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.

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