Monday, 03 February 2014 00:00

Adrenal response and the arts

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I would like to explain the importance of understanding and dealing with ‘adrenal dump’ in the performing arts, as well as the business world, and explain why I believe it should be an important part of the curriculum of any arts and business school.

Effective self-defense systems such as Krav Maga, as well as some traditional martial arts such as Jiujitsu, often stress the importance of recognising and dealing with what is known as the ‘fight or flight’ (FoF) response, often referred to as ‘adrenal dump’ or adrenal response. There is much discussion among self-defence instructors and martial artists on the pros and cons of adrenal dump, as well as ways to manage it under different conditions and in different environments. This is something that has been discussed for centuries, including by some of the great samurai such as Yagyu Munenori and Miyamoto Musashi, although in more esoteric terms.

Originating from a primitive need to survive in a world full of sabre-toothed tigers and woolly mammoths, the FoF primed the body to fight for survival or run away from danger. Today we don’t have quite as many sabre-toothed tigers but the body’s mechanisms for survival still act in very much the same way. In basic terms, the body responds to danger by dumping all of our adrenaline (hence the name ‘adrenal dump’) into the blood stream in order to prepare the body to fight or to run. This makes us stronger and faster, but also has some other side effects, which include:

  • Loss of fine and complex motor skills and coordination
  • Auditory exclusion (temporary loss or distortion of hearing)
  • Tunnel vision
  • Distorted ability to perceive the passing of time (things feel like they are moving very fast or very slow)
  • Significantly diminished ability for complex speech
  • Significantly diminished spatial awareness (things appear much nearer or much farther than they actually are)
  • Memory distortion, where we remember fragments of events, or things that did not happen or, in some cases, nothing at all
  • Other effects including excessive perspiration and more.
  • The body responds this way to immediate threats to our safety (for example, crossing a road and looking the wrong way when all of a sudden a car whirls by and hoots), but can also be stress-related. Very commonly, adrenal dump will occur when we have to speak in public, go to a job interview or try to spark up a conversation with someone in a bar.

So what does this have to do with the worlds of art and business?

When I was 25 I decided to realise my lifelong dream of becoming a successful musician and enrolled in a music degree in one of Australia’s best music schools. While I was used to performing and speaking in front of people (I have been a performing musician since the age of 14, a guitar teacher since the age of 18 and a university lecturer in business and professional communication since the age of 21) I found that performing in front of my peers and teachers in university was a harrowing, often traumatic experience that left me exhausted and depressed. I was aware that under that stress I could not perform well and there was some discussion in the classrooms about coping with performance stress, but where it came from, what the side effects were and, most importantly, how to cope with it was never taught. We were simply told that it’s a part of showbiz, and we just need to deal with it. Not surprisingly, the drop out rate in the course was extremely high.

So let us think about this for a second. If music is to be performed well, the performer requires the following skills:

  • Fine and complex motor skills
  • Memory
  • Aural and auditory pattern recognition, and the cerebral ability to respond to those patterns
  • Strong perception of rhythm and time
  • Coordination

Add to that acting or musical theatre, and the performer will now also need complex speech skills. Add dance, and the performer will also need spatial skills.

What about having to deliver a presentation on the quarterly growth rate of your division to the company’s board of directors? Although you will probably not need any fine motor skills, your success will greatly depend on your ability for complex speech and your memory.

Consider the list of FoF side effects listed in this article’s beginning. Then consider the physical symptoms that appear when you deliver that important presentation. These are, pretty much to the letter, the skills lost when one experiences the FoF response!

We experience these symptoms regularly – expressed as butterflies in your stomach, your mouth going dry, your heart beating fast and your hands getting clammy, etc – but often don’t know where it comes from or why; we only know that doing those things can make us very nervous.

Imagine how much better your could perform on stage; how much better you could perform at job interviews or how many more deals you could close, if only you were taught early on how to recognise the symptoms of FoF and to apply the correct methods of dealing with them if and when they arise. From a business perspective and a management perspective, think about how many fewer mistakes will be made if the people making decisions on the fly were able to do so from a logical, calm and calculated position without letting the physical symptoms of stress and fear get in the way!

Learning how to deal with adrenal dump and its side effects can be the key to significantly reducing anxiety, unlocking greater success and ultimately being a more productive and happy artist and business-person, as well as creating a better work environment for you and your peers.

Understanding where it comes from is the first step, and hopefully this article can help you recognize some of these symptoms.

For thoughts, questions or suggestions, and to learn more about managing adrenal response, feel free to contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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