Stress in a Confrontation

January 09, 2015 by Norbert Tannert  
Stress, in my opinion, is one of the most unnoticed factors in martial arts as well as in an actual confrontation. This is surprising if one takes into account that stress is what usually determines the outcome of a real confrontation with a highly aggressive attacker.

I am emphasizing the word “real” because in most cases, training in martial arts is completely different from a real scenario with possibly heavier consequences, such as physical and emotional damage, a trial or death.

So don’t be fooled. Every form of competition-orientated martial arts (including UFC and cage fights) has very little or nothing to do with a real self-defense conflict.
There is no sport competition where you face the attacker who in the next second will attempt to hurt you deliberately or even kill you. There are no competitions where the mental condition of the attacker is so escalated that he seems to gain overwhelming power and feels no pain at all.
Realization hits the unprepared victim like a thunderbolt when his favorite technique that worked at the dojo every time won’t work at all against an attacker as described.
By this point, stress begins to limit the victim’s capabilities to defend themselves.

Countless big masters of the martial arts have trained endlessly to perfect their technical skills, but only few have considered the possibility that their technical skills might become blocked and unusable by the stress of a real threat. This explains how all-too-often, a well trained martial artist is defeated by a technically untrained street thug.

To understand the influence of stress, it is important to dive into its phenomenon and its effects on the motoric abilities. I’ll give you a brief scenario.

Imagine you are in dark alley at night. A man is coming directly towards you, wearing worn out clothes. A hood covers his face. Shortly before you pass, he jumps in front of you, you see something in his right hand, probably a knife. The man is shouting at you in a fiercely aggressive voice...

First, it is useful to know what processes take place in a human body during such a situation. The human eye is capable of sending between 2 – 3 million bits of information to the brain within a second. But the brain‘s capacity of processing the incoming information is limited to about 7 information bits per second, which includes the information from all senses (sound, smell, feeling etc.). So it is absolutely necessary for the brain to use filters to overcome the overwhelming input of information. Such filters can be “familiar situations”. For example, people, things or situations which are classified as “normal” can be habitual to the brain and are not registered as highly important.

Another significant filter function is the fixation on information that is classified as “unknown” or “dangerous”. If the incoming information is classified as “dangerous”, all other incoming stimuli will be set back by the brain. This again is not limited to the eyes, but on the input of all senses at once. A typical outcome of this filtering is the so called “tunnel vision”.
Tunnel vision often appears in self defense situations, as a detrimental phenomenon. The fixation on what the brain considers most dangerous could be a fatal error, because other circumstances which might be more dangerous are not recognized.

A simple example is a multiple attacker situation, where the brain unconsciously determines one of the attackers as the principal threat usually because he is the biggest or loudest in the group. The fixation on this person means that the others in the group are not perceived with the same level of attention, or even blended out completely. Subsequently, an attack from those others will hit the victim by surprise. This fact is certainly known on the criminals’ side as well. Street gangs who coordinate their attacks use this tactic of distracting the victim on one side, while attacking from the other.

The perception of the dangerous stimulus is only the first step in the chain of brain reactions. In this phase, it is critical whether the stimulus is also a new experience. The combination of dangerous and new is the basis for the following high-stress-phase.

Perception of the stimulus causing high-stress requires a time consuming decision by the brain. At the onset of this process, the body reacts with a complete stop of all movements. The well-known expression that one is “paralyzed by fear”, or scientifically “vagotonic shock-phase”, explains the moments where the body is not able to move or react. The duration of this phase typically varies from 0.6 seconds up to 20 seconds and can be even longer. The factors influencing the duration:

  1. How dangerous and intense the stimulus is
  2. Individual experiences and personal attitudes towards the stimulus
  3. Action competence through training
  4. Arousal level influenced by fear, anger and other emotions

In other words, the more familiar a person is with a dangerous stimulus (through adequate preparation and training) the shorter the paralyzing shock-phase is.
Longer shock phases on the other hand are usually caused by past incidents associated with negative experiences (injuries, pain, etc.). In the case of the latter, the stimulus often leads the victim to a complete standstill where no movement is possible. Self-defense in this state of mind is impossible even if under normal circumstances the victim would technically be able to deal with the assault. Consequently, how can we deal with the impact of stress in a real self defense situation?

First, it must be stated that every form of street violence is a highly exceptional situation for an average person. In most cases, the victim has never before encountered such a situation. This is even more true when he or she is threatened with a weapon and uncontrolled aggression.

It is helpful to examine how conventional martial arts training can influence the length of the shock phase, because we now know, that proper training can shorten this timing drastically. As previously mentioned, traditional martial arts training typically consists of practicing a variety of techniques repeatedly, or a defense against a fixed attack in a more or less sterile dojo-atmosphere. This form of training doesn’t take into account the most important aspects affecting the length of the shock phase:

  • The aggression of the attacker which clearly shows the defender that he or she has to prepare for heavy consequences
  • The atypical setting and situation (for example confined space, crowd and noise)
  • The confrontation with a real weapon (such as a real knife, not a rubber one as in the gym)
  • But because these factors are rarely covered by conventional martial arts training, it is quite likely that in a dire situation, the length of the shock phase will not be shortened hindering self-defense capability.

The aim of realistic self defense training must therefore go beyond the necessary technical aspects and include realistic simulation of potential situations and surroundings to familiarize the student. The best result is for the student to interpret a vastly aggressive situation as a regular and not high stress stimulus. The practicing of similar inputs during training will allow the situation to not be classified as new and highly dangerous anymore. There will be no shock-phase and the defender will be able to react against an attack instantly.
Some examples of such training:

  • Training in unknown areas (make use of parking lots, bars, simulate trains, the inside a bus, etc.)
  • Training with low light and in street clothing
  • Practice with opponents you don’t know well
  • Make use of deceptively realistic weapons (true weight steel blunt knife for instance) and tell the students that you will do a lesson with a real knife without telling them that it is blunt
  • Make use of role playing (as in a bar situation, where you can simulate the realistic escalation of some aggressive actions)
  • Try to simulate aggression not only by physical attacks but also through linguistic violence (shouting, insulting, etc.)

Systema training and especially the breathing methods, can really help to deal with dangerous situations. Through breathing, the defender is able to reduce the level of stress in a very short period of time so that the high stress level is not being reached even if the situation is considered new and dangerous. During my work with the SWAT unit, I used the Systema breathing method successfully to calm down before going into dangerous assaults.
This alone is one of the biggest advantages of Systema against other self defense systems and ironically it has no apparent connection with fighting at all.

The second phase of dealing with an aggressive self defense situation, which I would call “reaction-phase”, will be covered in a following article if of interest.

Norbert Tannert Norbert Tannert is a certified Systema instructor; training and teaching since 2000.
He is in active police duty since 1980, acts as a unit leader of an SEK (SWAT team) and is the officer responsible for tactical training for over 22 years.
Norbert has 30 years of martial arts training. He teaches regular classes at Systema Bonn.