Fear makes men forget, and skill that cannot fight is useless
Brasidas of Spain
In the legendary science fiction novel Dune, the main character Paul Atreides was taught a litany against fear by his mother, who had been trained in a Shaolin-style monastery:
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
Fear is literally the mind killer.
Your fight training will very likely prepare you for your encounter with a drunk uncle at the backyard barbecue or the pushy guy at the bus station – for these problems, all you need is confidence and a little technique if they start swinging.
But if you think your training in the dojo or the ring has prepared you for the street you may be surprised. While your higher brain might be ready and able to fight and win, your body may betray you.
In his book On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and Peace, Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman explains in great detail how the physiology of how fear affects us.
“a quarter of all U.S. soldiers in World War II admitted they had lost control of their bladders, and an eighth of them admitted to defecating in their pants.”
Those are just the ones who admitted it. Fear is something we must take into account in our martial arts training.
Your body has built-in reactions wired into primitive brain centers like your amygdala. When you approach that hot girl and feel butterflies, when you stand next to the 100 foot drop on the hiking trail and feel a chill in your spine, these are all minor examples of your basic programming in action.
If you are walking down the city street and suddenly some guy is up in your face, aggressively demanding five dollars, pushing into your personal space, unless you have experienced this situation many times before and become desensitized to it, you will experience what is called an adrenal stress reaction.
Your heart will start to race. Your hands will shake. Your palms will get sweaty. We all know this part, the mild fear reactions. We’ve had them before.
A high heart rate caused by aerobic exercise in the gym is not the same as what they call a “hormonal-induced” or adrenal stress heart rate. Adrenal stress brings with it involuntary physiological behaviors.
Your body will do things that are out of your control when you are afraid. The higher your heart rate goes, the more your control over your body and mind will start to slip away.
Say that guys pulls a knife and presses it into your side so that it cuts through your shirt and cuts your skin a little.
When your heart reaches 115 beats per minute, you will experience a loss of fine motor control. Your hands get a little shaky.
At 145 bpm, you lose complex motor control. This means that block-parry-wristlock-punch combination might be harder to pull off or even impossible, but this is actually not a bad place for a fight. You are now primed for fighting. If you are damaged you will not bleed as much. You are potentially stronger and faster than normal.
This is that “mother lifts car off child” zone.
Imagine the guy pushes you and you suddenly find yourself in a little cul de sac, alone with him. He looks a little crazy. There is a big dark stain on the sleeve of his jacket that looks like blood.
When your heart rate hits 175 beats per minute, all hell breaks loose. You get what they call “catastrophic vasoconstriction.” Your skin turns white. Your blood pressure skyrockets and your blood pools in in the core of your body. You might experience tunnel vision, loss of depth perception, a loss of near vision and what is called bilateral symmetry, where you will involuntarily do with one hand or arm what you you do with the other, so if one arm goes up they will both go.
The guy tells you to lay face down and close your eyes.
Above 175 bpm, all bets are off. This is flight or fight mode. You may freeze involuntarily. You may just run and not be able to explain why later on. It will all be a blur. You may just attack without thinking. You may “void” your bowels and/or your bladder, like those WWII soldiers.
Why bring all this up if its involuntary?
I think that its better to know what “might” happen, because if you understand the possibility, you can be prepared for it. If you let some pee go in a scary incident, don’t let it throw you – its natural and beyond your control. The situation has literally “scared the piss out of you.”
Also, I believe these reactions were taken into consideration by the founders of Wing Chun and of other reality-based combat systems. Those fighters knew about the effects of fear on the body.
Wing Chun trains a few basic simple movements repeatedly, hard-wiring them into your muscle memory. These movements designed to knock your opponent out as quickly as possible. While fine motor control goes out the window above 175 beats per minute, gross motor control is actually improved by up to 100%. You are stronger and faster. That flurry of chain-punches will be the hardest you’ve ever thrown.
I also think that by integrating the idea of “geng ging” into your training, you can help wire your training into your fear response. Geng ging is the dark emotion, the dark side of the force, the anger and the vengeance needed to perform dark deeds, like smashing someones face in.
If you have a knife in your belly, you need geng ging to change, for just a moment, into something worse than your attacker. You need to become a monster for a moment, and with your heart racing you need to perform an adrenaline-fueled violent action.
If you have tapped into geng ging in your training, struck the bag with violent energy, it will be natural to unleash that force into your attacker, with your 175 beats per minutes enhancing your performance rather than detracting from it.
And if, after you’ve already given them your wallet, that guy with the knife tries to force you into the alley, and you know they want privacy for whatever they have in mind next, and as they turn that knife away from you for a moment, you happen to pee your pants, its no big deal. You know what it means. Its your body clearing the decks for violent action. Its not a shameful paralyzing event – its a signal to ATTACK.