Saturday, February 26, 2011

Knife Survival Series - Part V - Stress

Learning to survive a knife attack involves realistic training.  You must take into account the stress response. There is lots of information on stress, adrenaline and the fight or flight response often experienced during combat.

Most of what you'll read will deal with what you, as the intended victim, will experience when attacked.  It may be loss of fine motor skills, tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, shaking, or an altered perception of time and events.  This is all really important stuff to know, and your training methods must reflect factors that come into play in a life or death situation.  'Reality' type training tries to mimic some of these factors by 'jacking' up the trainee prior to the attack, using a variety of methods.

What often isn't covered, or even considered for that matter, is the effect stress has on the attacker.  This is a mistake.  All those stress related factors that affect your response also apply to your attacker.

In Part IV of this series, I touched upon the most common forms of knife attacks someone is likely to encounter.  The first two categories were big slashing and big stabbing movements.  One of the reasons that these are more common is due to the stress response on the attacker.

Attacking someone with a knife is a stressful event.  Untrained knife attackers (the non-psychopathic ones, at least), experience many of the same chemical changes that the intended victim does.  Most do not really know what the outcome of the attack will be.  Will it work?  Will their victim fall to the ground like on t.v. or in the movies?  Many have to 'psych' themselves up just to initiate the attack.

This stress response, and the accompanying loss of fine motor skills, is what makes this type of attack more likely.  The attacker loses the ability and/or the confidence to execute complex attacks.  The stress, adrenaline dump, and the shaking of the arms and legs all make the most likely form of attack to be big, 'gross motor skills' based movements.  This is why big slashes and big stabs are common forms of attack with knives.  I would like to reiterate that I'm referring to the most likely form of attack from the most likely form of attacker. There are exceptions to every rule.

I've seen reality training that spends lots of time getting a trainee all worked up prior to encountering a heavily padded attacker.  What I've not seen very often is the attacker taking the time to attack in a realistic fashion.  This is a big problem.  If the majority of training is designed to deal with unlikely or unrealistic attacks, what good is it?

In survival training, it's extremely important to understand what you will be going through during combat.  To properly prepare, it's just as important to understand the physiology and the psychology of your attacker.  Without this understanding, your training is limited, at best.

"If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.  If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.  If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you sill succumb in every battle"
- Sun Tzu (The Art of War, Special Edition)


  1. Journeyman. That is a very good comment. Whenever anyone talks about the effects on the 'attackee' they neglect to consider the effects on the attacker. ... I've done research on the 'stress response'. What is not understood is that what is most often propgated is only one small part of the stress response. The stress discipline and emotion discipline study the same response, albeit difference elements of the response. The stress discipline focuses on the physiological response and the effects on the behavioural response. The emotion discipline studies the feeling response, appraisal, and behavioural response. They don't refer to each other's theories and concepts - unbelievably. I've integrated the two to develop a comprehensive approach to studying the human response to threats and challenges. ... Are you aware that the male and female response to the 'fight or flight' hormonal dump is different? The reason is that the hormonal dump interacts with the sex hormones which results in a different behavioural response. This has its basis in evolutionary development. ... You are to be commended for questioning the oft referred to simplistic understanding of the human response to threats.

  2. i'd like your take on substance-altered attackers, too, as i've heard you allude to this before and the difference in subduing this individual who doesn't respond to pain compliance....

  3. John,

    Thanks for your comments. The stress response is an interesting field of study. I have more to say on the subject down the road but it's interesting to examine how the response differs as a result of knowledge and intent. The attacker is planning to attack, so the stress factors in differently than for the intended victim who has no real time to absorb what is happening. Understanding what the attacker is going through can provide behavioral clues that may assist in avoiding an altercation altogether.


    Thanks for the question. As for my knife survival series, I will discuss the issue or substance altered individuals. I have spent time developing methods and techniques that take this into account when dealing with an edged weapon attack. Stay tuned.

  4. A great article. Presumably the same goes for empty handed attackers - their methods of attack will involve gross motor movements and therefore not be very sophisticated i.e. simple grabs rather than effective restraints. As most women are attacked using grabs rather than strikes that fact could be useful to know.

    I would be interested to know what exactly are the gender differences to an adrenaline dump?

  5. Sue,

    Yes, the same will usually apply to empty handed attacks. Planning and carrying out an attack is a stressful event. Most women are grabbed and dragged or clubbed with a sloppy swing (gross motor) in order to carry out the grab and drag. What this can give you is a clumsier, sloppier, but often stronger attacker. Certain grabs will be easier to escape from due to the stress response, but certain pain compliance techniques are less likely to be effective. These factors are important considerations for any martial artist, and should be covered in women's self defense.


    Any information you have compiled in the differences in hormonal stress response between women and men would be of interest to me. I'll be looking into this more as well, but if you've done some of the legwork, great...