Fear as described in the dictionary is: An unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat, but what does it actually do when we feel it?
The brain structure that is the center of most neurobiological events associated with fear is the amygdala, located behind the pituitary gland. The role of the amygdala in fear is best understood as part of a circuitry of fear learning. It is essential for proper adaptation to stress and specific modulation of emotional learning memory. In the presence of a perceived threat (or something which causes fear), the amygdala generates the secretion of hormones that influence fear and aggression. Once response to the stimulus in the form of fear or aggression begins, the amygdala may trigger the release of hormones into the body to put the person into a state of alertness, in which they are ready to move, run, fight, etc. This defensive response is generally referred to in physiology as the ‘fight-or-flight’ response regulated by the hypothalamus. Once the person is in safe mode, meaning that there are no longer any potential dangers around them, the amygdala will send this information to the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) where it is stored for similar future situations. The storing of memory in the mPFC is known as memory consolidation.
Some of the hormones involved during the state of fight-or-flight include epinephrine and norepinephrine and cortisol. Epinephrine regulates heart rate and metabolism as well as dilating blood vessels and air passages. Norepinephrine increases heart rate, blood flow to skeletal muscles and the release of glucose from energy stores. Cortisol increases blood sugar and helps with metabolism.
Relevance to ‘self defense’
The above mentions the ‘Flight or Fight response’ which a lot of Martial Artists refer to in their training, but what is it?
The above explains a bit about the science but in simple terms the Fight or Flight response is a Survival Instinct which is programmed into all of us (young, old, disabled etc). How we react to the instinct and our preparation is what separates us. To produce the fight-or-flight response, the hypothalamus activates two systems: the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system. The sympathetic nervous system uses nerve pathways to initiate reactions in the body, and the adrenal-cortical system uses the bloodstream. The combined effects of these two systems are the fight-or-flight response.
When the hypothalamus tells the sympathetic nervous system to kick into gear, the overall effect is that the body speeds up, tenses up and becomes generally very alert. If there’s a burglar at the door, you’re going to have to take action — and fast. The sympathetic nervous system sends out impulses to glands and smooth muscles and tells the adrenal medulla to release epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) into the bloodstream. These “stress hormones” cause several changes in the body, including an increase in heart rate and blood pressure.
At the same time, the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) into the pituitary gland, activating the adrenal-cortical system. The pituitary gland (a major endocrine gland) secretes the hormone ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone). ACTH moves through the bloodstream and ultimately arrives at the adrenal cortex, where it activates the release of approximately 30 different hormones that get the body prepared to deal with a threat.
The below diagram shows how parts of the body change during this process. We’ll go into this more on page three.
Fight or Flight’
The term “fight or flight” describes a mechanism in the body that enables humans and animals to mobilize a lot of energy rapidly in order to cope with threats to survival
The fight-or-flight response, also known as the acute stress response, refers to a physiological reaction that occurs in the presence of something that is terrifying, either mentally or physically. The fight-or-flight response was first described in the 1920s by American physiologist Walter Cannon. Cannon realized that a chain of rapidly occurring reactions inside the body help mobilize the body’s resources to deal with threatening circumstances. Essentially, the response prepares the body to either fight or flee the threat.
The sudden flood of epinephrine, norepinephrine and dozens of other hormones causes changes in the body that include:
- heart rate and blood pressure increase
- pupils dilate to take in as much light as possible
- veins in skin constrict to send more blood to major muscle groups (responsible for the “chill” sometimes associated with fear — less blood in the skin to keep it warm)
- blood-glucose level increases
- muscles tense up, energized by adrenaline and glucose (responsible for goose bumps — when tiny muscles attached to each hair on surface of skin tense up, the hairs are forced upright, pulling skin with them)
- smooth muscle relaxes in order to allow more oxygen into the lungs
- nonessential systems (like digestion and immune system) shut down to allow more energy for emergency functions
- trouble focusing on small tasks (brain is directed to focus only on big picture in order to determine where threat is coming from)
All of these physical responses are intended to help you survive a dangerous situation by preparing you to either run for your life or fight for your life (thus the term “fight or flight”). Fear — and the fight-or-flight response in particular — is an instinct that every animal possesses.
So that’s the reaction – How do we as trained Martial Artists deal with this
Whilst researching this topic I contacted a fellow martial artist who has many years experience from outside of my club and asked him ‘what is the easiest way to describe ‘Fear’ and the ‘Fight or Flight’ response to an audience or Martial Artists?’ He put it very simply – ‘It’s the body’s way of hitting the emergency button, if you don’t control it though it can lead to the Panic Button being hit’. The one thing we’re told whilst training (from an early stage) is, ‘at all times relax’ whether your punching, throwing, kicking etc the worst thing you can do is to tense up or panic.
Fear when controlled is part of the body’s process (along with the release of adrenaline) where the senses, oxygen levels etc are all increased and are put into a heightened state of alert. If this is used as a positive rather than a negative fear and stress can be used as allies in order to get you away from the threat by whatever means possible. The trick is to control it, not give into it.
So one night you’re leaving the pub, walking to a taxi rank alone through a dark alley to be confronted. Fear will inevitable set in but the key is to understand that Fear is a normal reaction and as we’ve seen stimulates the body into the survival stages which are hugely beneficial however, uncontrolled it can cause panic which is a hugely negative and potentially destructive emotion.
As a Martial Artist we should embrace the emotion and hormones our body releases, they make us stronger, react faster, move quicker etc but we must control these emotions so that we react with clarity, we make the correct decisions i.e. Standing and fighting isn’t always the best option! if you’re being asked for a wallet, mobile phone etc, throw it away from where your standing so that when the attacker goes for it you run. If he doesn’t go for it, you’re in trouble and fighting may well be the only option. Remember though, whatever happens we must always act in a controlled and measured manner.