Think back. What was your first or even most recent experience with adrenaline. A near accident. A confrontation at work. A fight with your spouse. Not exactly the stuff of legend. Simply day-to-day happenings. I don’t remember my first but I remember successive ones from the past few years, some humbling and still clear as day. If you’ve been around long enough, you’ve experienced freezing. I have. It was a truly humbling event. Heavy limbs. No access to all the complex dojo training with compliant attacker/committed and one-dimensional attack. Racing heart. Holding breath. Tense body. Brain freeze. It was like a universal short-circuit. But memory fades. That’s the thing about adrenaline…..and memory. We forget.  The feeling dissipates over time and we forget the misgivings, problems presented and resulting helplessness. As martial artists, after an initial letdown that our training failed us we eventually go back to doing the same things we do, justifying that it was us, that circumstances vary and this one was different, that we were caught off-guard but we won’t be next time, etc. etc. and continue on our merry way trying to fit a round peg in a square hole.

I’ve also been on the other side, the giver. And, let’s make no mistake, there’s an initial sense of euphoria at dominating and punishing another functional human being for what we perceive are justifiable reasons. We want more and we’re jacked up and he deserved it, dammit. This is before the shame, guilt and anxiety of repercussion (legal, financial/fiscal, ethical, maybe even spiritual) kick in. Violence leaves a kind of putrid, shitty feeling in your mouth post-incident. It solves little, although admittedly there are times it has its place and is a necessary evil. There’s also the fear of retribution from the receiving party – revenge, punishment, pain. (And this fear can happen from both perspectives – giver and receiver) Most don’t get into the varied forms of adrenaline and make it out to be one big entity universally causing (and calling for) the same response. But the truth of the matter is that adrenaline is different for different phases of the conflict. Pre-conflict…anticipation. (Of consequence. Of price. Questioning our abilities and whether they’re enough. Size/reputation/previous experience of the other combatant). Mid-conflict adrenaline. (I’m losing. He’s too strong. It hurts. I can’t win this). Pre-post conflict adrenaline. (What if I win and he knows where I live. What if he catches my family without me. What if I’m charged or arrested. What if he beats me badly and I end up in the hospital.) Post-conflict adrenaline. (Does he know where I live. Will he try and get even. What will happen to my family if I go to jail. What if I’m not prepared if he does. What if he’s got a screw loose.) This last one’s a kicker, it feels sometimes like a horror movie in the pre-climax phase: looking out your windows after getting home, locking the doors, paranoia, mind racing with thoughts that are utterly ridiculous in scope but these are the after-effects of the dump. This isn’t factoring in the number of kicks adrenaline can give you at any point. (I think Geoff Thompson covered this thoroughly in one of his books, far more thoroughly and with more eloquence than I could)

The myth is that eventually with time and exposure, we overcome the impact of adrenaline and that’s simply not the case. It’s always prevalent. An evolutionary event of the human body under duress highly-designed to protect us, alert us and give us the necessary tools to function and survive. Those with enough and continued exposure to it in whatever capacity learn to deal with it more effectively, embrace it as part of the process and function within its parameters. It’s one of many physiological happenings that we overlook or ignore completely in martial arts training. (innate flinch responseS-plural, gross motor/fine motor movement accessibility, aerobic vs. anerobic capacity, etc, which won’t be addressed here for obvious reasons of scope)

But I’m not here to spread fear, worry or paranoia. Actually, quite the contrary. The truth of the matter is this: Violence globally is not climbing and the statistics bear this out. The vast majority of daily safety issues do not call for physical response. (And this is good and should be acknowledged) There is not someone lurking at every corner waiting to kill you. The enemy you face will not likely be a 300-pound ex-criminal that trains daily like an animal. And we live in quite possibly the safest time in recorded history. ( , for some validity) Sometimes we tend to over-analyze (non-physical) or not analyze enough (solely physical) from extreme ends of the spectrum. There’s a fine line and, physiologically, it is indeed a complex subject. Both are needed without an overabundance of either. But on the surface, violence and fear are very simple primal creatures. We need to be measured in our approach and response. While we don’t know it, many times we are to blame when something happens that needn’t. (ego, testosterone, perception and impression of loved ones/peers/onlookers, pride-and if you dig deep and are honest, you’ll admit this as I am now)

