Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Stress Response Training and the Flinch

John Coles from Kojutsukan blog made a comment on my post on Part VII of my knife survival series discussing the flinch response.

He said,

"A lot of these concepts are used these days to lend credibility to a way of doing things or to develop a way of doing things."

I felt this comment was worthy of a bit more discussion on my part.  I have to agree with the comment that these concepts are used to lend credibility to a way of doing things.

For the most part, I think this is born of ignorance or inexperience, not out of malice.  (John didn't suggest it was malicious, by the way).

The problem is that some of the concepts or techniques are being taught because they make sense to the person who is teaching them.  It seems logical and rational to them, so it must be true.  In reality, it's more of a 'best guess' approach from people who have rarely been in any form or combat or violent encounters.

Even for those who have actually experienced real violence once or twice, it is often a result of the natural mental process of having to make a volatile, confusing situation and/or reaction make sense.

After periods of high stress and traumatic circumstances, it is a natural part of the healing process (mentally) to break down a volatile, unpredictable, confusing situation into manageable, somewhat orderly 'chunks'.  The situation will replay over and over again and the mind needs to find solutions to the parts that did not go well, or could have gone better.  That way, eventually fear and emotion can fade away, often with the help of similar situation scenario training.

The potential shortcoming with any such training is that in extreme situations, it is often impossible to recall exactly what happened, and in what order.  The brain, as a defensive mechanism, fills in the blanks.  This has the potential for people to draw inaccurate conclusions about what they did, what they should have done, or what would have worked better.  It is here that (often well meaning) teachers authoritatively teach students about how they will respond when taken by surprise.  They teach a comprehensive course of study on potentially flawed data.  The students, many of who have not experienced true violence, can't weigh the material against real world experience, so they believe it to be accurate.  After all, it makes sense rationally.

To illustrate the mental gaps that occur under extreme stress, you just have to look at the example of police involved shootings.  Over and over again, it has been shown that the officer discharging their firearm rarely remembers how many rounds they fired.  You would think this would be an easy enough thing to do, but it's not.  And shooting a gun is a practiced skill that's drilled over and over again throughout an entire career.  If this can occur for something like this, how can you accurately judge how you reacted or would react to a surprise attack?  There are other factors such as time distortion, auditory exclusion, or selective hearing, tunnel vision, feelings of detachment and time slowing down, or speeding up.  I've barely scratched the surface on these issues but plan on writing about them in the future.

Some systems out there are researched fairly well, but as with everything, buyer beware.  To truly paint a picture of what goes on when attacked, you need to find someone who has experienced it, has viewed footage, has read studies and most importantly, in my opinion, has had the opportunity to speak to people who have experienced it (if they trust you enough to give a honest recount of upsetting events).

There's no easy way to collect enough data to make concrete conclusions.  In addition to my personal experiences, I'm lucky in the sense that I'm privy to a variety of sources or research, and a lot of people.  Another point to take away is that while there are things that are common to us all, there are also differences.  People react differently to a variety of stimuli.  This makes it important for any form of training to be fluid and flexible.

Many of the systems out there teaching flinch response training are pretty good.  Just make sure you have a critical eye when any definitive statements are made about how you are guaranteed to react in any situation.

I think I've rambled enough for now.  I encourage everyone to research the flinch response and stress response.  It's fascinating and applicable to serious martial arts training.


