Fight or Flight Syndrome

by George Mattson

by George E. Mattson
An exerpt from “Dynamic Uechi-ryu Karate”
Peabody Publishing Company. Brockton, MA

Any stressful condition can trigger this syndrome. The danger may be emotional or physical in nature. The victim generally finds himself, usually unexpectedly, in a situation of extreme stress. Although the danger may be real or perceived as real by the person, his body will react in the same manner.

Through evolution, the human body deals with stress by directing the pituitary gland to release a hormone called ADRENOCORTICOTROPIC HORMONE. This process, in turn, triggers the adrenal glands to release epinephrine and various other hormones that speed up the heart rate, raise blood pressure and increase muscle tension.

As a karate student, you may experience this feeling while being tested in front of a group of seniors for your black belt or while participating in a karate match at a local tournament. Like your friends who do not study karate, you will suffer the effects of this syndrome to some degree, during the rest of your life. The sixty-four dollar question has to be whether karate training can help a person cope with the negative effects of this syndrome.

The “fight or flight” syndrome is quite controversial among karate enthusiasts. Some of us believe that through karate training, we are able to control this condition, or at least be able to function while under its influence. Others believe that this syndrome lies beneath consciousness and is part of the body that cannot be reached through any kind of training. These experts relate to studies performed on professional police officers who are trained torespond to danger, yet are unable to rely on any but the simplest movements during extreme danger.

As an example of this reaction, a study of law enforcement officers was made, to analyze their reactions under stress. They were to perform rather complex movements associated with loading a magazine into a pistol and firing it. These rather simple instructions are practiced on the rage until they become second nature to the law enforcement people and during none-stressful conditions present at the firing range, they are able to perform them flawlessly. Now add the element of surprise with a touch of stress and what happens. During simulated action involving exercise and other conditions that attempt to duplicate a realistic confrontation, these same officers had difficulty with many of the simple moves associated with loading and firing a pistol.

Even though the individuals involved with this experiment knew that the whole situation was staged and not really dangerous, their bodies responded to the stress, to some degree, as they would have under real life or death conditions. Only the most simple of the actions, performed with the major muscle groups could be counted on to work. Because of this study, many law enforcement agencies have modified their training, to include more realistic drills and practical exercises designed to reinforce those survival skills most likely to function during extreme stress.

I disagree that everyone must accept this fate, regardless of their training. I believe that karate training, specifically the “active” meditation found in Sanchin and other related karate drills, prepare the individual to cope with situations that normally produce a “fight or flight” syndrome.

I have been told that the instinctive nature of this syndrome precludes any attempt to control it. According to some experts, there is nothing that the individual can do to prepare himeself for a situation where primitive reactions take over, causing the paralyzing reaction that shuts down the individual’s ability to use learned skills. If a boxer, who “dukes” it out, thousand of rounds during extreme stress, is able to control (or perhaps use) his emotions and his hormonal output during a fight, then a mechanism must exist which maintains an equilibrium during normally stressful conditions.

If a gang member engages in frequent knife/chain/gun/club fights, he quickly overcomes any negative reactions to his fear. After a few successful fights, he may even enjoy the experience. In order to survive, he will have to count on all of his skills and the presence of mind needed to execute these skills.

I am positive that certain law enforcement officers have the ability to act rationally under fire and are able to utilize their learned skills while being attacked or while under extreme stress. What is different about these individuals and what separates them from their fright-controlled brothers and sisters?

Is there a commonality among people who are able to deal with extreme stress? Obviously the boxer might fare well in a street encounter with the experienced knife fighter, but I sense that he would be less prepared than he would like? After all, mixing it up in a ring with padded gloves and well defined rules is much different than his street match. Even though the boxer might be stronger, faster and have many more moves than the street fighter, I would wager that the brawler would feel more comfortable with his stress level than the boxer. After all, he is fighting in his element, with his rules and equipment.

With all our karate training, unless we have actually been there, we have no way to predict how we will react to a new stressful situation. I believe that it is important to duplicate stressful situations as part of the dojo experience. Tournaments certainly provides an element of uncertainty that connot be found in the dojo. After a few matches, the student will be able to function more comfortably, without the butterflies.

Outside of surviving an actual life or deathe struggle, there is no way to predict how a student will react in a real fight. And certainly, having survived one encounter won’t insure your success in the second or third fight. Bottom line is that we must hone our fighting skills through our marital arts training and ultimately, absolutely, believe in ourselves and our ability.

Role playing in the dojo and outside the dojo will help us experience the stress that accompanies an attack. Successfully dealing with these role-playing attacks will build your confidence. Uechi-ryu is a very practical system. The creators of the system, designed the movements for fighting around a nucleus of calm and serenity. Like the “eye of a hurricane”, the deadly and effective moves are released and activated around the gyroscopic and focused wellspring of power. The moves are simple and effective. No wasted effort or extraneous none-essential fluff.

The Uechi primary moves are designed to function, even when the body is under extreme stress. Here the experts concur with the creator/s of Uechi-ryu: “. . .in a life threatening situation, don’t count on complicated moves, only the simplest, basic techniques can be counted on to work. . .”

In Uechi-ryu we practice full moves in kata. In applications, we use what is necessary. A full circle block might take the form of a wrist movement in an actual fight. If the abbreviated technique deflects the attack however, then the strategy works.

Our kicks are low and simple. Kicks that can be counted on to function under extreme pressure. Although high, fancy kicks are the trademarks of some systems, many experts are critical of the ability of their practitioners to use these spectacular techniques when it really counts.

From “Dynamic Uechi-ryu Karate”, by George E. Mattson

Peabody Publishing Company

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