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.


  1. 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?

  2. 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.

    I'm reminded of the Stockholm syndrome as well from your post, showing what can happen internally to your perspective on what's going on.

    Definitely food for thought for us all.


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