I don’t believe in one size fits all, or over-arching answers to complex problems. But I was chatting with a friend today and we got on the subject of what the single most important self defense technique might be. Before I could speak, she took the words right out of my mouth when she said “keeping your cool in a crisis.”
Also easier said than done.
It turns out one of the best self defense techniques is something pregnant women are particularly good at. Say what? Well, they have practice breathing through confusion, fear and pain….
When people think of self defense, they still tend to think of physical things, but ultimately it seems like what’s in your head has much more to do with how well you fare in any crisis whether its a fire or a rape.
A few years ago, before I became a mom, I used to hang out and play with a pretty hard core group of guys, Navy SEALS, FBI agents, Police Detectives. So if physical prowess was the most important thing, none of these guys who put themselves in absurdly dangerous situations would be short, over-weight or in their 50s. But they are.
The best prepared warriors I know are men and women who, on paper don’t stack up in the traditional sense. One who comes to mind is 360 lbs, the other is no more than 5’5″, another is over 70-years-old. Then there is of course the astonishing number of women who have survived rapes and unbelievable abuse with no formal self defense or martial arts training at all.
But how do you tell whether you are going to keep your cool in a crisis if you’ve never been in one? Or if you’ve done poorly – freaked out or made things worse.
In an emergency, things happen to us physically. Things with names like tunnel vision and auditory exclusion. Things caused by a slew of chemicals that empty into our systems to assist us with survival. Sometimes these things help, sometimes they don’t. The body is not perfect. There are numerous books about these things: Facing Violence, and The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why, are some that come to mind. People differ in their responses to fear. Some people black out, others become machines and seem to follow some knowledgeable inner voice.
So first the diagnosis. What flavor are you? Do you know? Most of us do not. If we aren’t thrill seekers we have no practice. If we haven’t observed ourselves in daily mini-crises we have no reference.
If you hang glide there had to be a first time. A first time you felt that rush of adrenaline, the heightened awareness. This can give you a reference point. Sudden and total fear isn’t completely new to you. That can be more important than you might think. Practice after all, is practice. Surprise always takes us off guard (how’s that for a truism), but its never the same as the first time.
When Military Operators train, one of the main things they train for is the ability to remain calm under fire. How do they do it? By subjecting themselves to fear until it gets almost boring. Though this can be bad since adrenaline can also make us faster.
Some people function better in crises than in life. Life is a mishmash of vying priorities. Survival clears out the noise instantly. That is one reason behind the pathology of thrill-seekers. Simplify. Quiet the noise. Focus on one thing or else.
I feel like I’m rambling a bit here. Okay, so part one of The Most Important Self Defense Tip Ever would be: Observe yourself reacting to a momentary fear or mini-crisis. Just observe, don’t try to effect it right away. Get to know yourself under pressure, be as present as possible. Then think about it later. On a scale of 1-10 how big was the emergency? How well did you handle it? What did it feel like? Did you feel far away? Did you feel a heightened sense of awareness? Did time slow down? Speed up?
In cataloging your responses you are familiarizing yourself with your own brain on autopilot. In so doing, you may be able to effect behavior that would otherwise be called reflexive.
Use each mini-crisis as a gift. Life as practice. That’s how kids learn. They learn balance by falling when they’re too close to the ground to hurt themselves. We should never forget this simple technique for staying ahead of life’s danger curve (dangerous curves).
To get slightly off subject for a moment, just imagine the power this gives you in normal life. The confidence! The ability to make choices and act while others can only react. Mental self defense is just another way of saying life skills.
The Most Important Self Defense Tip Ever, Part Two is the physical technique you can use to assist the mind in a crisis. It’s going to sound esoteric and unhelpful to some, so I give you an excerpt from a book on people and emergency.
In The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why, Amanda Ripley writes about breathing…. “…when I ask combat trainers how people can master their fear, this is what they talk about. Of course, they call it “combat breathing” or “tactical breathing” when they teach it to Green Berets and FBI agents. But it’s the same basic concept taught in yoga and Lamaze classes. One version taught to police works like this: breathe in for four counts; hold for four counts; breathe out for four counts; hold for four; start again. That’s it.”
Sounds excessively simple, but there’s science behind it. Breathing is one of very few spontaneous bodily functions under the control of two separate parts of our nervous system (the somatic nervous system, like the musculo-skeletal which is under our conscious control, and the autonomic nervous system like hearbeat). So breathing is a bridge between our concious and subconcious. It connects primal refexive reaction and logical, chosen conscious action.
Amanda Ripley goes on to say, “Keith Nelson Borders was shot ten times in six shoot-outs as a police officer in Oklahoma and then Nevada from 1994 to 2005. Every time he got shot, he breathed deeply and methodically, and he swears by the strategy. “It keeps you very clam. You don’t start to hyperventilate or panic…. How could something so simple be that powerful? …as combat instructor Dave Grossman explains. By consciously slowing down breath, we can de-escalate the primal fear response that otherwise takes over….”
Its so clear that the key to dealing with fear and sudden crisis is mental, and yet we are all – students and teachers alike – still looking for purely physical answers. There is no one technique that works 100% of the time. And the groin kick that works in one situation might get you killed in another. Which is precisely why knowing and using your own mind is closest thing to a best self defense technique we’ve got.
If you are interested in learning breath, self-awareness and meditation for better control in emergencies and in life, I highly recommend Dr. Belisa Vranich’s Breathing classes, specifically her Meditation for People Who Can’t Meditate. It is a mental and physical work out and you leave feeling like you went on vacation. And that’s how you start learning to keep your cool in a crisis!