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Common reactions to fear and how to deal with it

Blog by Ole Boe

Imagine the following scenario and try to think about your reactions to fear: You have just finished training, and you are on your way home after a quick shower. You had a good training session and you feel good. You are also hungry because the training was hard, so you decide to take a short cut in order to get home more quickly. You therefore enter into a street where there is not much light. Usually you take the long way around the block, but today you make a different decision. You go into the dark street. Halfway through the street three mean looking guys steps out in front of you.

How do you react? Are you ready to fight? Do you want to run away? Do you freeze and do nothing? Do you feel fear? Do you get stressed or do you feel threatened? What if they just want to know what time it is? Is that likely? Do you think of where to position yourself so that not all three will be able to attack you at once if they decided to attack you? Do you think clearly in this situation? How many thoughts go through your head at this time?

Kung Fu expert and movie star Bruce Lee once said: “Experience is something you get after you need it”

Bruce Lee definitely has a point here. If it is the first time you fight for real in the dark street, you will not know how you will react. If you have been fighting a 100 times in these types of situations, you will know a lot more of how you react to fighting. This is nothing new and Bruce Lee was not the first to discover this. 490 B.C. the Chinese martial artist and philosopher Sun Tzu stated:

 

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Regardless of whether you are experienced or not in fighting, or self-defense for that matter, there are many techniques you can use in order to become better at handling a fighting or self-defense situation (or any other stressful situation). These techniques are related to the improvement of your mindset.

I have seen several martial artists who looked very good performing their techniques in the training hall, but they got beaten up in a street fight. Why? For one thing they simply failed to take into account the fear and stress that would face them in a real life situation outside the training place. A second thing, they did not have any knowledge of mental training techniques that would help them to fight or defend themselves better in a stressful situation. In other words, they were lacking a proper mindset.

This blogpost will hopefully give you some answers on how to develop a proper mindset. Hopefully it will help you to understand how to cope with fear and stress and to function better both in training or if you for instance find yourself facing three guys in a dark street one evening.

 

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Improving your mindset

Within KMG we have a well-developed system for how to improve your mindset. When we talk about developing mental skills, we usually think of five mental training strategies. These are visualization, goal setting, positive self-talk, combat mindset (courage, determination, aggression) and relaxation. Utilizing these five main strategies we aim to develop the following mental skills: confidence, control of physical arousal, attention control (focusing and spreading attention), arousal control, visualization, commitment, self-talk use and the commitment to stay in good physical condition. All these mental skills will help in reducing the fear you might otherwise experience in a fighting or self-defense situations. As a bonus effect you will be better in coping with other difficult situations too, as your brain will not perceive them as so dangerous.

It should be very clear that all the “regular” practices, physical self-defense, fighting and protection of others contribute significantly and improve your abilities to mentally handle a confrontation. This mental preparation is mainly due to the fact that while we are training physically, our mind is being exercised too. However, in addition to this “regular” training and in order to further improve ourselves, there is a need for special mental preparation that will expand even more your mental capabilities and enhance your mental resources.

In his book from 2007: Condition to win, Wes Doss makes the following important point: “Greater than any other calling, the life of the warrior requires mental skills in combination with physical or mechanical skills. Yet, mental training is an area which has been long neglected in the fields of conflict management and force application”.

KMG is a system that has incorporated mental training into every aspect of your training, although you may not be aware of it. Within the KMG we focus upon developing the mental, tactical, physical, and technical aspects of KM and instilling a proper combat mindset through correct conditioning. As a practitioner of KMG you are probably familiar with the tactical, physical, and technical aspects of KM. What you should know however is that there is a lot related to the mental aspect.

The sports world has been using mental training for many years, and mental training has been attracting more and more attention within other different professional sectors during the last decades. In the 1980s the US Army Green Berets started a program focusing on mental training. The name of the program was “The Jedi project” (Don`t you just think the name is cool? Wonder where they got the idea from?), and the aim was to enhance the operator’s mental capacities and make them become better warriors. The program included the use of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) and it was very successful. Eyal Yanilov was an early pioneer in involving NLP and other forms of mental training into the KM system already in the 1980s. NLP has also been used in the Norwegian military for many years in different special units and at the military academies. NLP and other forms of mental training have been used in for instance the Norwegian military in everything from parachute jumping to shooting and close combat with very good results, that is, people just function much better.

