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Rand Cardwell, Dragon Chronicles, Vol 4, issue1

A knife! He’s coming at me with a knife! I can’t move! I can’t think! I can hardly breathe! I’m backing away but the knife ... his eyes ... the knife ... no time to ....

Stress is a subject that has received a great deal of attention in research and for good reason. It is something that affects each and every one of us in varying degrees. In fact, it affects every living organism on the face of the earth. Dr. Hans Selye forwarded the study of stress and the effect it has on living organisms. Selye's research found that stress causes specific changes in the structure and chemical composition of the body. Some of the predictable changes are due to actual damage to the body. Other changes result from the body's attempt to defend itself. These are referred to as adaptive reactions. Selye grouped all these predictable changes into what he coined General Adaptation Syndrome. The General Adaptation Syndrome is further divided into three stages: the alarm reaction stage, the resistance stage and the exhaustion stage. The initial alarm reaction represents the physical manifestation of the body's "call to arms" of its defense mechanisms. If the stress stimulus remains the body will enter into the resistance stage. The body will move into the exhaustion stage if it can not continue to resist. Each of these stages have different and unique characteristics that are predictable in every one of us. Understanding the alarm reaction stage of Selye's General Adaptation Syndrome is of great importance in unlocking the secrets of why we are so predictable. Though his model was developed as an explanation for the side effects of the stress of a disease, it is equally adaptable in explaining the effects of stressful situations like the threat of potential physical harm. So what does all this have to do with the martial arts? Plenty! Because the human body reacts to stress in a predictable manner. That given a stressful event, like an actual self-defense situation, the vast majority of us will exhibit certain changes to our normal physical state. Those predictable changes are what we call Body Alarm Reaction. Those reactions to the stimulus of stress have a direct influence on our ability to defend ourselves.

If we examine and understand these predictable reactions then we can adjust our training to overcome many of the negative aspects of the phenomenon. In observing many different martial art styles it is apparent that the majority of them do not take these physical reactions to stress into account in their training methods. If we can analyze a specific technique under the scrutiny of this proven area of scientific study then we can better determine its chance of success. Those techniques that rely on principles that coflict with or ignore these basic human responses to a potentially harmful situation, like being physically attacked, can be exposed and discarded. Likewise, techniques that demonstrate and account for these predictable changes can be embraced and incorporated into our training methods. Once a potential threat is recognized, as in someone exhibiting aggressive behavior, your body will automatically initiate a "call to arms" of its various defensive mechanisms. Depending on how you interpret that potential threat it will greatly influence the degree in which your body responds. It will respond according to the perceived level of threat of the aggressive person. It is obvious that you will have a greater Body Alarm Reaction to the threat of aggression from an armed six-foot, five-inch tall thug than from that of a ten-year-old child. The greater the perceived threat equals the greater level of Body Alarm Reaction. The degree in which the body alarms can also be influenced directly by conditioning and training. If you are regularly exposed to large aggressive attackers you will develop a level of conditioning that, to varying degrees, will lessen your Body Alarm Reaction to that stress stimulus. As soon as an unconditioned element is added, say two large aggressive attackers rather than one, your body will automatically increase it's "call to arms."

Most martial artists do not take this into account. They are comfortable working out in their well lit, carpeted, air-conditioned studio.

They train enough to develop skills that they egotistically believe will enable them to defend themselves "on the street." Many of them have never been in an actual self-defense situation. Their experience, conditioning and training revolve around the rules and etiquette of controlled sparring. Their martial lessons are often in styles that put more emphasis on performance and visual appeal than actual combative effectiveness.

Everyone, placed in the right circumstances, panics. In the "Alarm Stage," of this panic producing event, it is common to have 1/ tunnel vision: only being able to see in a narrow field or only being able to see one thing; 2/ increased awareness of all senses: smell, hearing, touch, etc., often to where one receives too much stimulus; 3/ time distortion: time slows down or speeds up; 4/ loss of body functions: sweating, vomiting, motor coordination, heart rate, etc.

Emergency rescue and medical staff are just a few examples of stressful, high pressure, panic-producing situations. Yet each successful member develops the ability to perform his or her tasks. The more you train in different environments/circumstances the less you immediately move to full-blown panic. The more you successfully experience dealing with the feelings of panic the quicker you will be able to adapt to those feelings of panic and change from the Alarm Stage moving into the Resistive or Functioning Stage.

Even in self-defense lessons one should not always feel like they're training for World War III. Rather, each of us should understand our strengths and weaknesses under a variety of environments. This is a major key to real personal growth. Thus Rank Reviews, Animal Tests, Clinics, Pressure Drills, Partner Practice, Meditation, etc. all have an important place for everyone interested in developing increased skills in dealing with this thing called stress – a thing we will all experience in one way or another.