by Ari Kandel, 3rd degree GC

Anyone who has trained extensively with Lt. Col. Al Ridenhour USMC (Guided Chaos 6th Degree) will recall one of his favorite admonishments (along with "I will decapitate you" and "Ooh, don't let me do that"): "You gotta get your mind right!!!"

Let's explore what he means by that.

For this article, we will be addressing only the post-contact, violent phase of self-defense. We'll save the even more important pre-contact awareness, avoidance and prevention phase for another day.

The Number One Factor for Survival

All self-defense experts even remotely grounded in reality preach that proper mental conditioning, attitude, emotional attributes, etc., or what may collectively be deemed "mindset," is the number-one factor determining an individual's effectiveness in a violent confrontation. For many of John Perkins' students, any discussion of mindset would be largely superfluous, because their past and ongoing occupational experience with violence has already taught them (consciously or otherwise) what is required to succeed, or has at least confirmed that they naturally have "the right stuff" mentally. Otherwise, they would probably be seeking different employment! However for the rest of us, who are not "blessed" with extensive experience navigating violent situations as part of our employment or upbringing, mindset or the lack thereof can represent an unknown, gaping hole in our self-protection armor. Best to address it right away!

The information in this article is culled from several sources:

1)      Frank discussions about their violent experiences with such men as John Perkins and various Guided Chaos students (Lt. Col. Al, MMA black belt Tony and others), Carl Cestari (authority on close combat, real martial arts, and general mayhem), and Emin Boztepe (Wing Tsun master with extensive real fighting experience) about their violent experiences

2)      The book Strong On Defense by former San Diego police officer Sanford Strong, probably the second-best book available on self-defense (after Attack Proof, of course!)

3)      My studies in the field of psychology

4)      My own limited experience in violent situations

The Physiological Dynamics of Violence

First, let's discuss how the physiological dynamics of a violent situation make mindsetting (literally, the act of "setting the mind" to achieve a proper mindset) a top priority.

All psychologically normal human beings, especially those unaccustomed to violence, will feel extreme fear upon perceiving the danger of a violent attack. Fear usually exercises its fullest effects on us when we are given at least a little time to consider our situation and anticipate violence. A surprise attack that strikes instantaneously, allowing us no time to fully perceive the situation or consider its ramifications (a cognitive process than can take a couple seconds while we orient to and process the situation), will often fail to elicit a fear response until after the action is over, whereas even brief anticipation of violence and understanding of the situation can bring fear on full-blast before the action begins. Of course, a fully committed sudden attack will often succeed in destroying us if we are neither extremely lucky nor aware of it at least a second in advance. Therefore, in order to successfully protect ourselves and those we are responsible for, we must a) maintain our awareness, the number-one attribute for successful self-defense, and b) learn to deal with the fear that advance detection of impending violence will generate. This article will focus on the latter.

How Does Fear Work?

In a simplified nutshell:

The amygdala, a portion of the brain responsible for identifying threatening stimuli, among other tasks related to emotions, detects a serious threat. It engages the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the portion of the autonomic, or automatic/involuntary, network of nerves throughout the body responsible for "activating" the body for action. The SNS, acting in part on various areas of the endocrine system (including the adrenal glands which secrete the hormone epinephrine, commonly known as adrenaline), immediately brings about the set of physiological changes collectively known as the "fight or flight" response.

Physiological changes associated with the fight or flight response include:

·   Increased heart and respiratory rates, increasing supply of oxygen to body

·   Constriction of arteries, increasing blood pressure

·   Release of fatty acids, glucose reserves and clotting agents into blood stream, increasing available energy and reducing bleeding

·   Increased blood flow to vital organs and major muscle groups, improving performance of gross motor movements such as (real) fighting and running, while worsening performance of fine motor skills such as knitting, calling 9-1-1 and eloquent speaking (significant when considering verbal de-escalation plans-no Shakespearean sonnets here)

·   Suspension of reproductive and digestive system activity (experienced as feeling of tightness in abdomen) and "blowing of ballast" (to put it politely), reducing need to allocate body resources to functions not vital for immediate survival

·   Decreased perception of pain

·   Pupil dilation, increasing visual sensitivity

·   Increased sweating, related to the cardiovascular changes

·   Increased visual processing rate, causing "slow motion" perception

·   Tunnel vision, extreme exclusive threat focus

Rarely are all of these possible symptoms experienced or recalled at the same time, but at least several of them are usually obvious during moments of danger. Knowing about them in advance, and realizing that they exist to improve your performance in a dangerous situation and are nothing to be afraid or ashamed of, is important in order to allow you to devote your focus exclusively to the situation at hand, rather than to the possibly surprising workings of your own body. It should be noted that some of the physical symptoms, such as tunnel vision and increased respiratory rate (sometimes to the point of hyperventilation), must be compensated for in certain circumstances in order to achieve optimum performance and situational awareness. Make it a habit in training to look around and breathe deeply when possible, such as during a break in the action of a violent event.