 

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A study on soldiers from the Norwegian Air Force reported that the use of affirmation techniques affected their performance in close combat shooting. The shooting became more precise in the group that had been given training in how to use affirmation techniques. The Norwegian Navy unit the Coastal Ranger Commandoes has used NLP in its training before going on missions resulting in better performance. The Norwegian Military Academy has conducted experiments on its cadets using NLP and shooting and the use of close combat as a stress reduction tool when rappelling from high altitudes. The Norwegian Air Force has conducted a one year mindfulness training program for fighter pilots. All these programs showed improvement in participant’s abilities to handle fear and stress. There have been tons of studies on athletes and mental training and this can easily be found on the internet. The basic principles of mental training are the same regardless of if you are a KMG practitioner, a soldier, a martial artist, an athlete. The key point is just adapting the techniques to your unique environment.

Ok, this all sound very good, you understand that it is possible to become better in handling fear and stress by practicing different forms of mental training in addition to practicing your regular KM techniques. But, let us take a short look at what stress and fear and really is.

 

What is stress and fear and why does this affect your performance?

Stress occurs from social, physical, or mental stressors. Social stressors are your thoughts on what other people might think of you. Physical stressors are for instance that you are cold, or hurt, or tired, or exposed to high sounds. Mental stressors caused by your thoughts about what will happen or what to do, for instance survive a violent confrontation or not. All these three stressors may affect you at the same time when exposed to an uncertain situation, and lead to the experience of stress. Stress is caused by an activation of what is called a stress reaction. The activation of the stress reaction is caused by a person’s perception of the situation as threatening. It is therefore logical to imagine that this perception of a situation is influenced by a person’s psychological resources so that people with a high degree of psychological resources will perceive a situation as less threatening than people who have a low degree of psychological resources.

This is one of the reasons that you should practice mental training, that is, to gain more resources to deal with a stressful situation. A definition of stress is that stress is tension or distress that is caused by an emotional state, such as anxiety or a physical factor. Stress is caused because there is a gap between the demands on yourself and the sources you have to cope with these demands. Stress is caused when you have to analyze large quantities of data. Stress is the activation of the autonomous nervous system which is a part of the sympathetic nervous system. This means that stress is a reaction to something that happens around or in you and your brain and your body mobilizes to cope with the situation. You will experience fear if you feel that you are not able to cope with the situation you find yourself in. Fear is simply an emotion that is induced by a threat. This results ultimately a change in behavior, such as running away, hiding or freezing from traumatic events. Fear may occur in response to a specific stimulus in an ongoing situation or to a future situation that you think of. These situations are perceived as risky to your health or life, status, power, and your security. The fear response arises from your perception of danger and this lead to either a confrontation with or an escape from or avoiding the threat. This is known as the fight-or-flight response which in extreme cases of fear, that is, when you feel horror or terror can lead to a freeze response or a paralysis.

reactions-to-fear-handle-stressThe scientific literature leaves no doubt that stress and related stress reactions have a definite effect on human health and performance. So the question becomes, which coping strategies do you need to learn and to practice? There is no simple answer to this. It will depend upon what kind of life situation you have at the moment, your job and your previous life experiences. An example of the use of appropriate coping strategies is a study showing that a majority of the British military personnel being deployed in conjunction with the Falklands War in the 1980s used positive thinking as their primary coping strategy.

