The Psychology of Combat

What do we know about conflict? Well, most of us want to avoid it at all costs, even if we are courageous and capable in combat. I think it makes us both human and civilized to seek after peace and diplomacy, but there are times when those options fail. There are times when we are faced with a very basic instinct for fight or flight.

An argument at work with your boss could stir this fight or flight response.

A disagreement with your spouse or parents could be another bad situation.

Something as simple as bad traffic, a political debate on social media, or accidentally bumping into the wrong person could turn a normal day into a very uncomfortable confrontation.

So what really happens in the body?

The five senses pick up on the stimuli and send a message to the brain for a response. The nervous system (sympathetic nervous system) sets several things in motion to prepare the body for combat. Pupils dilate to allow more light in, so we can see better. The mouth goes dry and digestion stops to reroute energy to muscles. The adrenal glands dump adrenaline and endorphins into the bloodstream to super charge strength, reaction time, and resistance to pain. Breathing changes, heat rate changes, sweat increases, and all of this happens instantaneously. This is the fight or flight response, and it is a normal and healthy response to stress.

So why do I feel sick when it happens?

The unsettled stomach (butterflies in the stomach) is a combination of digestion stopping and the flood of adrenaline. It is the same reaction whether we are excited (about to ride a roller coaster) or terrified (about to defend our life). It is our perception of these things that is different…nothing more.

So how does Martial Arts help?

In Martial Arts, we learn to become familiar with those things that might be a little scary at first—like riding a roller coaster or jumping off the high dive in a pool—but once we do it a few times, the fear goes away…or does it? Actually, it changes and become excitement. Martial Arts helps us face those small fears, adjust to them appropriately, and accept them. This acceptance is called confidence. Adjusting to them is called training (or experience). The first time a student hits a heavy bag, he always hits it lightly and timidly. After a few hits with increasing force, he learns how hard he can hit it and begins to hit it harder and harder. Likewise, the first time a student throws his partner or takes a fall from his partner, there is fear. We all have a natural fear of falling. After a few lessons in falling, we gain the experience needed to judge how much the fall will affect us. Does it hurt like falling out of a tree? Of course not, but if all we have for reference is an experience of falling out of a tree, then that is where we begin. We must learn through experience that we can punch with power, take a fall, dodge an attack, and even escape from a choke hold. This is the purpose of Martial Arts.

Lastly, when we discuss the psychology of combat it is important to be clear that when combat occurs, we have two scenarios. One scenario is where we have no idea what happened, what we will do, or how the conflict will resolve. The other scenario is where we choose what happens, we decide what we will do, and know how the conflict will resolve. The ability to know beforehand what will happen, what we will do to affect the situation, and then predict the outcome is the psychology of combat. When you first learn to drive you are naturally scared and on high alert. After years of driving, we find ourselves barely paying attention to the skills we are using to drive. We might be talking on the phone, adjusting the radio station, or even applying makeup. It has become second nature, habit, even subconscious in effort. In Martial Arts, this is the goal of training. We want to reduce fear, increase preparation, and make reaction second nature. It takes time, but it is worth it. Call or e-mail us if you have questions about this topic, or come in for a few introductory classes.