Survival mechanisms and Self Defense training.

Many martial arts practioners dedicate their lives in the pursuit of understanding their arts. Hours and years are invested practicing and perfecting their skills, yet many while practicing their skills leave out a key ingredient. That ingredient is the understanding of the body’s natural survival mechanisms including stress and adrenaline.

We all have built in survival mechanisms these gifts can make us more aware, stronger and faster if we need to defend ourselves. We have a built in radar and a set of responses that are literally faster than thought (your thinking mind). These responses are referred to as ‘flinch’ or ‘startle’ responses. These responses are the body’s intuitive defensive reactions. Another survival mechanism is the production of adrenaline. Adrenaline used as it is intended can give us the advantage to survive, not knowing what to do with the extra energy or not knowing how to use the flinch/startle response properly can be detrimental in self defense.

Self defense skills can be broken down into three categories; Gross, fine and complex.

Gross motor skills are considered simple cognitive skills with very little decision making.

Fine motor skills are techniques that require more cognitive processing and involve more hand and eye coordination.

Complex motor skills require more eye-hand coordination, precision, tracking and timing. Survival complex motor skills use more cognitive processing than fine or gross skills.

When we experience or perceive stress, adrenal hormone production increases and our heart rate speeds up. Studies have shown that high and moderate levels of stress appear to interfere with muscular control and decision making. Research shows that fine and complex motor skills perform best during low levels of stress.

Knowing this provides us with two truths:

Our fine and complex skills will be more accessible if we can control our levels of stress.

In situations we can’t control we will experience an adrenal response and we better have developed our natural gross motor skills enough to protect us.

Heart rate, Fitness and Stress

Rising heart rates can have a dramatic impact on motor skills. Medical research has shown that fine motor skills (precision and accuracy) deteriorate at 115 beats per minute (BPM). The average person’s heart rate can easily surpass 115 BPM after a few seconds of moderate exertion. Complex motor skills deteriorate and the visual system begins to tunnel around 145 BPM. This visual phenomenon or ‘Tunnel Vision’ is designed to make you pay attention to the threat, but it can make you focus on the wrong thing when you need to expand your awareness. Focusing in on the guy screaming in front while blocking out everything else can make you miss other threats like his partner sneaking up on you.

A heart rate of 145 BPM can be reached in as few as twenty seconds. Research shows that when the heart rate exceeds 175 BPM, hearing and vision can become impaired. Tunnel Vision is the visual impairment experienced at high levels of stress, and Auditory Exclusion is the hearing impairment.  Tunnel vision can be a perceived visual magnification which leads to comments like ‘He had the biggest knife I’ve ever saw’ etc. Or to an effect similar to having blinders on. Auditory exclusion can cause you to not hear other sounds due to your extreme focus on the threat, and the screening out of extraneous sounds, this could cause you to miss other vital sound cues.

“These are a result of a primeval decision in the cortex of the brain that "there is only one thing that concerns us now, destroying or escaping the thing that is attempting to destroy us....The eyes still see and the ears still hear, but the cortex of the brain is screening out anything that is extraneous.”- Massad Ayoob; Law enforcement expert

Until you learn to deal with Adrenal effects such as Tunnel Vision and Auditory Exclusion you may be actually limiting your ability to defend yourself. All the knowledge of self defense you have developed may be inaccessible to you when the Adrenal effects kick in, unless you familiarize yourself with the affects of stress and adrenaline.

The more physically (aerobically) fit you are, the more your bodies able to cope with dramatic increases in your heart rate due to either stress or physical exertion. Being in good physical shape your heart rate will stabilize and decrease faster which aids in the reacquisition of fine and complex motor skills much faster. But being in good physical shape is not enough when training, you have to simulate threats to stimulate the adrenal effect. Getting familiar with the adrenal effect will allow you to use the extra energy as intended instead of being overwhelmed by it.

The Adrenal Glands

The Adrenal glands are located adjacent to the kidneys. Several hormones important in the body's reactions to stress are made in the adrenal glands. The outer portion of the adrenal gland, is called the adrenal cortex. The Adrenal Cortex secretes important steroid hormones including cortisol, a hormone that mediates various stress reactions. The inner portion of the adrenal gland, known as the medulla, secretes epinephrine and norepinephrine, the hormones important in the "fight or flight" reaction to a threat or sudden stress.

Survival Stress

When you experience or perceive a threat be it physical or emotional the body releases adrenaline. Adrenaline causes a number of physiological changes that help you to survive:

When calm thought or precise motor skills are important, it is best to control and, ideally, eliminate these adrenaline responses.