Which leads me to my next point. Does violence or the development thereof happen? Yes. That is the reality. I’ve now had two incidents in the past week-and-a-half here in Costa Rica (and a third involving a potential kidnapping at a school near my son’s this morning) and both are of the unavoidable variety which, from my experience of not being security, LE or military but an average civilian…just a guy… is rare. I’m not going to delve deeply into this and give exorbitant details as patting my own back is not the reason for this article nor do I want it to be the focus.

  1. On the train on the way to teach an English program. A clearly mentally-disturbed gentleman across from me laughing chaotically, talking to himself, extremely agitated and scaring some passengers, including an older woman who was extremely scared sitting next to him. Skills utilized to manage the situation? Shielding (bag in front in case of sudden attack), reflections (the train glass is mirrored so I can watch his movements without drawing attention or creating confrontation), once-over of his person/clothing to look for noticeable bulges, clips, open zippers for quick deployment, etc., cell alert to my wife telling her briefly about the issue but not to worry (for possible future need, should something happen), subtle deployment (in case but not to draw attention), eye-meeting to acknowledge him without maintaining “glare” (which would have been perceived as confrontational), autogenic breathing, once the women exited the train I re-located (mis-direction, better vantage point-behind, and confusion to him, not to mention taking myself out of the equation), alerting train personnel…and being calm.
  2. At our family bed-and-breakfast, 3 gentlemen arrived 2.5 hours late (1 am), intoxicated and openly doing drugs on the premises….disturbing other guests. They were asked politely to leave, money refunded in full. Skills utilized to manage the situation? Misdirection, open acknowledgement and address of ritual signs of violence in one of the gentlemen, strong body language/tone of voice, distance, autogenic breathing/conscious loosening of body in anticipation of potential conflict with angry clients, presentation of weapon at a certain point in non-aggressive manner but intimating intent if needed, distance gauging, spatial enforcement through body language/squaring up/ facial expression…and being calm.

Now, to be honest, if it seemed that cut-and-dried and smoothe, it wasn’t. End result on both? No violence necessary. Zero injuries. Zero lawsuits. Zero hospital bills. Zero remorse. Now both are extremely different in scope, for analysis sake. One a mentally unstable person, lots of witnesses, lighted, moving vehicle, cramped space, public location, possible assistance available. The other multiple people, darkness, open space, family present, under the influence of both drugs and alcohol, no assistance available, location known and return possible. Both dealing with irrational people but for very different reasons and in need of entirely different responses. And none of these skills were ever truly delved into in a martial arts class. This is not to say there aren’t some exceptional martial arts styles, systems and instructors out there that can be your guide to staying safe. There are. You just have to look for them as most aren’t likely listed in your neighborhood yellow pages. No, what I’m saying is that most of the skills you have at your disposable when it hits the fan are within you…innate. Now. Since birth. From experience. And it can be cultivated with a combination of people that know about this stuff and researching things on your own and trusting your own instincts. Be informed. Don’t buy the misinformation so readily available. Consider whether the knowledge you’re getting is subjective or objective. Are you going to trust your and your family’s safety from solely someone else’s experience? It is one element but consider the context and its viability with the content. There are a lot of good, knowledgeable, well-versed and educated people in this industry, regardless of all the “that’ll get you killed” crowd. Search them out. Self-defense is no shrinking violet and most of these ladies and gentlemen are accessible and more than willing to help you out. They’ll often start the conversation with “Now, I don’t know everything and simply don’t have all the answers….”