Dacayana UK

Fear. By Shaun Weir 


We have all faced it at some point within our lives, and its something that we will all face again at some point within our future.

 As a martial artist or a self defence practitioner if we all think back we can probably all find that the reason we started training in the first place is because of something that happened to us in our past that caused fear. Or the secondary fear we feel when we see or hear about someone being hurt and our brain starts to think about what you would do if it happened to you. 

This section is not about learning to operate without fear, because you can’t. Fear is a natural reaction to a stressful situation caused by stimulation to an area of the brain that has evolved over tens of thousands of years to do just this. It is a primal reaction. Fear can also to a certain level help you during these situations. The purpose of this section is to help you understand fear. An understanding of fear allows you to understand what is happening to your body, and why its happening to your body. If your going to train to face fear you need to have a good understanding of it.

So what is Fear?

Fear is not a single thing, it is a chain reaction. It starts within our basic senses, sight, sound, touch, and smell. Lets look at a quick example of each.

Sight: Your walking down a street minding your own business then you see someone approaching you rapidly, they have the appearance of anger on their face and a large knife in their hand. This would be a visual stimulation.

Sound: You are sitting at home, relaxed, sat watching television. All of a sudden there is the loud sound of thunderous banging on your front door. This would be a sound stimulation.

Touch: Touch is also the same sense that processes the pain you feel from a strike, The pain of a strike that you didn’t see or were unaware was coming will induce a fear reaction. This would be a touch stimulation.

Smell: Imagine your laying relaxed in bed, then your nose picks up the smell of burning from somewhere within your house. This would be a smell stimulation.

Limbic State


All these senses all feed to a part of the brain called the Thalamus and the Amygdala. 

The Thalamus is like a relay, it takes in all these senses that the body receives and distributes them to the relevant area of the brain. The Amygdala decides if the information is a threat or not. If it deems the information is a threat it sends that information to Hippocampus, This area of the brain decides if you have faced similar situations before to activate a known response, and to the Hypothalamus where the fight or flight responses are activated. Then we have the Basal ganglia system, which is important in the formation and retrieval of procedural memory (Instinctive memory) . However complex memories cannot be stored in the Basal ganglia only simple ones (Flight and Basic Strikes). The area of the brain containing all these glands is called the Limbic System.

Another area of the brain we need to understand is the Prefrontal Cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the area at the front of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is where we orchestrate thought and actions, plan complex movements, cognitive thought, and decision making. This is the area of the brain where we store the slightly more complex techniques.

To simplify in relation to martial arts and self defence, we store technical knowledge that requires thought and planning in our prefrontal cortex, and we store instinctive basic reactions, like basic strikes and kicks in the Basal ganglia. Many martial artists and self defence practitioners think that just training for a long time makes a technique instinctive. This is incorrect, it just makes the technique a memory in the prefrontal cortex.

When the brain decides something is a threat it releases a mass of adrenaline into your system. This is natural and serves a good purpose. The adrenaline speeds up your heart rate, pumping up your blood pressure to feed more blood to the muscles to deal with either the fight or flight that will follow. It also shuts down other areas of the brain to allow us singular focus upon the threat at hand. The problem here is that if the stress level is high enough then one of the areas of the brain that goes into shut down is the prefrontal cortex. Leaving us to operate on just the limbic system. We hear about some martial arts students that believe they have a technique nailed, that they know it, then when they have been in a violent situation they failed to recall and utilize what they knew, this has happened because they are operating in a Limbic state’. They haven’t forgot what to do, the area of the brain storing what is needed has just been switched off.

So what's the answer ?

So if you have read this far you may be thinking why am I training if its not going to kick in when needed? A good instructor or coach will at some point explained to you that during a conflict It is your basic core combative’s that will usually kick in to save the day, Basic strikes and kicks. that’s because when under a high level of fear those are the only options our brain gives us.

That’s not to say that learning the more complex techniques is pointless they are not. The answer lays in how we train them.

