toby Threadgill re Pschyo Chemical Stress Conditioning - - given your interest in the subject. I'd be interested if you've used this type of training and your thoughts - I especially liked the quote below, I've come across this before where so called self defence clubs are just not up to dealing with real violence.

'Remember that most people who call themselves martial artists are nothing of the sort. Most dojos are not martial arts dojos either. They are glorified social clubs thriving in an environment of emotional stimulation which is heightened by a false or extremely limited perception of danger. When real danger shows itself in such a dojo, the participants run for cover. In a real dojo the participants run towards the conflict.'
1. Firstly, thank you for reading my work and taking the time to comment. The following are some comments on Toby Threadgill's (TT) essay.

2. TT's essay and conclusions are typical of those referring to the effects of the stress response, aka fight-or-flight response, aka in TT's case the psycho-chemical response' (PCS), on survival and combat performance.

3. TT writes:
That revelation that PCS was a normal physiological reaction to stress was an epiphany for me. Up until that point I thought the experience was something unique to me. Empowered with the knowledge that this phenomenon could be addressed thru (sic) a specific training regimen left one nagging question. Why I had not come across this topic before? What I found out was amazing. Many instructors simply denied its existence.
TT's ideas come straight from Bruce K Siddle and can be found in Sharpening the Warrior's Edge (StWE). Siddle's ideas would appear to have taken on the authority of commonly conceived wisdom. StWE was published in 1995. The reason TT has not come across this topic before is, I'd suggest, because the martial arts particularly, and other activities associated with preparing a person to survive a violent encounter tend to be bastions of anti-intellectualism. God forbid that science could at least help to understand what is being taught.

4. TT, like Siddle, are referring to the theories and concepts of the stress discipline, those disciplines that study stress. Whether those who adopt such views understand they are referring to the stress discipline's theories and concepts is another matter.

5. If the theories and concepts of the stress discipline are to be applied to preparing a person to survive a violent encounter, it behoves us to understand the underlying assumptions associated with those theories and concepts.

6. (a) There is no one definition of stress that is agreed upon. (b) Many different disciplines (medicine, psychology, social science, behavioural science, anthropology, zoology, etc) study stress, and each does so from their own unique perspective which shapes their conceptualisation of stress and their theories and concepts. (c) The stress discipline is interested in the effects of stress on mental health, physical health, and performance. (d) The principal focus of these disciplines is in the negative effects of stress.

7. In Performance Under Stress (Hancock and Szalma 2008), a book which focuses on soldier stress and soldier performance, Driskell et al make a very insightful observation. The explain that the genesis of stress research was in medical/biological research which 'led to a preoccupation with illness and with those individuals who are overcome with chronic stress' (292) They suggest that 'the study of illness is only marginally related to the understanding of stress and performance in a normal population' (272). They make this suggestion in support of their focus on the effects of stress on performance. How related to the study of our evolved survival mechanism is the study of the effects of stress on health or performance?

8. The stress response, the physiological response to stress, is not our complete survival mechanism. It is the part of the response the stress discipline is interested in, but it is not our complete survival mechanism.

9. Walter Cannon coined the term fight-or-flight in the early 1900s. He was not studying stress, he was studying our survival mechanism. The title of his 1915 instant classic Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear, and Rage: An Account of Recent Researches Into the Function of Emotional Excitement references two components in our survival mechanism. Bodily changes refers to the physiological response which Cannon referred to as the fight-or-flight response. The reference to emotions refers to the emotional response. And fight-or-flight is a metaphor for a behavioural response.

10. We have three responses to a perceived threat.

(a) Perceived. There is also an appraisal process. Even though TT, Siddle, and others do not understand it, their stress training is actually aimed at this appraisal process. What do they know about the appraisal process?

(b)The three responses to a perceived threat are emotional, physiological, and behavioural.

(c) These responses and the appraisal process are intimately related, and have feedback loops. Affect one component and you can affect them all. This has huge implications in terms of preparing a person to survive a violent encounter.

