Avoidance is your best self-defense strategy.
Avoidance requires situational awareness and self-awareness.
Situational awareness is based on your ability to use your senses of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling touch. Your senses need to perceive what’s going on around you and you need to be able to process what your senses tell you.
Self-awareness is crucial in avoiding violence. Your body’s gut reactions are your early warning system of potential danger. But you need to be able to listen to your body’s messages to you. You need to be able to process that you are feeling anxious or uneasy, or that your neck is tensing or your jaw is clenching. And you need to give yourself permission to act on what you feel or sense.
Here is a a more in-depth look at awareness, and our body’s stress response and survival systems:
THE BODY’S STRESS RESPONSE AND SURVIVAL SYSTEMS
Self-defense instructors almost always tell their trainees to listen to their gut reactions and to be aware of their environment. Intuition and situational awareness are essential tools to increase your safety. But when I first heard simplistic instructions to use my gut reactions and practice awareness I didn’t find them very helpful. Let’s dive a little deeper.
How does situational awareness work? How do your instincts function and how can you sharpen your awareness? How does your body’s stress response influence your reactions when you face a threat? How does previous trauma affect your intuition and your awareness? How do you use your stress response more effectively to protect yourself without overreaction to or ignoring threat signals?
Let’s look more closely at our neural systems and the body’s stress responses to explore these questions.
THE NEURAL SYSTEM: SENSORY, COGNITIVE, AND MOTOR NEURONS
Why am I asking you to explore your neural system with me when you want to learn about self-defense? The answer is simple: a fundamental understanding of how nervous systems work will increase your ability to protect yourself. My goal is to provide you with knowledge and tools to protect yourself more efficiently. We’ll focus on how your mind works as it relates to self-defense. How does your mind recognize, reduce, and avoid threats? How do your brain and your entire neural system help or stifle you in protecting yourself against threats? How can you influence how your mind works to increase your self-defense skills?
Neuroscience has made enormous strides over the course of the last 20 years. A basic understanding of our neural system can help us join forces with our minds, rather than being overwhelmed by emotions like anxiety or fear. For instance, we can use fear signals as a beneficial early warning system rather than having fear turn into immobilizing panic.
So let’s learn a little bit about our neural systems to protect ourselves more effectively.
Our neural systems consist of billions of cells called neurons. Neurons consist of a cell body, receiving ends called dendrites, and a long axon that connects the cell with other cells through synaptic linkage. Neurons communicate through chemical and electric signals, controlling our thoughts, bodily functions, and behavior. We have sensory, cognitive, and motor neurons. These neurons receive, categorize, and analyze data. They also activate cognitive, emotional, and physical responses.
Your sensory neurons identify external information generated by your senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Through a process called sensory transduction, your neural system transforms the sensed stimuli into chemical and electric signals that are relayed to the central nervous system (CNS). In addition to external stimuli such as shadows on the wall, your sensory neurons also note internal stimuli – feelings such as fear or unease and physical sensations like queasiness in the stomach. In the part of the brain that is located in the skull, this information is categorized into threat or non-threat, resulting in the activation of motor neurons and cognitive neurons.
Motor neurons make you move. They activate responses like flinching when someone tries to strike you or blinking when something moves towards your eyes.
Cognitive neurons make you think. Sensory neurons supply cognitive neurons with input derived from external stimuli and your internal body state. Cognitive neurons analyze this information based on knowledge, previous experiences, and memories. Cognitive neurons allow you to strategize, to imagine, to plan, and to put perceptions into larger life context. These cognitive processes take time, especially if you have never previously encountered the specific situation that you are now facing. When a threat requires immediate action, cognitive processes are too slow. When survival is at stake, the body therefore relies on automatic reactions rather than waiting for cognitive deliberations on the best course of action. Whenever the body perceives a severe threat, sensory neurons communicate directly with motor neurons for the fastest possible response to a perceived threat.
For instance, if you see a fist moving towards your head, you will flinch and your hands will shoot up to protect your head. These are autonomous nervous system reactions, activated by your visual sensory receptors detecting motion. Sensory transduction of the visual input sends signals to the thalamus, a relay station. The thalamus then sends a signal to the amygdala. Categorizing the information as a threat, the amygdala instantly activates the hypothalamic- pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Perceiving a threat that requires immediate action, the amygdala jumpstarts your motor neurons that make you flinch and raise your hands. The HPA axis also starts the coursing of stress hormones, including adrenalin, in your body.