Response Problems

Along with the physical fight-or-flight changes, several psychological effects often occur, especially for the inexperienced and untrained individual:

·   Cognitive disbelief: "This isn't happening to me!"

·   Cognitive escape: Feeling of mind floating outside of body, seeing events unfold from third-person perspective-as if the mind has no control over the situation or is not a participant

·   Cognitive wandering: Thoughts drifting to loved ones, to happier times, "whole life flashing before your eyes"-anything besides the situation at hand

·   Cognitive freezing: "Frozen with fear," "Deer in headlights," inability to make a decision or do anything

These psychological tendencies are what we must prevent through mindsetting and mental conditioning.

There are two basic mental barriers to effective self-defense from which maladaptive psychological reactions to violence stem and that mindsetting and other training must overcome:

a)      Social conditioning regarding our attitudes towards violence and our beliefs in our own capabilities

b)      Lack of mental points of reference born of previous experiences with violence that are helpful in guiding decision making under stress

Concerning the first barrier, many of us were raised with such values as:

·   Violence is never the best answer

·   Don't hit!

·   The police exist to protect us

·   Brutality is horrifying

·   Do what a mugger says so that he won't hurt you

·   You won't get attacked if you stay out of bad areas, away from bad people, and out of trouble

·   Violence has implicit rules (be it sport fighting or even "fights of honor" in the school yard or bar room)

·   (For women) It's not feminine to be tough or strong

·   (For women) Men will protect you

·   (For women) Men are rowdy and rough and use their fists; women are civilized and use their minds

·   (For women) Don't upset a man, lest you give him a reason to hurt you

It should be clear how such deep rooted beliefs could interfere with performance in a violent situation when they collide with the reality of the situation to produce hesitation, denial, and a feeling of helplessness. When the mind is confronted with a reality that starkly deviates from its previous beliefs, it tends to attempt to "escape" the situation through denial or flight to other thoughts. It is unable in the mere seconds available to completely alter its postulates about the world in order to think rationally about the situation, so in essence it abandons the situation.

Concerning the second barrier, many of us simply (and fortunately!) have not had many, if any, experiences with violence, or those experiences have been of a different character (e.g. sport fighting or school yard posturing) from the all-out deadly mayhem of a violent criminal attack.

Fear and the Danger of Freezing

This is important because of how the mind determines general courses of action while under severe time pressure (e.g. during a deadly attack). When there is no time for the conscious mind to rationally think through a problem, the subconscious mind often defaults to a decision heuristic of similarity. In other words, the subconscious mind automatically references a similar situation from its experience and applies the general course of action that worked in that situation to the current situation. If no remotely similar situation is available in memory, the mind is at a loss to decide what to do and cognitive freezing may occur. If only a vaguely similar situation is available (such as sport fighting experience compared to a deadly assault), there exists the risk that a less than perfectly adaptive course of action will be taken (e.g. applying a sport fighting strategy and technique to overcome a weapon-wielding maniac and his friends).

We can see immediately why John Perkins and others of similar upbringing and experience are less in need of mindsetting than the rest of us. It's clear from stories he tells that John's older relatives never instilled in him any irrational aversion to violence or erroneous beliefs about the reality of violence. In fact, they made sure that he was quite accustomed to it and had no compunction against using it where appropriate. From a young age, the course of John's life provided plenty of relevant reference points for his subconscious mind to access in coping with subsequent violent situations.

The socialization and experiences of most of us fall somewhere in between those of John and those of the other extreme, the complete pacifist with no violent experiences. In many cases, multiple messages exert influence, e.g. the anti-violent values of parents vs. the different values of peer groups or other relatives during the formative years.

The end result is that most of us, especially women (due to socialization and typically less experience with any kind of violence, such as school yard brawls or contact sports), do require some mindsetting to overcome maladaptive beliefs and a lack of previous mental reference points for dealing with violence.

To be continued...