(d) The stress discipline takes the emotional response as a given and does not study it. The given emotional response is anxiety or fear. They are not the only emotional responses involved in our survival mechanism. Most people refer to fight-or-flight and suggest it means that we fight or flee in response to fear. These guardians of the bastion of anti-intellectualism have not referred to the source of their wisdom. Cannon, in fact, postulated that fear triggered the flight response and anger the fight response. There are obviously more instinctive behavioural responses embedded by the natural selection process in the most successful and adaptable creatures on this planet - us.

(e) The fight-or-flight concept itself is simplistic.

(f) TT refers to a 'false or extremely limited perception of danger.' I'd suggest those referring to the stress discipline or fight-or-flight are referring to an extremely limited understanding of our evolved survival mechanism embedded in a survival process.

(e) What is known about the evolved survival emotional responses? What is known about what shapes them? What is known about the physiological effects of these emotions? We know a great deal about the physiological effects, and cognitive effects, of fear. What about anger? Aggression? Anticipation? What is known about the cognitive effects of positive versus negative emotions?

11. TT refers to the 'debilitating effects' of the physiological response, his PCS. From an evolved survival mechanism perspective, you'd have to question the instant judgement. What are the underlying assumptions to this conclusion? Our survival mechanism was not developed and passed down to future generations via natural selection because it was detrimental to survival. On the contrary, this mechanism was so advantageous to survival it developed in nearly all mammalian species. Adaptation is about fit between the organism and the environment. Therefore, the underlying assumption is that the environment has changed and we have not evolved/adapted to this new environment. Is this the case? Unarmed modern person defends themselves from an attack by another unarmed modern person. Unarmed cave person defends themselves from an attack by another unarmed cave person. What has changed?

The instant leap to debilitating reflects (a) Siddle's work, and (b) the interest of the stress discipline in the negative effects of stress. Is there a fighting tradition which instead of managing or controlling their emotions and therefore their physiological response, actively inflames their emotions and thereby their physiological response? That has developed methods which intensifies their fight-or-flight/stress/PCS response? Yes, there is. A fighting tradition that was used for centuries in warfare and was cross cultural.

12. TT's PCS conditioning is a variant on Siddle's survival stress training methodology. It is stress training - 'training that is designed to counter stress effects.' Other names are stress inoculation training, stress exposure training, reality based training, etc.

When writing about 'Stress Exposure Training: An Event-Based Approach', Driskell et al refer to phase 1 as trainee indoctrination. The second component of phase 1 training is the provision of preparatory information. This includes an understanding of stress and its effects. The idea is that by understanding what is going on in the mind and body, the trainee can process the experience intellectually rather than emotionally, and thereby better manage the nature and intensity of the response.

This idea of understanding the stress process is seen in stress training, stress-related therapy, and even pain management, albeit not referred to as stress.

Step one, understanding the stress process, is missing in TT's and Siddle's training methods.

I am of the growing opinion that a better understanding of the complete survival mechanism (a) enhances the abovementioned process, (b) offers greater insights into the different methods that have been developed to prepare a person to survive a violent encounter, and (c) offers the tantalising possibility of providing hitherto unconsidered methods to survive a violent encounter.

13. TT's quotes Yuiyoshi Takamura: 'When real danger shows itself in such a dojo, the participants run for cover. In a real dojo the participants run towards the conflict.' What fool runs towards a conflict they can avoid? This, and similar comments I've personally heard expressed, reflect more about the author than they do about preparing a person to survive a violent encounter. Bravado, machismo, etc.

An understanding of the appraisal process and its role in the survival process would suggest that any form of training can have positive survival effects.

Richard Lazarus, who developed a lot of the theory on the appraisal process, and who decries the separation of the stress literature and the emotion literature, is also famous for his research into the positive effects of denial on health. There is an argument to be made that denial could also have positive effects on survival and combat performance.