Prolonged exposure to adrenaline can cause ill-health. That is why it is important to balance your training with stress reduction techniques such as meditation, and learn to reduce unnecessary prolonged stress in our lives be it at work or in our daily endeavors, while learning to channel the survival stress we experience in self defense situations.

Protection Mechanisms

Certain responses are hardwired into our minds, blinking breathing, flinching, your heart beating etc. There are also certain responses that are natural for us because of our evolution. Remember long ago we crawled on all fours, our bodies were originally designed to do this. This is why in the all fours position all your vitals are harder to reach and when standing our vitals are exposed. Tickling for example is the bodies way to protect vital areas. If you tickle a child’s neck they will wiggle squirm and try to close that area off by contracting it. That’s a protection mechanism. So is the way your arms come up to protect you,  the way your hands move towards an injured area or away from pain are all intuitive protection mechanisms, and it is important to understand these mechanisms so you can move naturally.

Flinch, Flight, Fight or Freeze factor

Flinching is an automatic response to unexpected threats. For example something unexpected flying toward your head will cause your arms to rise, head to tuck and your body lower itself. It is important to understand your bodies flinch responses and how to use them in self defense, because they are automatic. The flinch response is hardwired and is vital to your survival. The flinch response is prior to the Flight, Fight or Freeze responses. Flinching is controlled by the amygdala area of the brain, this bypasses any cognitive thinking. When you touch a hot stove your hand zips away because of the hardwired flinch response based in the amygdala, you don’t think (cognitively) I better take my hand away from this stove. Your body instinctively does it and then your conscious mind realizes it after the fact. The amygdala is connected to all your sensory systems, so just like radar it can pick up subtle signals your ‘thinking’ mind may not. So it is vital to learn to capitalize on the flinch/startle response by training how to use it, and follow it, not stop it. Trying to stop the flinch response and force a learned technique will cause hesitation, which could be deadly.

With amazing speed the body senses a threat, creates a response and hypes itself up with adrenaline to deal with it. You probably have heard of ‘Fight or Flight’ syndrome. There is also a third response which is Freezing. These natural responses were hardwired into us naturally to help insure the survival of our species. The ‘Freezing’ effect one encounters in high stress kept our ancestors from being spotted as food by predators (not to be confused with hesitation brought on by internal conflicting information). When spotted by predators they froze hoping not to be spotted, if spotted they then had to decide if they could outrun (flight) their predator and if not their only option then would be to fight for their life. These survival mechanisms are not a matter of personal "courage" or ‘fear’. They are profound and amazingly complex physiological events designed to prepare the animal within to survive.

Tachypsychia -Time perception

Another effect of Adrenaline people experience is a change of their time perception called tachypsychia (literally: the speed of the mind). We all heard people exclaim ‘It all happened so fast!’ or ‘It happened in slow motion’ when explaining a stressful event. Adrenaline can cause people to experience a perceived change in the speed of time. This is your body’s way of boosting your visual processing centers and the accelerated triggering of the motor control functions to help you survive. Many people trained and familiar with the Adrenaline effect may perceive a ‘Slowing’ down of time, their attacker seeming to move in slow motion. To the untrained it can ‘All happen so fast’. This is a partial flight or freeze response which when trained properly can be used in our favor. That extra boost of adrenaline speed can tip the survival scale in your favor. When ignored it can turn your legs to lead, put blinders on your eyes and shut off your hearing. This is the same effect that makes ‘time fly when you’re having fun’. That’s why the rollercoaster ride seems shorter than it actually is if you enjoy it and longer if you are terrified.


Being a martial artist for most of my life, I’ve done plenty of sparring and unfortunately more times than I’d like to remember  I’ve had to defend myself in the street, sometimes my life depended on my training. The two are radically different. My martial arts training has helped save my life quite a few times. But that is because I’ve separated fantasy from reality. My research of many real fights (My own direct experience, and indirect experience through research) the common factor is when the adrenaline effect hits you, gross motor skills are what are mainly used. Now lets redefine a gross motor skill. A gross motor skill is considered simple cognitive skills with very little decision making. That means the simple basic techniques you have trained that are now an instinctive natural motion for you to do, ones that fly’s out without thought, are gross motor skill. So even a somewhat complex motions done enough times can become a gross motor skill. That’s because the more time you practice them the less complex they get for you BUT, many complex skills can take more time, accuracy, energy and coordination. Which as we have learned are radically effected by stress. So when the opportunity to use a simple verse a complex technique avails itself, keep it simple. Use the appropriate technique for the appropriate situation.

