The Brain The Great Equalizer

One of the great things about being an instructor of any kind is that you will be exposed to a wide variety of people, with different backgrounds and education levels. This exposure, with an open mind, can only make you better.

Some of you may know that I am currently in the process of getting my BA in Psychology. Part of the reason I am doing this is to better understand the people I am teaching. The other part is to better understand the brain, which is the great equalizer. More or less, no matter of your skill level our experiences our brains are fundamentally the same and operate in the same manner. One of these great equalizers is the Fight or Flight response, which as it happens is a big factor in decision making in Krav Maga.

During the last shotgun course, and during the long drive out to the appropriate shooting area I had the pleasure of discovering that one of my students also shares my interest in Psychology. She has a Bsc in Psychology with a focus on the biological aspects of the brain. She obtained her degree from Lewis-Clark State College.

As we always do at UTKM we encourage our students to share their knowledge and help contribute to our blog. I asked her to discuss the Fight or Flight mechanism from a biopsych point of view. Below is what she sent me.

“The fight or flight response refers to physiological reaction that occurs when a person is placed in a threatening situation. Fight or flight simply describes the two basic decisions that are instantaneously made to resolve the dangerous situation, which is the decision to either quickly escape or to stay and fight.

The physiological effects of this response begins with one or several of the five senses, typically vision. A person will see threatening stimili, such a person or animal. The stimili is then sent as a signal via the optic nerve to be processed by the brain, generally in the amygdala, known as the ‘fear center’ which sends signals to the hypothalamus, which activates the nervous system. A signal then stimulates the sympathetic nervous system which sends impulses down the spinal column to the adrenal gland, which releases epinephrine, also known as adrenaline. This hormone will cause the heart rate to increase and is sent throughout the body as the heart beats faster. Epinephrine will signal the liver to release glucose, which will then be converted into ATP, which is used to activate muscles. This heightened level of epinephrine in the body will also activate the lungs, causing the breathing rate to increase in order for the body take in and utilize more oxygen through dilated blood vessels. The pupils in the eyes will also dilate to facilitate better lighting and vision as blood vessels in the ears dilate for increased auditory perception. In order to efficiently escape an attack or to fight, this response also subdues bodily processes which are unnecessary during a dangerous situation, such as digestion. The elevated levels of this hormone and increased activation of these bodily processes will increase body heat, which is also useful as it allows your muscles to ‘warm up’ in seconds as the mind registers the threat.

Psychologically, the combination of the increased heart rate, sweating, and the explosion of energy in the muscles, create a sense of acute awareness of the current situation and the ability to act quickly. While this illustrates a case in which the entire process runs smoothly, you must also be aware of the case in which it fails, known as condition black. Condition black is also known as ‘freezing’ during a dangerous situation, preventing the individual from fleeing or fighting. Cognitively, a sense of increased aggression will be associated with the ‘fight’ response and a combination of fear and anxiety for ‘flight’, while freezing is associated with fear and anxiety, but also a feeling of physical stiffness. During this freeze response, the parasympathetic nervous system dumps large amounts of hormones into the body, the same hormones that return the body to its relaxed state after a fight. The sudden increase of these hormones during a dangerous situation have the opposite effect of the fight or flight response, mixing panic with an inability to act quickly. Although freezing can be useful in situations in which a person must remain still in order to hide from an attacker, it can be detrimental when faced with an attacker head on.”

It is amazing to me that so much goes on in the brain in such a short amount of time, and for an untrained individual the Fight or Flight mechanism will operate in just that manner.

“I need to run, or quick throw a punch”

The great advantage of being a  properly trained individual is that this one will not be easily governed by their immediate biological responses. They will instead do their best to diffuse and continually assess the situation. Only then, will they make the decision to run (Flight) or to Fight with the purpose of escaping danger.

Of course, we are all human and there are times when we can be overwhelmed and thus enter condition black. You will never know if you are the kind of person who will enter condition black and freeze or will allow with correct decision making, the fight or flight mechanism, to work effectively. The only way to know, is during a period of extreme stress where an immediate and correct response is required, which will ultimately test your ability to react appropriately.

In the end, the only way to really reduce the chance of entering condition black is to train and become better at reacting under pressure. Which is something of course, any good Krav Maga training must include.

Written by: Annie Faulkner & Jonathan Fader