I recall a training partner who was doing security work. He observed a colleague being threatened so he immediately intervened. When the aggressor responded to his evolved flight response, the colleague asked why he intervened when the aggressor was armed with a knife. The training partner was taken aback. He was short sighted and wasn't wearing his glasses and didn't see the knife. He had a 'false or extremely limited perception of [the] danger' which, on that occasion, worked to his and his colleague's survival advantage.

14. In connection with stress, Husain, Khan, and Ahuja (2006) refer to theoretical boundaries which need to be constantly extended and reviewed to ensure that what is being defined reflects the nature of the experience itself. Does the stress discipline's theoretical boundaries reflect the nature of the experience of a violent encounter?

My work is about understanding the underlying assumptions. At the very least it will provide an understanding for the methods that have been developed throughout the ages to prepare a person to survive a violent encounter. Focusing on the physiological response has certain underlying assumptions. I don't say what is proposed is flawed in any way, but, we at least need to understand the limitations of the theory that drives the practice.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Fight-or-Flight - What do you really know about it?

Anyone involved in activities associated with preparing a person to survive a violent encounter will sooner or later run across fight-or-flight. They will be told that the fight-or-flight response is an automatic physiological reaction which prepares our bodies to defend ourselves or to flee and escape the source of the perceived threat. The fight-or-flight response was so advantageous to survival it developed in not only human beings but in nearly all mammalian species.

Who developed the fight-or-flight concept? Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon in the early 1900s based on studies of cats responses when confronted by dogs.

What was Cannon describing when he referred to fight-or-flight? An evolved survival mechanism.

Who studies the evolved fight-or-flight survival mechanism? Nobody ... that's right, nobody.

Who studies the fight-or-flight response? The stress discipline, where the fight-or-flight response is referred to as the stress response.

Stress discipline is a term I use to refer to the many different disciplines that are interested in stress. These disciplines include medicine, social science, anthropology, behavioural science, psychology, and even zoology. Each discipline studies stress from their own unique perspective with their individual approaches, conceptions, and definitions dictated by objectives of their research and the intended action resulting from their findings.

When those involved in activities associated with preparing a person to survive a violent encounter refer to fight-or-flight, whose theories and concepts are they referring to? The stress discipline's.

This can be seen in Bruce Siddle's use of the terms survival stress and survival stress response, aka stress response, aka fight-or-flight response. His pioneering work presented in Sharpening the Warrior's Edge is based on the effects of the survival stress response on cognitive and motor function. It's also seen in training methodologies known as stress training, stress inoculation training, and stress exposure training.

What is the primary interest and focus of the stress discipline? The effects of the stress response on health or performance.

That is to say, the stress discipline is primarily interested in and focus on the physiological reaction in our evolved survival mechanism. This should come as no surprise given Cannon was a physiologist, and the person often attributed with developing the stress concept, Hans Selye, was an endocrinologist. His definition of stress is often used today - 'a nonspecific response of the body to any demand' - which refers to the physiological response.

Is there more to our survival mechanism than just the fight-or-flight/stress/physiological response? Absolutely!

The title of Cannon's 1915 classic is Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear, and Rage: An Account of Recent Researches Into the Function of Emotional Excitement. The role of emotion is emphasised in Cannon's original work. For Cannon, emotions triggered the automatic physiological response which mobilised the instinctive behavioural response.

Are emotions studied in the stress discipline? Not to any large degree, if at all. Often they are taken as a given - anxiety or fear. Richard Lazarus is a towering figure in stress theory and he decries the fact that two literatures have developed which do not refer to each others work. These literatures are stress and emotion.

Are there any other emotions which might impact on the survival mechanism? Absolutely! For instance, Cannon suggested that the fight response was triggered by anger and the flight response by fear.

Is the fight response also triggered by fear? Yes. In fact, one authority argues fight-or-flight should be reordered to flight-or-fight as they argue that the instinct is to flee when you can and to fight only when you cannot flee in order to get the opportunity to flee.