 

The fear response

Very often stress is accompanied by negative undesirable consequences. These frequently appear in four main areas: The first main area is the cognitive area, referring to what you are thinking about. The second main area is the somatic area which revolves around what happens in your body. The third main area is the emotional one, what we feel. Finally, the fourth main area is the behavioral one, which is what we do or not do. This can potentially affect you and may lead to a decrease in performance, the decisions that led to it, moral, commitment, safety and your ability to cope with the situation you find yourself in. This process of perceiving a situation as negative is known as the fear response. When you are being confronted with someone or something you perceive as threatening you will go through the fear response. The difference will be how intense the different four steps will be perceived. If you are being verbally threatened by a co-worker the intensity might be lower during the fear response than for instance if the same co-worker suddenly starts shooting at you. This will lead to one or another outcome referred to as the fight-or-flight response.

 

The fight-or-flight response

The fight-or-flight response has 7 different possible outcomes. These are: Fight, flight, freeze, submit, posture, choking, and the death grip. In fight-response your reaction to a situation is to fight, you defend yourself and/or fight with your opponent or opponents. Fighting here not only refers to physical fighting but also to standing your ground and confront your opponents verbally. In flight-response, you escape from the situation. This means running away from a burning building, or running away from an opponent. 80 % of all people are biologically pre-programmed to run away from a confrontation. In freeze-response, you experience temporarily paralysis, meaning that you are not able to move or do anything. Freeze is also sometimes referred to as “Fuck-up”. In submit-response, you surrender in hope that your opponent will stop attacking or hurting you. In posture-response, you pretend that you will fight your opponent. In choking-response you feel that you are not able to swallow or breathe, like somebody is actually choking you. Finally, in death grip-response you hold very hard on something for instance a door-knob or someone’s arm or jacket. There are situations that police officers have had to break people fingers in order to loosen the grip on something, or by knocking them unconscious. In summary, you simply need to know something about how to cope with fear and/or stressful situations.

 

The 3 lines of working on how to control fear

Coping may involve efforts to minimize, avoid, tolerate, change or accept the stressful situation, while you at the same time try to master, or to handle your surroundings. Coping is conceptualized as an attempt to change the perception of the source of stress (threat), or handle the stress emotions. This approach is known as emotion-based coping and problem-focused coping. However, it is not just enough to think positively, but you also have to think constructively, i.e. you need to be constantly looking for possible solutions to challenges. A way of describing this is to have what is known as a “stress mindset”. A correct stress-is-enhancing mindset indicates that one thinks of challenges as just that, challenges, not threats; and that one think it is possible to solve the problems one faces. Just to remind you of something important, it basically boils down to this: If you are not able to be here and know, and keep focusing on what is going on inside you, you will probably experience some problems in your later mental training. This may lead to less than optimal decisions and performances in real-life situations. There are several breathing exercises or relaxation techniques that will help you to maintain focus even in stressful situations. Once you master being here and now, also known as mindfulness, you can continue with other types of mental training.

 

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Within KMG we work on 3 lines of mental training in order to improve the ability to control fear and the ability to cope with stress:

  1. Controlled aggression, courage, perseverance and determination
  2. Relaxation, breathing, body language, self-talk, the internal monolog, and de-fusing the destructive emotions.
  3. Focusing, self-control, attention span and concentration.

Below you will find some examples of exercises that we use within KMG to enhance your capabilities and abilities to cope with fear and stress. All the techniques may not be familiar to you at this moment. They are only mentioned briefly here to give you an idea of the different lines of mental training within the KMG. Be aware that several of these drills work on more than one of the lines at the same time. Sometimes a drill is just like the Kinder egg given to small children, at least three surprises at the same time. How about that for a present? They have been put under one of the lines for the sake of simplicity right now.

 

Improving controlled aggression, courage, perseverance and determination

Krav Maga for Military 3The purpose of these drills is simply to enhance your abilities to stay in a fight, or a self-defense situation, that is, never give up. You also need to be able to control your level of aggression so that you use all your resources in a controlled manner. This means that these drills help you not lose your control under stress. However, it works so that you maintain the ability to inflict maximum effort while still being in control of yourself. Examples of the drills we use within KMG in order to train on toughness and aggression are:

  • Mental toughness and courage
  • Controlled aggression, persistence, determination and courage
    • From marking to ramming; same while taking partner down forward or backward
    • Attacking targets at top speed; same, partners alternating in-front of a target
    • Chasing drills – family
    • Passing through crowd – family
    • Protecting/overcoming disturbance and resistance – ADT family
    • Braking a circle of connected people; getting in/around a group in a circle to catch opponent

