Friday, March 4, 2011

Attack of the Killer Butterflies

I’ve taken a lot of martial arts classes from people who’ve never actually been in a fight, themselves. That’s a lot like learning to ride from someone who’s never seen a horse.

Back in the bad old days, I found myself in a tight spot a time or two. The experience made me think I was losing my mind.
I wasn’t.
I just wasn’t prepared to deal with the reality of the encounter because there was a whole dimension to it that I didn’t know anything about --- because those martial arts teachers I’d studied with didn’t know about it, either. Fortunately for me, I was acquainted with a gentleman who had seen substantial combat in Europe in WWII. He convinced me that my responses were more or less normal by relating his own experiences.

Now, I make it a special point to share this knowledge with my students, too, so that they will understand what happens physiologically and psychologically in combat, even, to a small degree, in the mock “combat" of a fencing bout.

When faced with a threat are four possible threat responses: flee, yield, posture or fight.
That is, you can run away from it; you can surrender to it; you can try to scare it away; or you can destroy it. But in every case, you’ll get an immediate “adrenaline flood," the old “fight or flight hormone,” and what you do depends a lot on how you handle that.

Your body responds to emotional stress like fear much differently from the way it responds to physical stress, even though it seems to have a key component in common: heart-rate. When I run hill sprints, I can push my heart-rate to the 90% zone. But a minute or two minutes later, I’m ready to go again, with no ill effects from the first sprint. After a dozen, I’m fatigued. But throughout, my mind is clear, and my coordination is good.

Fear is different.

At a heart-rate of around 60-80 beats per minute (BPM) --with allowances for individual variation-- you’re “at ease.” Relaxed. Maybe asleep. And vulnerable. Let’s call that the “white zone.” *

Between 80-115 BPM, you’re “on guard,” alert and ready. Let’s call that the “yellow zone.”

Somewhere around 115-145 BPM you’re “engaged” and functioning at your peak combat/survival performance level. Call this one the “red zone.” Your complex motor skills, visual reaction time and cognitive reaction time are all in high gear – BUT your fine motor skills deteriorate.
Entering this zone is where you might find you have “butterlies in your stomach.”Experienced fighters learn to routinely evacuate bladder and bowels before a match.

When you hit 145-175 BPM your performance begins to deteriorate – EXCEPT FOR AUTOPILOT SKILLS (about which, more in a moment). Cognitive processing deteriorates. You experience vaso-constriction (to reduce bleeding from wounds), tunnel vision, loss of depth perception, loss of near vision, auditory exclusion, tachypsychia. Let’s call this the “gray zone.”

Above around 175 BPM, you are “lost” in the “black zone.” This is the level of irrational fight or flight, freezing (paralyzed with fear), submissive behavior, voiding bladder and bowels, gross motor skills at highest level (running/charging), catastrophic vaso-constriction. Without going into too much personal history, I can tell you that, as a child, I had substantial experience with fear, and visited the black zone more than once.
I remember what it’s like to be “paralyzed with fear,” to exhibit cringing submissive behavior, and to experience blind panic flight. Take my word for it: you don’t want to go there, any more than I want to go there ever again.

Post-Adrenaline Crash.
You can sail for quite a while in that adrenaline flood. But when it’s all over, it isn’t over. Depending on the nature of the event, and your own individual make-up you may find yourself ravenously hungry, hyper-sexual and/or sleeping like a rock for 18 hours.
You may feel a little “queasy” or you may vomit your guts out. You might get the “shakes” so bad you can’t light a cigarette. You make feel cold and shiver.
Some effects may linger a long time – known as Post-Traumatic Stress. Nightmares. Hyper-vigilance. “Flashback” over-reactions to distorted perceptions of non-threatening stimuli. But that gets into different territory beyond the scope of this particular discussion.

If there’s one thing you can derive from all of this, it’s the importance of psycho-motor training. Because in a fight, you don’t “rise to meet the challenge,” YOU SINK TO THE LEVEL OF YOUR TRAINING. That is, the only skills you will retain and be able to execute reliably are those skills that you have rehearsed so many times, that you can do them AUTOMATICALLY, without thinking, no matter what else is going on.
That’s “autopilot.”

I once watched a boxing match in which one of the fighters suffered a devastatingly perfect hook to the jaw. He was literally “out on his feet,” before his back hit the canvas. But even in that state, on the deck, he instinctively, AUTOMATICALLY covered up and rolled, even throwing a counter or two.
I was tremendously impressed.
THAT is where I want my skills to be. Where the body still performs even when the mind is gone.

There’s a way to help control your anxiety-driven heart-rate: breathe.
Some call it “tactical breathing,” or “focused breathing,” or “mindful breathing,” but I’ve heard it called a lot of other things too in various martial arts. Sometimes we call it “re-set.” Doesn’t matter if you call it “Uncle Charlie,” as long as you do it.
It goes like this:
  1. Inhale through your nose, filling your belly fully, to a slow 4-count.
  2. Hold for a 4-count
  3. Exhale through your mouth for the same slow 4-count
  4. Hold for a 4-count
Repeat for 2-3 cycles, as needed.

Make no mistake: however much we strive for verisimilitude in fencing, a fencing bout is to a real fight as a child’s cuddly stuffed lion is to a real lion prowling the Serengeti.
The butterflies you experience before a tournament, are itsy-bitsy, teensie-weensie little butterflies, even though they may feel to you like B-52’s.

But by using “focused breathing,” you can tame those killer butterflies and “re-set” to remain at the level of optimum arousal: relaxed, alert, aware and responsive.

* adapted from ON COMBAT by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, Warrior Science Publications, 2004.


  1. Apropos of this post, I just finished watching an episode of "This Emotional Life" - a three part PBS series - the episode I watched was on FEAR and ANGER -"acing our fears" - the second episode. I highly recommend it for medical insight into the physiological and psychological changes that occur to the body and THE MIND in these states of consciousness.

  2. Thanks for the tip, Ric!
    Will definitely check it out.



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