Are there any other instinctive behavioural responses in our evolved survival mechanism? Absolutely!

Siddle adds freeze, or hypervigilance, to fight and flight. In On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Grossman suggests ‘adding the posture and submit options to the standard fight-or-flight model helps to explain many of the actions on the battlefield’ (2009: 8). So now we have fight, flight, freeze, posture, and submit.

Are there any more instinctive behavioural responses we need to consider? Absolutely!

Are the instinctive survival behavioural responses all associated with one emotion? No. For instance you may faint (which is another behavioural response) from fear, but you won't from anger.

To recap, what is involved in our evolved survival mechanism? An emotional, physiological, and behavioural response.

Are these responses interrelated? Absolutely!

Affect one response and you can affect the others. For instance, voluntarily control your breathing which increased due to the physiological reaction, and you'll affect the physiological reaction and the emotional reaction. The intensity of your fear will reduce, as will the other physiological effects.

Is the most important feature of the evolved survival mechanism discussed in the basic fight-or-flight model? Not generally.

What is the most important feature of the evolved survival mechanism? The appraisal process. The stimuli does not elicit the survival responses, your appraisal of the stimuli as threatening does. Your appraisal determines the nature and intensity of the responses.

What is reality based training, stress training, stress inoculation training, and stress exposure training principally aimed at in our evolved survival mechanism? The appraisal process.

What do most, if not all, people involved in activities associated with preparing a person to survive a violent encounter know about the appraisal process? Nothing from what I've seen.

Siddle's work has taken on the authority of commonly conceived wisdom. Many refer to his technique section and training methodologies which revolve around the debilitating effects the survival stress response has on cognitive and motor function. In essence, he's suggesting our evolved survival mechanism is maladaptive in today's environment. Is this proposition correct? It depends. You have to understand the underlying assumptions before you can answer this question, and you should definitely understand them before you adopt these methodologies when preparing a person to survive a violent encounter.

Siddle is 'convinced that belief and faith systems are the key to survival when training fails' (141). He suggests that 'students need to understand the scientific basis which values and beliefs have on their survival, so they can personally and privately, resolve these issues before they face combat' (136). His chapter on survival mindset 'attempted to establish a scientific basis for the need of values and belief systems in survival and combat training. The theoretical basis for this assertion is valid, but verifiable research to support this theory is yet to be documented' (141). I do not disagree with Siddle, except that the science is there, its just not in the stress discipline theories and concepts. By integrating the theories and concepts of two disciplines which study the same process, albeit by different names and focusing on different parts of the process, and adopting a systems thinking approach, the answers are there.

The point I'm making which is the raison detre for Beyond Fight-or-Flight, is that (a) the basic fight-or-flight model is simplistic, and (b) fight-or-flight used in activities associated with preparing a person to survive a violent encounter are in fact referring to the theories and concepts of the health and performance, physiological reaction focused stress discipline.

Will a better understanding of the complete survival mechanism better prepare a person to survive a violent encounter? It certainly offers that possibility.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Beyond Fight-or-Flight

It's been a while since my last blog. I haven't been writing as much since I was diagnosed with burnout.

I'm currently working on Beyond Fight-or-Flight. Curiously enough, my condition allows me to study the subject of this book from the inside out.

Beyond Fight-or-Flight, and my other book, Injury Science, Pain, & Martial Arts, are aimed at those involved or interested in martial arts, self defence, combat or fighting sports, military close quarter/hand-to-hand/unarmed combat, and whatever politically correct term is being used by law enforcement to refer to like methods these days. I haven't been able to find an all embracing term and am currently going with activities associated with preparing a person to survive a violent encounter. Obviously a bit long winded for a title. Anyone with any better suggestions, I'm all ears.