There is an old saying about facing your fears, this is a key point. Lets rewind this to an early memory most of us went through as a child, riding a bike. We practised and practised more and more, but we were relatively safe due to the stabilizers or training wheels. Then came the day that the safety aids were removed. Now you were in a situation where you knew you could fall and get hurt. You became really nervous, some of you fell, you forgot what to do. You guys were operating in Limbic state. Some of you you though really nervous managed to pull it off, even though scared, this second group were still operating within fear but they did not reach the level of the limbic state. Everyone is different. But everyone faced that fear and tried again. Still nervous but a fraction less, some needed a third or a fourth attempt, each time the level of fear reduced. That’s because the hippocampus area of the brain tells you that you have been here before giving you little tips on how to deal with it.

The point I am trying to make is the more you face a fear the more you become able to operate within that zone. That is not to say throw yourself as a non swimmer into the middle of the ocean, if you do that you will drown. The correct way is you put yourself into a depth of water that’s out of your zone then once you can deal with that you go a little deeper, so on and so on. Eventually with enough of the correct training you are training your brain as well as your body, you are altering the level where the prefrontal cortex shuts down. Eventually through the use of graduated stress/fear induction you will be able to enter a fearful violent situation and retain access to the prefrontal cortex. This is the answer. Well its part of the answer because we haven’t looked at the fact that you will also be operating within an Anaerobic State.

What is an Anaerobic State?

The simplest explanation of an anaerobic state is that you body will be running on depleted oxygen (This is also known as Hypoxia) . Because of the oxygen depletion the body goes through a process called glycolysis. This is your body dealing with the lack of oxygen and switching to being fuelled by glucose rather than oxygen. A by product of glycolysis that is that lactic acid can build to a potentially dangerous level in the blood stream leaving you with no muscle strength. It is important to know that glycolysis does not just happen in a highly stressful situations to cause the Anaerobic state. Glycolysis happens to all of us already when undertaking any form of aerobic exercise. Our body pulls in oxygen through our lungs to feed demands made on the body, as the workout continues your body uses the glycolysis to produce glucose to ‘back up’ the oxygen side by side. The problem of the Anaerobic state arrives when the oxygen is totally depleted and the body is trying to operate on the glucose alone.

When the body does go into a full anaerobic state the power available to the body can be exhausted within seconds. An unfit, untrained person entering a violent conflict under certain conditions can beburned out in just a few seconds, this happens so fast because glycolysis and anaerobic state can induce shock. Even some trained fighters can reach this point within several seconds.

Progression from glycolysis to anaerobic

There are a many different reasons that the body can go into an anaerobic state during a violent situation, but I’m only gonna look at the top three that usually happen during a violent confrontation.

  • Firstly is something that a lot of students do when first introduced to reality based stress training, they hold their breath! The body is taking in zero oxygen. Glycolysis kicks in to produce glucose as a replacement but this alone has a very short lifespan.

  • Secondly some force themselves to regulate their breathing at a low level as a way of maintaining control over their own body during a conflict, this has the knock on effect that they are not taking in enough oxygen for the activity the body is doing. Here you are trying to force your body to remain on oxygen.

  • And Third we have the main one and that is that under extremely high activity the heart and lungs just cant produce the oxygen levels that you are demanding of your body at the time. Here the body switches full to the glucose, but with the power your using, the glucose expires quickly.

So what can we do about this?

Again like with the Limbic state there is an answer, and it is virtually the same answer. Training, or the correct type of training. HIT (High intensity training) is something you all should be doing in class already, the bursts of sudden energy used in HIT triggers Glycolysis. Sudden bursts of power, pushing it to the max, stop rest, the go again. By training this way we are allowing the body to become accustomed to, and work with the Glycolysis. The more we train with it, the higher a tolerance we develop. The higher our tolerance the longer we can function within this state.

So to counteract this Train realistically (Out of your comfort zone), Train Hard, Train More, Do it all again.