Adrenaline and Self Defense - Friend or Foe?
By Dr. David Harrison
A recent trend in the self defense world is to emphasize the importance of adrenaline and its effect on our ability to defend ourselves. In fact there are whole self defense systems built around overcoming the negative effects of adrenaline.
What is adrenaline anyway?
Adrenaline is a chemical (actually a hormone) produced by the two adrenal glands, which are located on top of the kidneys (ad - renal, on - kidney). These glands secrete adrenaline directly into the blood stream when people are exposed to something that they see as potentially dangerous.
Because adrenaline has to be carried by the blood to all the different parts of the body, it takes a second or two before people will feel its effects. I will explain below how this slight delay can be important in how you react to danger.
What does adrenaline do?
Physically, adrenaline increases your heart rate, raises your blood pressure, and is associated with a diversion of blood away from certain areas of your brain and internal organs and into your muscles. As a result, adrenaline has the ability to increase speed and strength. It also decreases how much people feel pain. A large amount of adrenaline released into your system all at once causes what is often called an adrenaline dump, rush, or surge. All of these effects are designed to prepare your body to either run away or to fight.
What does an adrenaline surge feel like?
Adrenaline can make you feel energized, or it can make you feel shaky, weak or sick to your stomach. Sometimes all of these feelings come at the same time, which can be confusing. Results of an adrenaline surge might also include:
• feeling as though time has slowed down.
• tunnel vision, you only see what is in front of you and not what is around you.
• a sensation of your mind wandering or floating, making it hard to concentrate.
• decreased coordination.
• difficulty in thinking clearly.
I do not know whether these sensations result directly from the adrenaline itself, or if some other factor, like sensory overload from trying to figure out what is happening around you, causes them. As an emergency physician I have given pure adrenaline as a drug to treat many people having severe allergic reactions. Treatment involves injecting them with amounts of adrenaline far greater than what the body produces naturally.
Many of these patients have described feeling shaky, weak, and nauseated as a result. I have not heard complaints of the other feelings often attributed to adrenaline. What is important for you to know is that when you are in a situation likely to cause an adrenaline surge, these are the feelings you are likely to experience.
How does adrenaline affect your ability to react to danger?
The effect of an adrenaline surge depends on many different things. Sometimes you have no warning that something is about to happen until you are suddenly startled by a surprise attack or other unexpected event. When startled in this way, it is natural to momentarily freeze, jump, flinch, or run.
Your first response normally happens without the effect of adrenaline because it takes a second or two for the adrenaline surge to hit. During those first pre-adrenaline seconds, you will may or may not move. People’s initial reaction is normally based on how circumstances interact with their personality, and their built-in tendency to react a certain way under stress, without adrenaline.
Once adrenaline kicks in, it will likely reinforce your initial response. If you are frozen, you might find it even harder to break out of it and take action. This is especially likely if you are overwhelmed by an unfamiliar adrenaline surge and misinterpret the feelings associated with it as fear or panic.
People often associate fear with helplessness. Helplessness is not a good mindset when you need to take action to ensure your own safety and the safety of others. This is why an adrenaline surge can sometimes make freezing worse.
If you do not freeze initially, your adrenaline surge is more likely to be helpful as long as it is directed into effective action. If you are already running, you may run faster. If you are fighting, you may fight harder.
However, sometimes adrenaline can make a person fight back so frantically that although they are fighting hard, the techniques are uncoordinated and not very effective. This ineffective, frantic way of fighting back is sometimes called “flailing”.
There are also times when you see danger developing more gradually and adrenaline does get a chance to work before it becomes clear that you need to do something to respond to the threat. In this case adrenaline can still interfere with your ability to think clearly and initiate a response as both your adrenaline levels and the level of the threat increase.
How can you learn to use adrenaline to your advantage?
In order to put the effect of adrenaline into perspective let’s break it down into individual problems.
Problem # 1.