The thalamus also transfers the visual signals to your cognitive neurons. These neurons analyze the information more thoroughly than the amygdala, comparing the signals with other data and a lifetime of experience. For survival purposes, it makes sense that the amygdala activates the motor neurons instantly without waiting for the cognitive neurons to complete their assessment. Eventually, the cognitive neurons catch up with their more detailed analysis, and may then be able to regulate or override the automatic motor response with a response more appropriate for the situation. This response is called a cortical override.
For example, when someone puts his hands around your neck, putting pressure on your trachea, the sensory neurons sense this pressure, and communicate this “touch” sensation directly to the amygdala. The amygdala registers a potentially fatal threat and activates motor neurons within 50-60 milli-seconds to shoot your hand instantly towards the threat around your neck. Your body’s survival system won’t allow your trachea to be constricted and your airflow to be cut off while your cognitive brain processes the situation. For your survival, you are programmed to react instantly and automatically to touch and smell signals, responding even faster than to sight and sound. When sensory neurons perceive touch or smell, they communicate directly with the amygdala, bypassing the thalamus that acts as a relay station for visual and sound signals. This makes sense. When you see or hear threats, you might still have a chance to escape or plan other action.
Imagine that a woman has been stalked and threatened by her ex-boyfriend. She hears brakes screeching in her driveway and sees her ex-boyfriend with an enraged expression on his face. She observes that he is getting out of the car. It makes sense for these visual and audible signals to be relayed to her thalamus and from there to her cognitive brain cells so that she can strategize on how to best protect yourself – for example to lock her doors and to call 911.
But if threats are so close that you can smell or feel them, you better react instantly. If in the example above, if the ex-boyfriend is already in her house and ambushes her from behind, the woman may smell his body odor and will feel his hands close around her neck. She needs to react instantly to her perception of smell and touch – signals of immediate danger. Her sensor neurons will by-pass the thalamus relay station and instantly activate her motor neurons, making her hands shoot up towards the pressure on her neck.
We use this information about our body’s natural reactions in how we train defenses and counter-attacks. For example, defending against strangulation attempts, we capitalize on the automatic flinch response that automatically makes your hands move towards the attacker’s grip around your neck.
While sensory neurons can activate motor neurons within 50-60 milliseconds, cognitive neurons take about 500-600 milliseconds to analyze sensory input. In the strangulation example, the cognitive neurons may process historic and other information, for example, that the man you loved and trusted is now strangling you. You may conclude that you need to extricate yourself from his grip. But with hands around your neck, cutting off your air or blood flow, you need to react immediately. The cognitive process takes too long to assure your survival. The body can’t wait for your conscious, detailed cognitive analysis. Whenever the body needs to act instantly to assure survival or to prevent serious damage, it therefore uses subconscious, automatic responses.
When you are in danger, your body will react with innate, gross motor-based responses that are difficult to override under stress. It’s therefore most efficient to defend and counterattack with such gross motor movements, building on your natural survival reactions like your flinch or duck responses.
Your body won’t allow fancy techniques when your survival is at stake. Working with the body’s natural reactions, such as the flinch response, and training under simulated stress is crucial for realistic training. As we’ll explore in more detail below, stress simulation drills can program you to react with semi-automatic defenses and counterattacks to certain threats. The more you practice these drills, the more stress-resistant your responses will become. Eventually, you should be able to respond instantly by using suitable weapons upon accessible vulnerable targets.
Without training, stress can cause you to freeze and get hurt while your neural system is searching for a response. Even worse, if you perceive no option to protect yourself, no ability to fight or escape from a potentially lethal threat, stress can cause your neural systems to shut down and to dive into tonic immobility. Effective training with stress simulation drills can protect you from freezing and tonic immobility by building new neural pathways for effective, stress resistant self-defense responses.
In the strangulation example, the victim’s immediate need is to release the pressure of the attacker’s hands around her throat on her carotid artery and her trachea. An effective defense will build on the body’s natural response. The involuntary automatic response is to flinch and to move the hands up towards the throat. Using and building on this automatic response, we then add simple learned moves to release the grip and counterattack, forming new neural pathways that build on existing ones.
Through a basic understanding of your body’s stress response you will optimize your self-defense training, increasing effectiveness and stress resistance. Further, if you are an instructor, you will be better equipped to serve trainees with trauma because trauma influences their awareness and stress responses. Understanding trauma and stress makes training more effective and decreases the chance of re-traumatizing trainees.