Before we talk about this, let’s first understand the effects of adrenaline. If you’ve been around self-defence for a while you should be very familiar with these. If not, here is a quick summary (and more on this here):
The positive effects of adrenaline are that you will become temporarily stronger, faster and more immune to pain. Though trust me when I say that suffering a bad injury and coming down off your adrenal high is definitely not a fun experience!
The negative effects of adrenaline are as follows:
- Loss of fine motor skill: this means really complex/complicated moves don’t often work
- Auditory exclusion: you may or may not hear what’s going on around you
- Tunnel vision: you will focus on the most immediate threat, which can prove dangerous in a multiple attacker situation
- Time and spatial distortion: things feel like they are moving faster or slower, and are may appear farther or closer, than they actually are
- Language and reasoning: The parts of your brain responsible for speech and reason don’t work, or at least don’t work very well
Let’s first relate this to the first of the 3 points discussed above – the level of adrenaline that you are dealing with.
Not all adrenaline is bad. Some levels of adrenaline can actually make you perform better.
Think of situations when you were excited, or doing a nice workout in the gym. Chances are you were feeling a kind of nice high, things were clear, you felt strong and on top of your game.
Then think of situations where you were petrified. Maybe someone got in your face. Maybe you just had a car accident. Maybe you were about to give a presentation in front of your boss or board of directors. Quite often in those situations, we don’t perform as well.
Your adrenaline levels went past optimal. Yes, it’s true that in a situation of real violence your adrenaline will go way past optimal. Pretty much guaranteed. But if you can see a situation develop, you might be able to act before it hits that spot. Interestingly enough, Rory Miller notes that often this means that untrained people perform better than trained people under adrenal stress. More on this and optimal levels of adrenaline here.
What about adrenaline in other people?
This is a big one. Adrenaline can affect other parties that are involved, as well as those who aren’t:
- Your attacker: What are his adrenaline levels at? Is the situation still developing? If so, how aggressive is he and is there a way for you to start de-escalating and lowering his adrenaline? If not, can you blast attack so that his adrenaline is past optimum and you get the advantage?
- People you are protecting: What if you have your wife/husband/daughter/son/mum/dad with you, and they need protecting? How will adrenaline affect them? Well, for starters, they may not be able to hear any instructions that you are giving them (and vice versa), or they might freeze despite being told to run or hide, etc. Having a plan and discussing it in advance is usually a good starting point for fixing this. This doesn’t mean you need discuss potential incidents with every person you hang out with, but maybe with those closest to you that you may have to protect – spouse, kids, etc.
Also, what happens if they end up so adrenalized that they actually jump in? Any thoughts on how you might handle that?
- Bystanders: Bystanders are likely to get adrenalized as well, and this might also affect whether or not they intervene. It’s often seen that bystanders watching a fight will jump in, but sometimes not as soon as the fight breaks out. A few things happen. They start experiencing adrenaline, but as they are not directly involved the effects might be a bit slower than the people actually fighting. The bystander may jump while they are in a better adrenal state than the initial combatants (or they might not!).
- First responders: If first responders arrive on the scene, they may be adrenalized as well. While they are far more likely to be familiar with the effects of adrenaline and have experience managing it, you must assume they will experience some level of adrenaline. Keep in mind that you don’t know who you are dealing with. A bouncer or paramedic on their first night on the job is likely to react very differently than one who has been on the job for a decade. This can affect their performance and levels of communications as well, which can also have far-reaching implications for the aftermath of the conflict.
Lastly, and this is something that is very rarely discussed, can you identify the root cause behind the adrenaline?
If you are already fighting, that might not matter. But if you are still in the pre-violence stages being able to identify the reason a person is becoming adrenalized is crucial to being able to de-escalate the situation. While the physical manifestation of adrenaline is the same, the root cause can change. Fear, anger, frustration or shame can all cause a person to become adrenalized – as can many other emotions. If you are in a situation that is escalating, and have recognised the signs of adrenaline in the other person, have you attempted to find the reason for their grievance? Have you asked them some open-ended questions to force them to use their rational brain, as well as to get them explain the issue? Has your behaviour been part of the problem? If so are you managing your adrenaline well enough to realise that and change it?
If we look at the pre-incident phase, or when the conflict is just developing, being able to identify the cause of the adrenaline and manage it is crucial to being able to communicate and make decisions that can avert a potentially violent situation.
If things are getting physical, you must be aware (and have trained) how adrenaline might affect those around you, including bystanders, first responders or people you are trying to protect, as this can significantly affect the outcomes. In addition, detrimental levels of adrenaline in first responders may also have affects that outlast the engagement itself. Do you know how to, and can you help? If you are highly adrenalized as well, will you be more of a hindrance?
If you are training for self-defence, you should consider these when looking at scenario training, and try to replicate them when possible.
Stay safe, stay tuned.