If you're involved in these activities, it won't be long before you come across fight-or-flight. Fight-of-flight is a term coined by Walter Cannon in the early 1900s to refer to our evolved survival mechanism. The fight-or-flight response is a term which is used to refer to an automatic physiological reaction which immediately prepares an organism to fight to defend itself or flee and escape the source of the treat. Cannon postulated that the fight response was triggered by anger and the flight response was triggered by fear. This mechanism proved so advantageous to survival that it developed in nearly all mammalian species, including human beings.

My interest in fight-or-flight came about when I was researching and writing about pain. A subject of immense applicability for activities associated with preparing a person to survive a violent encounter, and one which has never before, to the best of my knowledge, been specifically studied in any text associated with these activities - until my two proposed books that is. I came across a phenomenon called stress induced analgesia which refers to an increase in pain tolerance when stress is experienced.

The fight-or-flight response involves the release of hormones into the body which results in increased strength, speed, endurance, focus, and pain tolerance. These increased attributes are designed to help an organism survive a violent encounter. If this physiological response is an automatic survival response, why did I not experience this physiological response when I was confronted by an armed aggressor on two separate occasions? I'm sure that increased strength, speed, endurance, focus, and pain tolerance would have been beneficial in my efforts to survive.

Given the survival benefits associated with the activation of the physiological response, was the non-activation of my physiological response a bad thing? Bruce Siddle, author of Sharpening the Warrior's Sword, might argue it was a good thing. He has made a career out of explaining the debilitating effects the physiological response, which he refers to as the stress survival response, has on motor and cognitive function, and consequently on combat and survival performance. Siddle's ideas are often referred to in the abovementioned activities, although whether the source of their insights is acknowledged or even known is another matter. Siddle's ideas have come to take on the authority of commonly conceived wisdom.

You'd have noticed the reference to stress: stress induced analgesia and survival stress response. The stress discipline studies our survival mechanism. However, the stress discipline tends to focus on one part of the survival mechanism, the physiological response, and its effects on mental and physical health, and performance. They do not tend to focus on the behavioural or emotional response elements in the survival mechanism. Those that refer to fight-or-flight, stress, or the physiological response by whatever name in the abovementioned activities are, unbeknown to them, referring to the theories and concepts of the stress discipline. They do not understand the limitations of these theories and concepts when applied to understanding survival in a violent encounter context. Those that propose technique selection based on the debilitating effects of the physiological response, and techniques and training methods to manage the fight-or-flight response, are doing so based on a limited model and on theories and concepts not directly applicable to their area of interest.

I've adopted a process approach, or a systems approach, to understanding survival in a violent encounter. A process is a set of interrelated activities that transform inputs into outputs. A systems approach refers to a holistic approach. Seeing the trees and the forest. It involves analysis and synthesis, and is interested in the relations between the elements just as much as the elements themselves. A car engine is a system. If you attempt to attempt to replace a particular engine's carburetter with the best one in the world taken from another car, chances are the engine won't work because the carburetter will not fit with the other parts of the engine.

The survival process involves an input, a threat, which elicits a survival response which is designed to deal with that threat. The survival response, or survival mechanism, involves an emotional, physiological, and behavioural response. The stress discipline tends to only focus on the physiological response. When we are attempting to understand our evolved survival mechanism, what about the emotional and behavioural responses? What about the interrelationships between the different responses, and the input/threat itself? The stress discipline tends to define the output of the process in terms of the effects of the physiological response on health and performance. This focus then determines their conceptualisation of the phenomenon and directs the nature of their interest. Consequently, you have to ask, how applicable are the stress discipline's theories and concepts to survival in a violent encounter?

The basic fight-or-flight model proposes two behavioural responses to a threat. Are there more? Absolutely! Cannon postulated that the fight response was triggered by anger and the flight response by fear. Most in the abovementioned activities focus on fear. What is wrong with fear? Why are we developing ways and means to overcome or manage fear? It was designed to help us survive, why then are we fighting it? ... because we are fearful of it? Some suggest that the fight response is also triggered by fear. Flee when you can and fight when you must so that you can flee. There are many different behavioural responses, and applying systems theory, they are associated with different emotional responses. These behavioural responses can be manipulated, even by ourselves, to get our bodies to do what we want. A women's self defence instructor teaches her students to, when very fearful, think about the worst thing their attacker will do to them and their children so the fear is turned into anger. Other than changing the behavioural response from flight to fight, there are other very important implications of this deliberate manipulation of their emotions in terms of avoiding different behavioural responses associated with fear and not anger.

