The Missing Ingredient in Most Self-Defense Training? Stress.

You are in line at a McDonald’s when a group of young goons walk in and start shooting at people.  The reason doesn’t matter to you; you just want to get out alive.  What do you do?  Your body starts rapid shallow breathing pattern, and your heart rate gets jacked up.  You start to sweat and your body switches in preparation for action.  You start to get fixated on trying to sort out the flood of information you’re experiencing but your brain can’t think!  Part of you just screams to DO SOMETHING….

mcdonalds robbery

What you are going through is the amygdale bringing your limbic system online.  The amygdale is a small piece of your brain that alerts the reflexive portion of your brain, the part where you primary survival reactions are stored.  The thinking part of your brain, that part that takes in new information and processes it logically and applies the filters of rational thinking goes offline so it doesn’t interfere with the “get it done” focus of the mid-brain.  This is where life and death actions take place and what has been called the “Four F’s of Survival; Flee, Fight, Feed and…make kids”.  And it is also where very few of us focus on taking our training.

There are five elements that are key to create a successful high-stress training experience:

  1. Understand the “training loop”.  This is the autopilot action of the mid-brain and the reference material stored courtesy of your memories can be used to compare the “new” information you receive when under stress.
  2. Preprogram the brain with a vast array of “what if, then what” scenarios while you are still in the forebrain operating zone.  Think of this as filling the reservoir with aviation fuel so when the mid-brain ignites, it will have the needed octane.
  3. Understand the tools to control the mid-brain response so it doesn’t go out of control.  This can be as easy as teaching yourself a simple breathing technique.
  4. Drive the heart rate up with physical stress to increase oxygen demands.
  5. Create emotional stress to increase heart rate, cause vasoconstriction and increase the cortisol levels in the blood to cause the brain to access its “training loop”, that reservoir of known actions that it can grab onto to deal with the current threat.

training chart

The “training loop” is the place that you need to able to go to when your physiology prohibits you from processing incoming information on its own merit.  It is the “place” you have to keep tidy and well stocked for when the forebrain shuts off and the mid-brain takes over to get active and keep you alive.  It functions by retrieving existing action patterns and knowledge of events that are similar and have been experienced, or thought about in detail, previously.

The “what if, then what” scenarios are drills that you can use to prime your OODA loop/Cooper’s codes thinking processes.  These are exercises you can do wherever you go and eventually they’ll develop into preprogramming about what you are willing to do in multiple settings and, just as importantly, how you will get it done. The more scenarios you actively work through in your mind, the more material your mid-brain has to act on and the less likely you will “freeze” under stress.  Preprogramming the brain can also help short cut the OODA loop process.

awareness color code chart

Select random pieces of your day and take 30 seconds to examine in detail.  Pay attention to the immediate surroundings, persons near you, traffic flows, building structures, etc.  Then, create multiple “hits the fan” scenes and create solutions.  With practice you can get 3-4 scenarios completed in that 30-second window. Done a few times a day and I guarantee you’ll have the beginning of a strong library of response material for your reflexive mid-brain to compare to the real life stressful experiences in front of you.

Controlling the amygdale and the subsequent descent into full blown mid-brain function can be managed with “combat breathing” or “autogenic breathing”.  The breathing technique is as follows: breath in for a four count, hold for a four count, breath out for a four count and hold for a four count.  Make this your breathing pattern as the event unfolds to the degree that you can (you will obviously not be doing so during hand-to-hand combat when your body is screaming for more oxygen).  This breathing pattern can significantly reduce the heart rate and since heart rates over 175 beats per minute can severely affect your capabilities to function effectively physically, this is a key.  During your training as you go through the exercises, practice the breathing technique and you will find it can have a marked effect on your ability to focus and regain your composure and deliver on target.


For physical stress, we use kettlebells (either snatch or heavy swings) and tactical pop-ups as the primary exercises to spike heart rate.  These are maximal exercises that peak your heart rate from 0-100 mph at the end of one set.

The length of the set varies for many but it never takes more than 60 seconds to get a really good HR acceleration (we like to get into the 125-150 beats per minute range but it is largely dependant on a person’s physical tolerance and health history).

We couple the physical stress with engagement rules that prohibit social dialogue unless to indicate an emergency event or a start or stop to the exercise.  The social niceties of conversation and interaction are removed because they make people feel more comfortable and we want to keep that stress in place.  We also emphasize that the goal is to train to survive and in justifiable deadly force settings the intent to stop a person really is the intent to take action that is likely to end a life.  We can remove the inhibition to act by clearing the difference between social and asocial events but the stress will remain during the training event.

Since we are innately social creatures these factors put additional stressors into play.  These stresses induce asocial anxiety and cause the elevation of cortisol in the blood creating the chemical profile of high-stress and helping to arrange our learning within our brain in a manner that involves training the mid-brain to access particular neural nets.  If a trainee has questions he or she should remove themselves from the drill first and then engage, get the required information and then return to the drill.  All of this is aimed at creating an environment where you are physically and mentally forced to cope with the physical and psychological realities of high-stress response.

military training

Once you begin training in an asocial, physically active setting that taxes your ability to function, you begin to engage the tools that allow you to control that panic sensation and harness the survival reflex of the mid-brain.  In short, training with stress is how you maximize your ability to respond when it counts.  Many call this “stress inoculation” as if it were a vaccine, but I prefer to call it plan old “stress training”.  In a life or death situation you should be stressed and call upon the tools you’ve developed to control and save your body and mind.

(Photo courtesy of Arturo J. Paniagua)

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