Performance under stress..

 

What is stress?

Can we still perform while under stress?

Walter Cannon first coined the term “fight or flight” in 1915, since then it has become linked with combat arts, door supervisors and just about every martial artist. Most know and teach an understanding of the adrenal dump and the effects that this has on the human body when in a fearful or stressful situation. Being stressed and in fear are two different psychological and physiological responses. Stress is something that is hard to put your finger on and can come in varying degrees of severity. It is linked to Homeostasis. The concept is that it’s a system that regulates itself and the human body is one such system, it has controls and mechanisms in place to maintain the ideal operating environment within. Anything that affects the balance of this system can cause stress, for example, you find yourself getting hot, and are unable to remove clothing, your body temperature spikes and you start to feel stressed, not fear. Fear is an emotion, one that is experienced when danger is perceived. This would usually mean an individual being in immediate danger of attack or death. This emotional response leads to two basic choices, stand and fight, or turn and run. It is at this time when the stimulus causing the fear could be so intense, that it triggers a freeze response rather than a flight one. All very natural protection mechanisms that the human body has at its disposal to protect itself. There is also a precurser to fight or flight, posturing and submission, I have already discussed these a little in previous blogs.

Experiencing either fear or stress, is a state of arousal, one that can have a significant effect on performance ” Learning the psychological techniques to manage stress not only reduces discomfort but can enhance performance, (Asken, (2010) page 51). An understanding of these states of arousal can help an individual to identify the cause and cope with the effects. Training in specific methods can reduce these effects and is something any serious martial artist should consider. There is a long list of stress/fear symptoms, these could be categorised into three basic areas.

  1. Internal mechanism disruptions, these include; raised heart rate, perspiration, increased breathing rhythm, loss of bowel control, sensory inhibition, these are only a few, I am sure that you can think of more.
  2. Physical disruptions, these include loss of body coordination, vision, hearing impairment, death grip and freezing.
  3. Mental disruptions, including increased anxiety, slow down in mental problem solving, loss of environmental awareness.

There are many more than those listed above, however they give a clear understanding that the body is subject to a cause and effect relationship to certain stimuli. All this has an overall effect on the bodys performance levels. The next question should be, if this is the case how can we counteract this? Experience is nothing more than a constant exposure to stimuli and circumstances, that leads to knowledge of what may happen and has happened in the past. This said, coping with a state of arousal is no different, the more you are exposed to it the more habituated you become. Every time you experience high stress you draw from episodic memories, these are the ones that you do not forget easily, even though you may want to sometimes. To enable you to start to cope with these feelings and emotions you need to train in techniques that will help to level out the experience  “Semantic and episodic memory together make up the category of declarative memory, which is one of the two major divisions in memory. The counterpart to declarative, or explicit memory, is procedural memory, or implicit memory. The term Episodic Memory was coined by Endal Tulving in 1972. He was referring to the distinction between knowing and remembering. Knowing is more factual whereas remembering is a feeling that is located in the past” (Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Episodic_memory (2012).

 

Techniques for managing a high state of stress/fear.