An adrenaline surge is unexpected and unfamiliar
Now you know what an adrenaline surge is and, at least in theory, what it feels like. You know that although fear is normal in scary situations, the sensation of an adrenaline surge is not the same thing as panic, and does not mean you are helpless.
Problem # 2
Adrenaline makes it hard to think clearly
This is true to some degree. On the other hand, emergency workers such as police officers, fire fighters and emergency physicians do their jobs on a regular basis while experiencing an adrenaline surge. Even medical students early in their training are able to function quite well under such circumstances. This is because they have had preparation and practice. This means that, although adrenaline does to some extent interfere with clear thinking, and can make you tremble and be uncoordinated, it is still possible to be very effective during an adrenaline surge.
Problem # 3
Adrenaline can cause freezing
OK, this is the big one. As explained above, freezing can occur without adrenaline, but adrenaline can make it worse. The reality is that every time you face something new, there is a moment of hesitation before you react. Freezing is just what happens when this hesitation takes too long and you find yourself in deeper trouble as a result. So how can you minimize this effect?
Use adrenaline to help prevent freezing in the first place
Have you ever found yourself in a situation that did not particularly frighten you, but when you felt the hair on the back of your neck stand on end and your heart start to pound for no apparent reason? Maybe you told yourself “Why is this happening? There is nothing here to be afraid of.”
What you were experiencing may have been an adrenaline surge because your instincts were warning you of hidden danger. This is an example of how adrenaline can be your friend if you learn to listen to it. An adrenaline warning can prevent you from getting into a situation where freezing could occur. Gavin De Becker in his book The Gift of Fear provides a wonderful explanation of how your instincts can help you to recognize “hidden” danger. http://www.gavindebecker.com
Accept momentary freezing as part of a normal response
When the adrenaline surge hits, you can use this as a signal that you now have the strength, speed and pain tolerance to deal with the situation and escape from danger. You can recognize the adrenaline surge and take advantage of the power it provides. The important point is to accept the temporary freeze as something you have to get through in order to figure out what is happening and to make the right choices about how to deal with the problem effectively.
Make the unfamiliar more familiar
Adrenaline is especially a problem when you are surprised by the unexpected. This can include the unexpected sensations of the adrenaline surge itself, or the circumstances that caused it. You now have read what an adrenaline surge feels like. By participating in a high quality self defense course, you can also get some first hand experience as to what an adrenaline surge feels like in a controlled, supportive, safe environment.
Sanford Strong describes how it is possible to make dangerous situations more familiar in his excellent book Strong on Defense. www.sanfordstrong.com
Strong believes that a very important part of personal safety and self defense is mental preparedness. He suggests running through scenarios in your mind involving dangerous situations that could actually happen to you.
What would you do if confronted by a stranger asking for a dollar on the street, or for all your money at an ATM, or standing over your bed at three in the morning? What would you do if this same person threatened your loved one in order to get you to cooperate with him? Well, for starters, you would get an adrenaline surge.
But by using mental preparedness to imagine scenarios and solutions, you can make decisions about what to do in these frightening situations in advance. This increases your chances of making the best choices possible if the real thing ever happens and the adrenaline is flowing. Practicing mental preparedness means thinking about some very scary possibilities. However, people usually feel safer and less paranoid when they mentally rehearse working out solutions to possible problems.
Understand the places where the mind gets stuck when we freeze
There are 3 ways that people react once they realize that they are being attacked.
DENIAL: "This can't be happening!"
REALITY: "This is happening!"
RESOLVE" "This is not going to happen"
It is OK to freeze at first as long as you find a way to get past Denial and into Reality and Resolve. Become determined that “This is not going to happen”. This will prevent you from freezing when adrenaline hits. Just knowing about Denial, Reality and Resolve can help you to move to the third stage and overcome your normal hesitation.
By taking the time to prepare yourself through practice and increased understanding of how adrenaline works, you will ensure that adrenaline is your friend and not your foe in a self defense situation.
Copyright 2005 All rights reserved. www.kidpower.org
Dr. David Harrison is..
Dr. David Harrison is the KIDPOWER Vancouver Center Director