How is the survival mechanism activated? Richard Lazarus introduced, in addition to emotion, an appraisal element to the stress process. A stimuli has to first be appraised as threatening before it elicits a survival response. I didn't appraised my armed aggressors as threatening, therefore, I did not experience a physiological response. What do those who are involved in activities associated with preparing a person to survive a violent encounter know about our appraisal process? They are often concerned about the effects of the activation of the survival mechanism and design ways and means to manage its activation, but what do they know about how it is activated? Reality based training, stress training, stress inoculation training, stress exposure training, are all, whether they know it or not, aimed at the appraisal process. Wouldn't you think actually knowing something about this process might be of benefit?

Emotions tend to be ignored by the stress discipline, and the medical discipline, to a large degree. Huge mistake. HUGE. One that is only now beginning to be appreciated.
It's taken a long time, but doctors and psychologists are now bringing the mind and the body back together amid new evidence that the mind can improve the healing process in ways that traditional medicine can't.
'Over the last several decades the empirical evidence (for the placebo effect) has really mounted, and people in our culture today are much more likely to embrace this mind-body interaction and synthesis,' says Kim Lebowitz, director of cardiac behavioral medicine, who was recruited in 2004 by Northwestern Memorial, becoming the first psychologist in the country to be hired full time by a hospital cardiac unit.
Emotions are part of the survival system. The tactics and techniques we teach are learned behavioural responses to threats. We need to appreciate the emotional response and that it needs to support or fit with these learned behavioural responses due to the interrelated nature of these survival responses.

We need to understand emotions more as they are an interrelated part of our survival system. We need to understand fear, of course, but we need to understand so much more. Are other emotions involved in our survival response? What are their effects on the physiological response and behavioural responses?

The Japanese martial arts, and Siddle, refers to a concept known as mushin. It means 'no mind' and refers to a mental state whereby the warrior enters combat without fear, anger, or ego. Look for and test each and every assumption. Is mushin a good thing or a bad thing? The military and law enforcement might argue its a good thing because they want you to risk your life and stay and fight when Mother Nature wants you to survive and run away.

The military and law enforcement have to find ways and means to turn you away from Mother Nature's exhortations to flee when your survival is threatened. One of the ways they do that is by - manipulating your emotions and manipulating your understanding of emotions. You should way up the costs and benefits of mushin. One of the costs is that you don't get the survival benefits brought about by the activation of the physiological response. Do the modern warriors get taught in such a way as to achieve mushin? I remember talking to Major Greg Mawkes (retired) when he said the SAS troopers are trained to have 'controlled aggression'. This becomes so insightful when you understand emotions, and the effects of emotions on cognition, physiology, and behaviour. And in order for you to understand why, you have to set aside your prejudices associated with the word aggression.

What emotion are you training you and your students to have during a violent encounter? How are you training them to have those emotions? Do you understand the intimate interrelationship of emotions with survival?

What my work is about is not providing answers, but providing knowledge so that you can understand the underlying assumptions associated with teachings. There are many solutions proposed throughout the history of humankind in relation to preparing a person to survive a violent encounter. They adopt different approaches. For instance, while many attempt to manage emotions, there is a fighting tradition that was adopted for centuries by many warrior traditions that involves enflaming rather than controlling ones feelings. What my work attempts to do is provide a model that can be used to understand all these different approaches. One thing it does do is to emphasise that a systems approach, a holistic approach, is needed.

This blog may have been rambling a bit: (a)it's a very broad subject, and (b)I'm using these blogs to focus my thinking, or message, in my book. I find writing to a public helps me focus what I want to say.