View Full Version : Training Under Conditions of Critical Stress

28th November 2002, 08:53
I have recently read two articles that has made substantial changes to my thinking about randori and self defence training.


You will need to excuse the names of these sites and focus on the content. Both articles discuss the psychology and physiology of human behaviour under conditions of critical stress. I have not made independent verification of the claims and research made by either article but their finding are consistent with my experience.

The most significant finding is the effect of heart rate on the ability of a person to act. This is summarised as follows:

115 beats per minute (bpm)
Loss of fine complex motor skills such as finger dexterity, eye hand co-ordination, multi tasking becomes difficult.

At 145-155 bpm
Loss of complex motor skills (3 or more motor skills designed to work in unison).
That part of the brain that processes audio signals (sound) begins to shut down.

At 175 bpm
Eyelids lift and pupils dilate and flatten. As this takes place, a person will experience visual narrowing (tunnel vision) and visual tracking becomes difficult. Depth perception deteriorates.
Sort term memory deteriorates (critical stress amnesia) as well as cognitive processing.

Above 185 bpm
The body goes into a state of hypervigilance (deer in the head-lights). Irrational or ineffective behaviour can occur such as freezing or screaming in terror.

In 1985, whilst walking across my college campus in the dark, there was a sudden noise in the bushes. In the space of a heart beat, my heart rate probably doubled. I froze. As it turned out, it was probably a rabbit but if it was something more sinister, I would not have been able to react in any decisive way.

The implications of this is clear: if we have difficultly thinking under critical stress then we need to practice thinking whilst under stress. We already practice calming ourselves in chinkon. This is the opposite of chinkon - making tactical appreciations and decisions whilst exercising at full power.

This last bit stumps me however. Any feedback or ideas?

Tripitaka of AA
28th November 2002, 10:11
Greetings Cheung Lo, you won't know me, but I am a former student of the Abbey Dojo (when it was at the Abbey Community Centre, in Abbey Road, from where it takes its name :) ). Please give my highest regards to Jee Sensei (Cailey and Joe too... :D ).

I understand what you're saying about thinking and reacting under the biological restrictions imposed by our body chemistry. It must be possible to devise some exercises to illustrate the limitations, and hopefully to learn how to adapt and overcome the handicap. Unfortunately I have no idea how to go about developing such an exercise, perhaps we need to tackle the Sports Science students at Glasgow University.

One thing that may help... I visited my nephew's class in Jiu-Jitsu years ago, to watch him train (I'm going back years and years, to when he was about 14). The class was a Juniors class, with students ranging from 11-15 years. The training included a few more "games" and light-hearted elements than the exclusively adult classes that I was attending at the time. During the warm-up and stretches, the instructor would keep up a barrage of questions to which everyone was encouraged to call out the answers. It kept the children's attention during a time when they were most likely to start drifting, and also had an educational value. He would call out "how many bones in the hand?", "what are the names of the bones in your lower leg?", "what is your cranium?", etc.

Perhaps this could be modified to take place during a high energy exercise like kihon (safer to do it standing still than on the move :D ), with questions more relevant to Shorinji Kempo training.

28th November 2002, 10:58
Salutations David

I do know you! I had joined Abbey for about a year before you got married and moved to Japan (if I remember correctly). In any event, I have a memory of you putting order to the torrent that was the children's class back then.

Your suggestion is one to which I have given some thought. Unfortunately, the devil is in the implementation. Simple knowledge questions can eventually be answered by rote. In any event, I think that it is necessary to provoke problem solving and spatial awareness. I thought of simple academic problems like divide 32 by 8 but am not sure of the relevance.

I took part in a corporate sporting event in 1998. There, we had to run a couple of miles and then solve complex mathematical paper problems whilst we were still out of breath!

What I would really like to so is find some safe way of provoking a sudden surprise jump in heart rate and then giving a problem to solve.

George Hyde
28th November 2002, 11:30
Hi All,

I've given a lot of thought to this but have little time to answer fully (neither have I read the referenced articles as yet). However, my short answer would be...

Conditions in the dojo do not lend themselves to practical scenarios on a number of levels - stable, predictable physical environment; rules/codes of conduct; supervision; awareness of attacks, etc.. to name but a few elements that one would not find in the real world.

This topic highlights the absence of the most important element - critical stress. The 'symptoms' described above are characteristics of the impulsive mind set instigated as part of the 'fight-or-flight' (f-o-f) response and to create such an environment in the dojo would inevitably ensure that all your students stay well clear of it!

The above suggestions are interesting in that they point towards ways of creating mechanisms for reintroducing the rational or at least holding on to it as the stress increases.

My approach differs slightly - rather than seeking to increase the levels of stress in the dojo - the f-o-f response can be found in its less extreme manifestations throughout the typical urban day. Confrontations with colleagues, bosses, traffic wardens, aggressive beggars, etc.. as well as walking around 'unfriendly' environments at night are far more common than assaults and each will trigger a f-o-f response. If you use these situations to become familiar with the 'symptoms' described above, you can begin to develop intervention strategies for dealing with them.

f-o-f is a vital part of our make-up and shouldn't be overwritten, but the devastating affect it has on our psychological and physical capabilities should be explored and tamed.


