Running may save you, fighting may save you, but panicking and doing nothing will always make things worse (source)
Awareness Colour Code, The Nervous System & Mental Health: Part 6 – BLACK, Catastrophically Overwhelmed Audio by Jonathan Fader

In a continuation of the series Awareness Colour Code, The Nervous System & Mental Health, I will be discussing the final stage of the awareness colour code Black 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, Part 5)

Black is the state where your brain is not doing what it is supposed to be doing. Instead of activating the Fight or Flight mechanism, your body is overwhelmed by stimulus, neurotransmitters, or sheer terror, and it does something which is not useful. Nothing. This could simply be freezing in terror or it could mean you fully pass out. Another form of Black is where you completely blackout mentally but still function, though this is the best of all Black scenarios it is still not great. Stage Black was not in the original system popularized by Jeff Cooper but was added by the US Marine Core as they noticed that some individuals simply froze under pressure.

This is also the point in self-defence strategy where, regardless of how much time and dedication you have committed to techniques, your training doesn’t work as you are unable to properly function. You failed to prepare your body and nervous system prior to a traumatic event or violent occurrence and it is simply overwhelmed. The messed up thing about Black is that some people, due to a variety of factors from nature to nurture, will be more prone to Black than others, while some may never experience it at all. Some events may cause you to go Black while others do not. Unfortunately, the really messed up part is that the only way you know what will trigger your Black (if you have one) is to experience something terrible. For some “going Black” may not even have anything to do with violence, it may simply be a social situation or survival situation which causes the nervous system to panic, freeze, or otherwise act in a way that is not very conducive to appropriate function in that situation.

Have you ever heard of the strategy called “playing possum?” That is, playing dead so that attacker moves on. This is the strategy the opossum instinctively employs when faced with overwhelming threats. Except, it turns out, according to modern research, it’s not actually a clever strategy but rather one hardwired due to the fact that the nervous systems of these North American marsupials are primal enough that their “conscious mind” cannot process the stress, so they simply pass out due to a completely overwhelmed nervous system. Fortunately for the opossum, many predators like to eat live things, due to the instinct to avoid potentially rotten or diseased meat, so if they think an opossum is dead they won’t want to eat it; hence the assumption it was a clever strategy.

This is exactly what Krav Maga training is designed to combat; train the nervous system to as close to being overwhelmed as it can so that your system learns how to handle it. Do it often enough and you may even “numb” your system so that you can have true mastery in the face of fear or threats. This actually ties into learning theory. Though there are many models I am going to use a 4 stage one on the path to the “10000 hours to master”:

  1. Unconscious Incompetent,
  2. Conscious Incompetent
  3. Conscious Competent
  4. Unconscious Competent

In Black, your body, mind, spirit, nervous system is essential so overwhelmed it moves to stage 1, you become the same as someone who knows nothing (Jon Snow) and can’t perform. Through extensive technical and aggression training in the Krav Maga fashion, you train all aspects. Slowly, through fatigue, pressure, and stressful stimulus, your conscious and unconscious move toward the later stages, where you can stay calm while performing properly. For some this will come relatively easily, for others it will take a lifetime. But the more you can train your entire system to handle and manage the stress the less likely you will be overcome by Black. As has been mentioned many times this is essentially exposure therapy; you slowly add increasing doses of stimulus in order to get used to it, so that that which was once overwhelming becomes merely stressful.

Often those with violence-related trauma may have a difficult time training with contact, but if they want to overcome this they will need to slowly and steadily work towards increasing stimulus and stress. More therapists really should work with self-defence experts to help with this, but for a variety of reasons they often simply tell their clients to stop training instead of learning and growing. It’s very unfortunate.

Back to that knife-wielding individual again. The knife weilder has charged you. Unfortunatley you grew up in Vancouver which, no matter what anyone tells you, is super safe. Not only that, you grew up with a helicopter parent who never let you experience adversity (most millennials today). You see the knife wielder, you panic, start hyperventilating, and freeze. You get stabbed. You die. See how that can be detrimental under stress? (Or you pass out and are lucky that the attacker decides to leave you in favour of the next available target because they don’t want to bend down.)