 

Improving relaxation, breathing, body language, self-talk, the internal monologue, and de-fusing the destructive emotions

The goal here is to further increase the control on the mind by controlling the breathing, to minimize the internal monologue, to improve memory, and to visualize better. Examples of drills we use within KMG in order to train on relaxation & body language are the following:

  • Mental (classical) conditioning
  • Naming and scaling of emotions
  • Breathing techniques
  • Principles of visualization
    • Visualizing situation; visualizing the opponent
    • Increasing ability to visualize
    • Visual memory and longer term memory
  • Superb self-control; Relaxed, ready and attentive; arousal, mental balance
  • Body language and postures that changes mental state, hormones and physical presence
  • Accept defeat and invest in lose
  • Wet T-shirt drill – attacking while under stress

 

Combat Mindset

 

Improve focus, self-control, attention span and concentration

The goal of these drills are to increase your ability to concentrate, to focus better, to make better decisions under stress, to widen your attention span, and to overcome the destructive emotions (like fear) that may arise in a situation. Examples of drills we use within KMG in order to train on focusing, self-control, and attention span are the following:

  • Concentration and focusing
  • Overcoming destructive emotions:
  • Controlling and minimizing internal dialogue (self-talk)
  • Overcoming destructive and pessimistic internal monolog/gossip
  • Focusing – Body, Speech and Mind
  • Decision making under stressful conditions
  • Identifying aggressive postures/gestures while telling a story – 3 missions causing stress: stand in-front of people; telling a fluent story; identifying signals
  • Slow fighting while telling a story – then answering questions about the story and/or repeating it
  • Slow fighting while hearing a story (from an outsider); same with 2 people (outsiders) telling 2 stories
  • Basic self-defense practice – dealing with unknown attacks, high speed, while listening to a story from the outside. Then answering questions and/or repeating the story
  • Mission during/after storytelling; after – writing the essence of story; writing a specific sentence; using mobile to text
  • Ego control – by thanking to parents, teachers (& God)

 

You should know that staring at a point at the wall for some minutes is a G5 technique. The purpose of this technique is to quiet the internal dialogue going on inside your head, and to make you take control of yourself with a better ability to focus. This focus you take with you when you face a difficult situation.

 

Conclusion

Fear and stress is something we all experience from time to time. The intensity of fear you feel will change accordingly to how stressful you perceive the situation to be, and according to your level of experience, and of course, according to your level of mental training. Through mental training you will be able to change your perception of a situation, and simply function better under stress. Meaning you will not feel the same degree of fear as you used to before.

General Patton once said ”If you are going to win a battle, you have to do one thing. You have to make the mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do.” This was true during the 2nd World War. It is also true for soldiers and officers of more modern times today. However, this is not only true for military people, the same goes for everyone regardless of what your battles might be. Your battle might be a different one, for instance entering the ring in a competition as a martial arts fighter, facing 200 people that you will have to give a presentation to, arguing with the person who does not want to listen to you, preparing to talk to the boss about a pay raise, or something else. If you stop for a moment and think of it, I am sure you will find that you fight many battles every day although they might not be physical. This is why you need mental training, so that you win all your battles.

 

Ole Boe became a KM instructor under Eyal Yanilov in 1998. He is currently an Expert 3 in KMG and a member of KMG´s Global and International Team (GIT). Ole has served as an operational officer for many years in a Norwegian military special unit conducting VIP protection, hostage rescue, and close combat. He has also served as an instructor in close combat and combat mindset training for different police and military special units in several countries. He has served on several international military operations all over the world ranging from Congo to Cambodia. Since 2003 he has been working at the Norwegian Military Academy where he teaches leadership and leadership development to army officers. Ole is an associate professor of leadership and has a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology. He is responsible for the Norwegian Military Academy concept of stress management and for preparing officers both physically and mentally for combat. Military rank is major or captain dependent upon which unit he serves in.