28th November 2002, 11:50
Hi Cheung Lo, very ggod questions. The first link you gave us was by a guy called Darren Laur who used to post in the close quarter combatives forum, every word I've ever read of his was pure gold. I'd recommend u do a search with his name and read all his posts. I'm actually going to train with him in a few weeks which should prove fun and a good learning experience.
As for your question about re-creating the adrenalin effect, i believe it is quite possible to do in a dojo. Many people spar, but most do not do it properly. If you limit the amount of protection down to what is absolutely necessary for injury prevention and make it anything goes, then the threat level has been raised. It's no longer about the fear of winning or losing, but the fear of getting hurt. Sure, the teacher is still there to stop the fight if it gets serious, but actually being there and knowing that the kicks etc are going to hurt and going to be coming at you full power definately adds realism. The first time i sparred it was exactly like those articles said. My heart rate jumped and i got complete tunnel vision, not to mention my technique went to .
Everytime you do it, your tecnique and your ability to cope under stress increases. When you start to get more confident or it becomes easier, add more conditions to add realism. Make it 10 second bouts, that way you have to take on someone highly aggressive and actually trying to beat you down quickly. As you start to toughen up, take more pads off. Always be looking to give yoursel a disadvantage.
As i said, the most important thing is to make it as realistic as you can without compromising saftey. Point type sparring and semi contact wont get you anywhere. You need to feel what its like to be hit with a hook to the head in the middle of combat, otherwise you dont know what its all about. The more you expose yourself to this type of training, the less fear you have because you become accustomed to it.

28th November 2002, 12:05

Thank you.

I would like all kenshi to note that I do not endorse anything stated by either the Defendu nor the Killology site. I have referenced them because they were the first places where I found a reference to the book published by Bruce Siddle (credit where credit is due).

This topic has caught my attention because of the proximity to my own experience. During the 1994 European Taikai embu competition, a bell was rung to indicate the 90 secs marker. When I watched other people's embu, I always heard the bell. When I took part, I did not, even though I was physically closer to the bell.

28th November 2002, 14:21
Fight or flight

The original description of the critical stress condition made it sound like a very undesirable condition to suffer from. However, as was mentioned above, maybe it's not such a bad thing. One's ability to communicate fluently and think about larger rational concepts may be compromised, but all that brain metabolism is of course redirected toward the immediately important task of fleeing or fighting. I think the most important thing is just drilling a mental preparation to actually take one of those courses of action when risking looking stupid or being over-aggressive.

Controlling the reaction

I think its pretty hard to inhibit the hormonally triggered affects of "critical stress" in truly critically stressful situations but having some familiarity with the condition may certainly help in acting appropriately, i.e. running or fighting and not being overcome by the unfamiliar mental state.

However, because the reaction is hormonal it takes a while to fully affect the body. I recall reading 20 seconds somewhere, but from my experiences I estimate the significant affect is reached in about 5-10 seconds although it is of course hard to judge the onset time and indeed passage of time itself. Assuming 5-10 seconds, there are at least 5 seconds in which to make full use of ones higher mental functions to diffuse a situation communicatively or intelligently. I guess the conclusion must be to learn to act quickly and decisively in one's usual way of thinking in order to diffuse or overcome a critical stress event and experience the adrenaline when things have already been resolved.

Preventing "critical stress"

I think the only way to prevent getting a "critical stress" reaction is to prevent a situation from being critically stressful. Since we are (I have assumed) talking about self-defence scenarios the solution must be to become skillful and therefore confident in one's self-defence ability.

While careful and safe ran-dori is an excellent exercise for this purpose it may lack the stressful aspect that one is also trying to learn about. Training harder, and more seriously with a serious partner is one way of increasing the risk of moderate physical pain which keeps one on one's toes (buy some boxing gloves, a gum-shield and get going with a trusted kenshi friend, or drop in to some boxing, Muay Thai etc. club). An alternative is performing ran dori in front of an audience and confronting one's ego and well as one's confidence simultaneously.

tony leith
29th November 2002, 12:17
I'm not a neurophysiologist (to put it mildly), but I think the 'pressure testing' element of training in Kempo is essential to the psychological /spiritual benefits of training as well as the self defence application. There is no way to simulate the feeling of being in real peril, but there are things that you can do in training. Certainly the judicious use of protectors like dos and headguards can be useful; occasions on which there is additional external pressure, like performing embu in front of an audience, or gradings, might also be helpful in letting people learn about their mind/body responses to this kind of stress. I also tend to think that keeping classes at quite a high tempo, particularly during kihon, doing lots of fast repetitions of basic defences - concentrating on necessary taisabaki -helps build up the muscle memory so that if people are called upon to defend themselves, they can think about it after the event. Good kiai is critical as well in terms of summoning the spirit to resist an attacker.
I have been pleasantly surprised to find that on the few occaisions when I've been confronted by threats outside the dojo that my reaction hasn't been to either get frightened or (in my case what concerns me even more) to get angry. I've become very cold and calculating about what could happen and how I could maximise my chances of getting out of the situation - I've certainly been aware of the physiological stress responses of my body, but been able to harness them to give me an edge in terms of response time/percdeptual acuity. I suppose evolution has equipped us with these responses for a reason, and our training is not necessarily about suppressing them, but about not allowing them to overwhelm us.
Heijo shin is our ultimate aim, and as George pointed out its applications are a lot more varied than self defence. I believe that a lot of stresses in contemorary urban life are harder to deal with precisely because they don't afford an outlet for the fof reflex - generally you get adrenalised and pumped up, and then you just have to (literally) sit there and deal with it, whereas your ancestors would have been sprinting across the savanah trying to show a cheetah a clean pair of heels...

Tony leith