Now, let’s take this same example but you are a uniformed police officer. Sadly you can actually see videos of this kind of thing all over YouTube. The officer misread the situation and was not prepared as they were too new, or too relaxed, or a variety of other factors. A weapon is drawn by an assailant and the officer pauses. Or has their hand on the firearm but fails to draw. Or simply doesn’t act properly because they don’t know what to do due to lack of training or experience. They get stabbed or shot, or someone else gets stabbed or shot as a result. This is why repetition is so important, so that basic actions become automated. But you also require regular contextual training so that stupid mistakes aren’t made, as can be seen in the recent case of Daunte Wright when one of the arresting officers thought it was her taser but was so stressed out by the situation that she didn’t even look or feel that it was a gun in her hand and shot him instead of tasing him. Clearly, her automatic response kicked in by shouting “taser, taser, taser” (to warn the other officers to stand clear), but not to be aware that it wasn’t her taser, which indicates she was overwhelmed by the situation and that her training actually wasn’t very effective for such a stressful situation. This is clear to any use of force or training expert, as she only shot once and was in complete shock that it was a gunshot and not a taser sound.

This second situation is very much Black, as it is an example of where there was a lack of or lessening of conscious control when overwhelmed. A less tragic but still very possible scenario is a scene from the cartoon series Archer. in the scene Archer’s butler, Woodhouse, is recalling a time during WW1 where his implied love interest died and he went on a rampage, killing many, many Germans; though he doesn’t remember doing it. This is Black because something so traumatic has happened the person “blacks it” out and simply acts on autopilot. In the recalled scenario, it turned out for the good as he was a soldier at war. In other situations autopilot might not serve you well, as you may simply be against overwhelming odds and are now unable to make a smart, conscious though. However, in a more real-world comparison, WW1 was where the concept of being “shell shocked” came from. This was the earliest version of what we now call “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) except almost more extreme. Imagine growing up in a peaceful farming village only to be thrown into the muddy trenches in a war so big, so violent, so different and overwhelming it was unlike anything seen before dubbed the “War to end all wars“. For many, this experience was unlike anything the nervous system could comprehend and simply “fried” the individual’s brains as their Black was just too much, thus the world was introduced to the term shell shocked.

Let’s talk about mental health. If it wasn’t already obvious from the above, going Black is usually quite traumatic and may result in PTSD, that is assuming the situation did not kill you. This is, again, a feeling of being so overwhelmed in the moment you cannot act, cannot make a decision, and you simply do nothing or spiral into an emotionally wrecked ball of fears and negative thoughts. If you are prone to anxiety or depression, or other mental health issues, and you lose control of your thoughts, you can actually put yourself into Black, where you are not really doing much of anything.

Again, this may not be your fault, as it is due to biochemistry and a lack of coping skills. However, assuming you don’t like being in such states, it is up to you, and no one else, to find a way to fix it. In general, though, it is about learning to calm your nervous system and thoughts; learning to recognize the signs, well in advanced, that you are going to be overwhelmed, then communicating it to yourself, and to others, and implementing the tools you have found to be useful. Whether that is therapy, breathing, exercise, or other methods that you have found help that are not unsafe for you physically or mentally. Remember, any tool you use must be beneficial for you and not detrimental to you or others. While self-medicating can be helpful if done correctly (proper research and consultation with medical professionals is highly recommended), it can also lead you to addiction or worse situations, so be careful.

Regardless of in literal physical self-defence, tense social situations, or threats (real or imagined), Black is not a place anyone wants to be. While the other stages, like Orange and Red, are useful and even needed at times so long as you don’t stay there too long, Black is essentially a catastrophic failure condition. It is not a place to be and is something you should train to avoid at all costs. If you find yourself failing to perform under duress or constantly feeling overwhelmed, you need to ask yourself “am I slowly spiraling into Black and bad mental state?”

Knowledge is power, and is also half the battle. You must educate yourself not just on what you are being told externally but also on how your own body and mind feel and what is good for you. This in itself is a hard skill to learn for many, but is a must if you want to have a happier, healthier life. Don’t just jump on trends, but apply first principles to ensure you really understand yourself, in all ways, so that you can teach yourself the skills or give yourself the tools to stay happy, healthy, and to avoid Black, all while managing your physical and mental safety.

Remember, Krav Maga has one goal and one goal only; to help you learn to walk in peace.

I hope this series has helped you bridge the gap between using the colour code in self-defence situations and in your mental health Journey. The mental colour code is not your physical strategy, but simply a reminder in what state your mind and nervous system is in. Some of it is automatic, some is not. The more you can be in tune with your body, and the more you channel your inner Benne Gesserit, the more control you will have overall, and this, my friends, will lead to a better life for you, period.

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” – Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear

Dune, Frank Herbert, 1965

Written by Jonathan Fader

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