Fear and the Flight or Fight Reflex – Part 1 of 6

By Jim Harrison (Originally Published By MA Success Magazine)

Fear is a natural human emotion that causes a person who’s facing imminent danger to have one of two completely opposite – but mutually instinctive reactions. You either run away from the danger to totally avoid it, or you confront it head-on. This is the “Flight or Fight Reflex.”

Fear is a subject of particular importance to martial artists, yet one that has been inadequately addressed and perhaps even grossly overlooked in the field’s collective literature. No matter how much martial arts you learn or how proficient you become at it, if the time comes to face a genuine life-threatening situation you will experience the two-edged sword of fear – fight or flight – and will be forced to exercise one or the other.

When the human organism thinks it is being threatened, typically the person’s heart pounds like a triphammer, and he becomes short of breath, sometimes almost to the point of hyperventilation. There is nausea, often described as “butterflies,” in the stomach. Some individuals experience an inability to control their bowels. The degree of emotional and physical intensity varies with the person.

As undesirable as all these powerful symptoms may sound, they are actually indicators that the body is ready to perform at its highest level. World-class athletes and people who freeze from terror under stress, both experience the same series of physiological reactions. What determines how successful the outcome will be, is how rapidly the individual is able to either retain or regain control of his instrument.

Fear is stimulus-specific. There are people who evidence few, if any, of the usual biochemical reactions, as cited above, to what are traditionally considered life-threatening circumstances. They are considered “fearless.” Yet, each of these people has some particular personal situation in which he finds it difficult to maintain his composure.

For example, there are people who are unperturbed by the sounds of gunfire, sirens and screaming, yet who become rubbery-kneed at the sight of a baby’s soiled diaper. So, the threshold for what would be considered overwhelming stress varies drastically from person to person.

Although considered fearless by most of his peers, Jim Harrison readily admits to being scared before every match, gunfight, firefight or battle. In these excerpts, he clearly explains, based on real experience – in the ring, on the street, and in the battlefield- what fear is all about and how you can overcome it.

What exactly is fear?

The dictionary defmes fear as “an emotion of alarm and agitation caused by the expectation and realization of danger.” However, a topic as important as fear requires a far more technical elaboration. This technical analysis is essential to your full understanding.

A medical dictionary informs us that fear is “a somatic (part of the body) disturbance or expression of anxiety (stress), neurosis (nerves), or an anxious psychotic (mental disturbance), which may stimulate hyperthyroidism- an excessive condition of glandular secretion by the thyroid.  This includes an injection into our system of a hyper-adrenal, another glandular secretion of hormones, chief among which, and this is important, are norepinephrine and epinephrine- “flight” and “fight” adrenaline, respectively.

This common human condition is what is known as the “Flight or Fight Reflex” (or Flight or Fight “Instinct”or “Response”).

In the upcoming series of excerpts, Mr. Harrison will explain, in a question-and-answer format, the many aspects of fear – and how to train to overcome it.