In a continuation of the series Awareness Colour Code, The Nervous System & Mental Health, I will be discussing the Fourth stage of the awareness colour code Red from both a practical, self-defence perspective but also a nervous system and mental health perspective. (See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, & Part 4)
Red is the state in which you have moved into fight mode. You are either in a physical confrontation or your nervous system has activated the Fight reflex in full based on mental stimuli. You may be on the offensive or defensive, depending on how you applied your self-defence strategies. Your nervous system is now redlining due to increased heart rate, fully dilated pupils focused on the target, and a likely rush of adrenaline and a mix of other neurotransmitters designed to give you an increased chance for survival.
This is also the point in your self-defence strategy where it is too late to run, though even if you did run, as per the Flight mechanism, your nervous system is still in Red. It is also too late for De-escalation, and you will have either engaged in a Pre-emptive (Strike First) attack or misread the situation, or were too slow and are now reacting to their attack. From a basic perspective, depending on your nervous system and behavior patterns along with experience, training, and the specifics of a scenario, your body is ready for a fight whether you are or not. The more skilled and trained you are, the more you are able to control things like your breathing and reactions. If you are in great shape, with great skills, though your heart rate will be up and your senses heightened, you should not be completely overwhelmed by this situation; as it is what you have trained for. Consequently, if you have not trained your skills and nervous system or are out of shape, you can easily be overwhelmed, ending up in the hospital or worse, or you could have a complete nervous system meltdown, putting you in code Black (See next post).
When it comes to physical self-defence this is where all your training comes in. For Krav Maga specifically, we do not just train the techniques and body but also the nervous system. Krav Maga recognized that violent encounters can be exceptionally overwhelming and started to work with training that simulates the stress a nervous system might experience when under a real threat. While REAL threats are hard to simulate, and unfortunately only comes from the real experience, we still can mimic as close to real as possible, as if you get the nervous system stressed it can create outcomes that will work in real life. This can be done as easily as stressing the nervous system to fatigue while training, and then help people learn to overcome the body’s exhaustion and continue to fight through. This is similar to an adrenaline dump that can occur after an initial burst of adrenaline; meaning once the adrenaline wears out the body loses its power and speed, becoming tired and sluggish. Mimicking this in training trains not just the nervous system but the conscious mind, to know you can fight through it if you have to. Other ways of stressing the nervous system would be through sleep and food deprivation, though this is usually limited to military units for practical and legal reasons. Another way this simulation can be achieved is by doing “scenario training” in which the defender isn’t really sure what the attacker is going to do, forcing quick and stressful decision making even though it’s just a drill. Remember, if it looks choreographed it probably is, meaning there is no shock to the nervous system. Though basic patterns can be followed in training, you still need randomness so that it creates the desired effect in the nervous system and makes the training more realistic overall.
Let’s pick the example of the knife-wielding individual again: This time the knife-wielder locks their eyes on you and starts sprinting at you. It’s do or die time. Either you ran because the threat was imminent or you were caught off guard and backed up against a wall. Now completely in Red, you are going to have to FIGHT long enough to get to safety. You must overwhelm their nervous system before you are seriously hurt or your nervous system is overwhelmed. Applying good technique but more importantly Retzef all while trying to cause pain, off balance, and disrupt their nervous system, so that you can survive and get to safety. (Remember unless you are fighting an alien with a different nervous system, the same things that apply to your nervous system apply to the attackers. This is why understanding from the perspective of first principle, “how does the body work?”, rather than “just techniques” is so important.)
Now, let’s take this same example but you are a uniformed police officer: Now the scenario unfolds differently than it does for the average civilian (in many Western places), because you are armed with non-lethal and lethal tools. Not only do you need to protect yourself, but your partner(s) and civilians as well. On top of this, as the knife-wielder is charging you you have to consider this delicate balance; Do too little and you failed to do your job. Do too much, and your career could be over. All this while your nervous system is in RED and your body is wanting to just survive and not think about legal or social consciences. From a pure non-legal, non-social issues perspective, a person charging at a uniformed officer with a knife will get shot. However, from a legal or social issues perspective, it may not be such an easy decision. The bottom line is the ability to use unarmed combative techniques against armed assailants requires extensive, consistent training, which is not normal for most police forces in the West. See how difficult it is? Fighting the assailant, fighting the law, fighting social media, fighting your nervous system; It’s a tough job and they do not get enough credit for it. However, with the proper training and skill, any officer, even while under duress, can make better decisions more often than not.
Now for the mental health perspective. Remember that whole thing about how your brain doesn’t always know the difference between a real and a perceived threat? This is where Red comes in. If you perceive a threat that isn’t an actual threat, and your nervous system goes Red and stays Red for too long, this is where you will start to have panic attacks or nervous breakdowns. If your nervous system and other systems think that the person insulting you online is the same as the knife-wielding attacker, it will act exactly the same even though there is no actual threat. Your ability to function optimally will decline and you will most likely start to see physical manifestations in the form of bad health, injury, etc., if your nervous system spends too much time in Red.
Consider this analogy; in cars they have a tachometer indicating how much RPM the engine is running at. There is also the “red line” to indicate the RPM are too high, while you can be in the red line for a time, If you spend too much time there, too often, or keep it there for a continuous period, inevitably the car engine will overheat, seize up, and stop working. That is because the engine is way too hot, reducing the effectiveness of the lubrication and increasing friction, and is unable to cool down enough to function. The same goes for your nervous system. If you run “hot” or in Red too much, too often, or too long, your nervous system, your body and your mind will metaphorically seize and you will not be able to function properly.
So consider this, if you are always anxious, always panicking, always feel attacked from everything thing this is really just your nervous system thinking its literally under attack. Once you can begin to understand your mental health and general health from this first principle stance you can begin to hack it for your benefit so you can become the most optimal version of yourself. It is not healthy to be anxious or in Red all the time, it will only lead to poorer quality of life and blaming the world around you (though there’s lots to complain about that needs to be fixed) is not going to fix your internal nervous system and reactions. Of course, it’s a complicated relationship between your behavior patterns (which can be helped with things like CBT).
This post is not specific therapeutic advice, as I am not an expert, just someone who has the experience and has done the independent reading of primary sources.
However, the more you understand the connection between mind, body spirit the more you can train yourself to be the optimal version of yourself. Consider training more Krav Maga, BJJ, Wrestling, Boxing, Kickboxing so that you can train your body and nervous system to handle extreme states like Red. Not only will you gain practical skills, but you will essentially learn to keep calm in tense situations, as this type of training is a form of exposure therapy. If your body and nervous system get used to high stress by experiencing it in relative safety you can learn to overcome the overwhelming feeling.
While Red is a necessary state for an actual fight it can also be detrimental to your overall wellbeing. It is something though that you can learn to control through numerous methods, as, if you are in an actual fight, you do want the enhances senses and skills, but you want to remain in control and calm so that your system does not redline on you and overheat. If this does happen in can lead to code Black, which can be a total catastrophe and a state you do not want to be in. But that is for the next post.
Written by Jonathan Fader