There are a great deal of techniques that can be used to manage stress. These range from the most common, breathing techniques, to visual imagery, mental associations, word association. Taking the time to learn to use at least one can be of great benefit to performance under stress. For hundreds of years there have been meditative techniques used to calm the mind and control the body. By taking a breathing technique and renaming it to something more adapt to modern combatives, allows for practitioners to accept it as part of the training required to increase and control performance while in a high state of arousal. Hyperventilation is a state when the body is going into shock over something it perceives as a threat. If while in this state the person experiencing the shallow increased breathing can be settled and encouraged to concentrate on their breathing and relax, to take in oxygen, in slow deep breaths, often they come down and control both the physiological responses as well as the mental ones. As well as there being adverse effects that help protect the human organism, there are also natural responses that heighten the body’s reflexes and senses, its important that these are also understood. This usually happens when the body receives a stimulus that is sudden, unexpected and severe. Increased auditory awareness, Visual clarity, quickened perception and awareness, slowing of time, mental processing increase, all seem to increase the body’s ability to move and survive. What we see here is a clear difference in the bodies reactions to stress. In research conducted by Leavitt (1972, 1973) he linked heart rate to performance, at 115BPM he noted deterioration in fine motor skills, 145BPM deterioration in complex motor skills and at 175BPM a catastrophic failure in cognitive processing capabilities. Relying on this research would lead to a conclusion that once heart rates reach 175BPM it’s all but over, however recent research has shown that rates of this amount and higher, have been recorded while individuals are involved in a high stress encounter, they have been able to process exceptional perception and show increased physical capabilities. ” stress induced heart rate increase in the area of 145 bpm, there is a significant breakdown in performance. But this is not true for everyone. Apparently, if you have practised the skills extensively, you can ‘push the envelope’ of condition Red, enabling extraordinary performance at accelerated heart rate levels” (cited by Grossman (2004) page 34). The difference between the two groups is marked, the latter group able to perform at the highest level of stress. What is it that allows individuals to cope and perform at these high levels? put simply its experience. Experience within this type of environment means continued repetitive exposure to the stimulus that creates the high level of arousal. Do not however fall into the trap that a job automatically gives experience, take any job where exposure to high stress stimulus occurs, for example, police officer, prison officer, army soldier. It’s not hard to imagine that these jobs will result in high stress exposure, why is it then that, so many  individuals in these types of occupations fall victim to physical and cognitive shut down? Its experience! or should I say lack of repetitive exposure to direct experiences of the stimulus’ that creates the ability to perform at high levels of stress and continued repetition of the skills required during a situational occurrence. Even though you may have an occupation that is high risk, unless you have constant exposure to a high stress stimulus, you will fall foul of high heart rate stress disorientation. In other words experience is gained through constant repetitive exposure to stimulus that create stress.

Having put forward the ideas above and the effects of experience, we need to transfer this to the training that occurs within any discipline. Creating experience is therefore very important.

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a fairly recent disorder first diagnosed in soldiers returning from war. If however we look at this disorder from another angle, what we may find is, that PTSD is more common than we may think. For example take  the term ‘traumatic’ this is an event that effects someone emotionally creating a long-term episodic memory. This can be any event in an individual’s life that they perceive as traumatic, children are much more likely to experience an event that causes trauma than an adult, adults trauma is usually much more heightened. Post this event the individual feels stress whenever they are exposed to situations that recreate the original traumatic event. Add the disorder label and we now have PTSD  from events that could be seen as normal daily occurrences or an evolutionary mechanism designed to protect the human organism, heightened in some creating fear and stress. For example take any fear or phobia, lets say the fear of spiders! every time a person sees a spider, they get so stressed that it creates very real feelings of fear, are they experiencing a form of PTSD? having at some time in their past had a traumatic experience with a spider or is it an evolutionary adaptation, or maybe a little of both, learned and inate.

Understanding the reasons for stress/fear and the effects that it can have on performance, should then give us the knowledge to train in a manner that encourages constant exposure to stimulus that induces stress. This is not as easy as it seems, it may be easy for some that are more inclined to heightened experiences, however experiencing real danger is hard to replicate in a normal training environment.

The most reliable way to avoid the effects of stress/fear on performance is to create experience, in doing so we also have muscle memory, muscle memory is spontaneity of movement, not having to think about your responses to certain events. This has to be engrained so that performance at high levels of stress induced heart rates can be maintained.

Can the human body perform under stress? Imagine yourself captured by terrorist, tied to a chair in a room, a team of special forces explode into the room guns blazing, life in the balance, do you want them to spray the room and hope for the best or pick their targets, in doing this action do you think they are operating under high stress? What makes them capable of these actions? and why can’t you have similar control? Do you lose motor and mental control? Yes, if you are not trained and experienced! and there in is the key, trained and experienced.

 

So how does this help the mainstream martial artist?

Mindset and understanding are two of the hardest elements to teach within the arts. There is a saying ” you react in the street, the same way you train in the school” or something similar. Training realistically and in a manner that creates reactive spontaneity, is a key to effective defence. Experience is something that needs to be obtained, experience of efficient repetition, experience of your own emotions and feelings, experience of dealing with internal and well as external mechanisms. Knowing what your body is doing and why is the first step to creating coping strategies, which will enable effective and controlled responses when performing under a high emotionally induced stress situation.

references:

Asken,M,J,phd & Grossman, D, Lt. Col.  Warriors mindset (2010) Warrior Science Publications.

Grossman,D,Lt.Col. On Combat (2004,2007,2008) warrior Science Publications

Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Episodic_memory, updated 4th December 2012 at 19:54. Accessed on 06-12-12.

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