Overlooked Self-Defense Elements 5: Adrenaline Effects

This is part five of a series of articles where I look at the elements needed for a self-defense or self-protection course to be of real use. In a previous article I listed the required elements as follows:

  • Awareness
  • Avoidance
  • Pre fight indicators (pre-fight rituals)
  • De-escalation
  • Adrenaline effects
  • And last, actual physical skills

Adrenaline Effects

Most people don’t have a clue as to how much the effects of adrenalin will change everything in a given situation. Changes to vision, hearing, memory, visual perception, and motor skills all occur once adrenalin is in the blood. Adrenaline causes many reaction within the body, and the first and most noticeable is the change in heart rate.

In their work The Psychological Effects of Combat (Grossman and Siddle, 1999), they list the following information:

60-80 BPM (Beats Per Minute) – Normal resting heart rate.

115 BPM – Fine motor skill begins to deteriorate.

115 -145 BPM – Optimal Complex motor skills, Visual reaction time, cognitive reaction time.

145 BPM – Complex motor skills deteriorate.

175 BPM – Cognitive processing deteriorates, loss of peripheral vision, loss of depth perception, loss of near vision, auditory exclusion

175 + BPM – Irrational fighting or fleeing, freezing, submissive behavior, vasoconstriction (reduced bleeding), voiding of bladder and bowels, gross motor skills at highest performance levels (Running, charging, etc.)

What does this entire list have to do with what is missing from a standard “Self-Defense “class?


Take a look at a standard class teaching something they classify as self-defense. You will see unrealistic attacks (which I will discuss in-depth in a later article), and absurd responses to these attacks. I do not intend to bust any bubbles, but even if the tired old line about “you need to drill these defenses until they are second nature” came into play, the information put forward by Grossman and Siddle will give lie to all of the defenses and the excuse for why it “doesn’t work most of the time”

First off, you need to understand that you are going to cruise right past the 115 BPM rate before you know it. This is important because once fine motor skill begins to deteriorate; your fancy four and five step “self-defense” wrist locks and such are no longer available to you. Then you are in danger of tactical fixation, where you see that your trained response to a crisis is not working, so your monkey brain tries the same response, only harder.

The more scared or surprised you are, the faster the heart rate goes, and just look at what is lost in the range at 175 BPM. Things are falling apart rapidly at this point, and you are in more and more trouble with each passing moment.

Why is this not mentioned in a self-defense class?

The only time adrenaline effects are even mentioned at all are when the class is told in passing that adrenaline is tied to the fight or flight response, neglecting that the fight or flight response is a very complicated field of study!

Dr. Alexis Artwohl, the author of Deadly Force Encounters listed the following statistics for Police Officers who were involved in situations where deadly force was used:

84% experienced diminished sound (auditory exclusion)

 79% experienced tunnel vision (peripheral narrowing)

 74% experienced “automatic pilot” with little or no conscious thought

 71% experienced visual clarity

 62% experienced slow motion time

 52% experienced memory loss for part of the event

 46% experienced memory loss for some of their own behavior

 39% experienced dissociation; sense of detachment or unreality

 26% experienced intrusive distracting thoughts

 21% experienced saw, heard, or experienced memory distortion

 17% experienced fast motion time

 07% experienced temporary paralysis

 Do you think this sort of information has a place in a civilian self-defense class? If you answer “no”, I am sorry, but I must disagree with you.

 Granted, these are trained police officers, and as such, they are going to react differently from most people. After all, they run toward the sound of gunfire, where most rational humans would run away.

 Where I must disagree is in the fact that this information affects the ability of the trainee to actually use what their instructor is selling them as “self-defense”. When violence happens, most people are going to freeze. They don’t want to freeze, so they seek out training in self-protection. Some guy offers a self-defense class and they sign up, pay the fee and get taught how to kill a guy if he grabs their wrist, kill a guy if he puts a hand on their shoulder, how to take a knife away from a person in nineteen simple steps, and then filet him with his own knife,  and how to disarm a gunman when he has a gun pressed against their spine (somehow managing to turn around and execute the disarm before he can move his finger back ½ and inch.

 None of this is practical. And once adrenaline hits the fan, none of it will work. AND even if it did work, you will need a good lawyer to have any hope whatsoever of not going to prison.

To be able to factor in adrenaline and how it affects the body, the self-defense techniques are going to need to use gross body movement. This will overcome one issue, but what can be done about the impairment in the cognitive area? There are some who train and engage the class in a very high stress setting, and this does seem to have some merit. Obviously, there is only so much that can be done to closely simulate an actual assault or rape, and bring the stress levels to a fairly high range. There is always that last step and that last range in stress that cannot be crossed. We cannot teach a student to defend from an assault by assaulting them. There will always be that grey area that the student will wonder about, and remain less than 100% sure that they are fully trained. We have to wonder as well.

 As an instructor, I have to understand that when I teach a self-defense class, the students are placing their hope for safety in my hands, and it is my job to be as sure as possible that I am giving them every possible advantage. When adrenaline hits, it hits hard.

 The biggest point behind this is simple; you need to do all you can to stop a situation from getting to this point. By the time the adrenaline is flowing, you are on rotten ice, and sliding fast.