As stated, my research and experience has shown me that once the adrenaline kicks in, combatants get primitive. The sharp jabs and punches deteriorate to flailing and pummeling. If you’ve ever seen two monkeys on the nature channel scrap it looks pretty similar to two homo sapiens brawling. That’s gross motor skills.


Is that the way every street fight/real fight happens? No, if one stays calm and cool, one can maintain most of his/her skills. The difficulty is soon as one strike lands, danger is felt or loved ones are involved the stress level goes way up. That’s because the feeling of loss of control creates fear, panic or anger. When that happens the adrenaline effect kicks in.

Traditional Martial Arts and Centeredness

One of the most important goals of traditional martial arts is maintaining centeredness in stressful situations. In order to maintain that centeredness we need to maintain good aerobic health, study our body’s natural protection mechanisms and train in the adrenaline zone. Leaving one of these factors out is gambling with your life. There are of course more factors involved; psychology, body language etc. But all of these other factors can become unglued if you are not used to the surge of adrenaline and its effects on you under stressful situations. In traditional martial arts we practice movements solo to develop mechanics and with partners to develop the proper execution. Then next step in that evolution is to test those skills and your ability to maintain centeredness under stress. If your not doing that you’re missing out.

Activating the Adrenaline effect or ‘If you want to learn how to swim you have to get wet’

Adding Adrenaline stress exercises to your training will help you familiarize yourself with the effects of stress which will help you tap into them as opposed to allowing them to overwhelm you.

When incorporating adrenaline drills in your training you must do it step by step with safety as the most important factor. There is more to adrenaline training than putting on body armor and having at it. The adrenaline response kicks in either suddenly as in an unexpected threat or gradually as in an escalated threat. Unexpected threats involve the flinch response which by passes cognitive thinking, the flinch response is not an emotionally based response. In other words since it is so fast and it bypasses ‘thinking’ it does not involve fear. Fear comes in when we sense the threat mentally. A sucker punch causes the flinch response before the fight or flight response. Someone screaming at us for example stimulates the flight or fight before the flinch response.

Knowing this it is important to train the flinch response and the fight or flight response in various combinations and separately to maximize our training. Training both physically and stimulating emotions in our drills will better prepare us for the realities of combat.

Programs such as Tom Patire’s Training for life, CDT (Compliance, Direction, Takedown) or LRT (Last, Resort, Tactics) are great additional programs to enhance your reality based training. Both programs train participants in various adrenaline drills, gross motor skills, simulating tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, time shifts etc. CDT ( even has an excellent line of equipment including blindfolds that simulate tunnel vision, realistic rubber training weapons and much more.

There are many adrenaline drills you can implement in your training. One of the simplest and humbling exercises you can do is get a foam stick (a pool noodle, foam pipe cover) and have a partner attack you continuously until you control the offending limb and weapon. You can also do this with a group; have four students make a circle with a fifth in the center with the foam stick. The one in the center attacks the students that are circled around them. The unarmed students must try to control the attacking limb and weapon. If they get tagged they step out for five seconds. The attacker continuously attacks until he/she is disarmed or everyone is out. You will find that many students doing this drill will be out of breath quickly (first timers usually in two to three minutes), their legs will turn to lead and they may experience a shift in their time perception, as well as auditory exclusion.  In other words the two minute drill will seem like a ten minute drill, usually fine and complex technique goes out the window and students usually miss individual instructions during the drill due to auditory exclusion.

Another excellent humility drill is to chalk a rubber training knife so that it will leave a visible line when you or your partner get successfully tagged. Once your have your training knife ready you can now train and get more realistic feedback when drilling. The subconscious realization that you more than likely will get tagged and marked causes the ego to kick in a little adrenaline.


Just practicing a self defense technique whether it’s empty handed or verse a weapon, by itself may be a waste of time if you can’t access that knowledge under stress. Adding realistic role playing to your practice of self defense techniques will better prepare you for real life situations. You can do push ups or jog in place to get your heart rate up and leaden you limbs a bit, then immediately do your technique. Your partner can speak to you with threatening verbal and body language. Having others yell at you or make noise can help you deal with auditory exclusion. Using equipment such as the  chalked knives or CDT’s tactical blindfold can better train you for the effects of stress. There are many creative ways to familiarize you with the Adrenaline effect. This can add an exciting challenge to your self defense training and classes and help you channel natures gifts, your survival mechanisms.