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.


  1. Great post John. It got me thinking. Your part about appraising someone or something as a threat is very important. It's also an overlooked area in training. Training itself, may, for some, affect their ability to make an accurate assessment. Interesting stuff.

  2. Thanks. The survival process model which I'd adopted based on integrating the theories and concepts of the stress and emotion disciplines provides a holistic, interesting tool to better understand the methods used to prepare a person to survive a violent encounter.


Your comments make my work all the more relevant as I use them to direct my research and theorising. Thank you.