  1. Good post. Experience is often touted as being authoritative. But, as you say, buyer beware. Experience is unique. Some long standing colleauges in the martial arts refer to Geoff Thompson's teachings. But his experience comes from being security/bouncer. Any generalisations he makes over the nature of combat has to be qualified by the fact they are based on his experience as a bouncer. Brazilian jiu-jitsu - all fights go to the ground. This truism is based on the Gracies experience in competition fighting in Brazil. To extrapolate this experience over the broader experience of violence in general can be over reaching. I recall one Australian martial arts teacher at a seminar in Germany (much to our collective embarrasment) who said he attempted to find out what the first attack is by picking fights with a variety of people. While you might applaude the academic endeavour, at the very least you'd have to critise the methodology. My point is, as you also make, more study over a broader spectrum is needed, and is lacking. For instance, the responses to threats - most often its talked of as fight or flight. Some others talk of the 4Fs - freeze, flight, fight, faint. Then there is the 5Fs. Then there is a whole raft of natural responses including barging, etc. Also, the different responses to threats between the sexes based on the interaction of the same hormonal 'dump' with the sex hormones. Fight or flight becomes tend and befriend in women. My point is, and the point of my research, is to put authority behind the teachings of the martial arts and combat arts. Something that is sorely lacking, though what is not lacking is supposedly authoritative pronouncements by martial arts instructors. We need authoritative information ... which is why my chair has now been worn through because that is all I do, day in and day out.

  2. There are some things that are 'hard wired' into us human animals, and while it is important to learn about what they are, experience and situational factors have a big impact on reactions. And mindset. A bouncer is on the ready for certain cues and while they may be unexpectedly attacked, their response is likely different that someone out for a stroll in the woods who gets attacked. If your awareness is up, such as with police or military in potentially volatile situations, your 'instinctive' response is tempered by anticipation of something maybe happening.

    I cringed about the individual you mentioned who picked fights. It's wrong, of course, but kind of funny. Even this style of research will change the results. Do people attack the same when provoked vs. when they initiate the altercation. Tough to get a base line on that one!

    I find your mention of the hormonal dump affecting the two sexes interesting. I've been meaning to look into ever since you mentioned it in another one of my posts. Do you have any authoritative sources on that?

    I commend you for your extensive research. I enjoy comparing your research information to what I've learned though my own experiences and exposure. I sort of reverse research in many cases, comparing what I've found to be true against what others say is so. Thanks for the comments. I appreciate your feedback.

  3. Journeyman. I hope I don't come across as critical. What I'm trying to encourage is, like so many other activities, disciplines, sciences, that the martial arts also starts to support their teachings with authoritative sources. This is (a) what I'm trying to do, and (b) hoping is the begining of this process. Maybe then the martial arts might gain some credibility.

    The authority behind the different responses to threats and challenges in the sexes is initiated in a paper by Shelly E Taylor and her colleagues, in a paper titled 'Biobehavioural responses to stress in females: Tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight'; Psychological Review 2000 Vol 107 No 3 411-429. Email me if you have difficulty in referencing a copy.

  4. John,

    I don't take your comments as critical. I do commend you on a difficult path. Of all the sciences, perhaps the martial one is the hardest to break down. Anything that is done to add credibility to the arts is great.

    The problem with martial arts is that although there is rich history in the various styles, very few practitioners have extensive experience in true fighting, combat or survival situations. The other issue is that people react differently to the same stimuli based on what they bring to the table that day. This makes things difficult for study.

    As with any science, it is widely felt that the very act of observing affects the outcome of any experiments. This is why I'm cautious of putting too much weight in scenario based reality training. It's useful, yes, but it is still not real.

    And with stress, although some things are common to us, our reactions to these physiological factors can differ from person to person, or time to time.

    This is why an overview of commonalities found across a diverse set of violent encounters is necessary to work on developing theories. And of course, training also changes our reactions. When you've drilled something a sufficient number of times, you go to it under stress. This fact alone makes it necessary to separate those who train in the arts (seriously train, that is) from your average Joe who normally doesn't prepare for violence. Different tactics are needed for each. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

    It's challenging, but also fascinating. It's a long winding road researching and testing theories and teaching methodologies. Hopefully we can continue to provide assistance to each other as our journeys continue.

  5. It's great to learn about the sciense behind martial arts,awsome post man!!

    Martial Art Training

  6. Tal,

    There's still a lot to learn about the science of the martial arts. Learning not to fight human nature is a big part of it. Thanks for the kind words.

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