top of page
  • Writer's pictureWSDC

The Two Things You'll Need to Save Your Life

hands with headline "2 Things You Need to Save Your Life"
What can we do to help us prevail against an attack?

Studies show most of us are worried about crime. You as a woman, are particularly focused on the threat of rape.

Yet, many of us have this normalcy bias which prevents us evaluating threats correctly because we tend to underestimate the magnitude of the threat or deny that the situation is deteriorating to the point of danger.

So, what can we do to improve our responses and our odds of prevailing over an attack or sexual assault which can be life-threatening?

Unfortunately, many of us have been led to believe that high-stress situations have a crystalizing effect on the brain which can lead us to perform at a higher level than normal. There is the myth that we can perform superhuman feats when we need to. Like the mother who miraculously lifts the car off of her pinned child.

Unfortunately, science pretty much lets the air out of that balloon.

High levels of stress almost always degrade mental and physical performance.

That's the trouble with believing that we perform best under stress -- most of the time it's not true. When we are hit with a high-stress situation, we can start to go downhill quickly. Our brains can't process information efficiently, we don't see what's happening around us as clearly, we start to struggle to control our anxiety, and we start to make stupid mistakes. Our bodily functions change as the adrenaline dump hits our bloodstream:

  • Our heart rate increases.

  • We get tunnel vision.

  • We can experience auditory exclusion.

  • Our blood flows to our core away from our extremities.

  • Our mouth gets dry.

  • Our stomach feels like it has 'butterflies'.

  • Our arms and legs feel heavy and wooden.

  • We may begin having disassociated thoughts.

  • We typically are in denial about what is happening.

We have to work to overcome the very real and very natural degradation we all experience in these times. In our case, this high-level of anxiousness is common and natural -- after all we are under attack! Just like the fear of heights or the fear of loud noises are completelynatural, all of us are fearful of pain, injury and death. But we have to work to keep our heads and stay efficient and effective with our defense -- our lives depend on it.

Extreme stress degrades our mental abilities when anxiety levels rise to a level of panic. We see this even in the safe training environment of a course where certain students begin to lose control of their thought processes and literally begin to flail against a mock attack, forgetting even the most basic technique. Sometimes they are incapable of following simple verbal directions. I've seen at least two high-stress training and testing environments where one participate could not state his own name and another could no longer respond to any questions. These two students had mentally shut down. They could only stand and stare off into the distance. This despite no real danger present at all.

It's our job to give you the framework to overcome this natural, often instinctual, reaction.There is evidence that shows that there is an optimal level of arousal for increased physical performance. Athletes, warfighters, and cops get "amped up" for the game, the mission, or the shift. It is necessary to have a certain level of arousal to be alert and aware of the environment on the field, battlespace or beat.

This prime level of attention and excitement puts you in the"zone" where athletes and combatants report seeing everything in slow motion and knowing they could not miss. If you are untrained, you will most likely fall on one side or the other of the arousal scale:

  • Too little arousal and you can be inattentive and unaware of danger cues;

  • Too much arousal and you are hyperanxious and scattered with a resulting degradation of your ability to defend yourself.

So, how do we move into the "zone"?

We often trick our students into the kinds of behaviors that can help avoid panic.

As we work with them and present them with a typical attack we will say, "what's your biggest problem right now?" We try to frame the attack as a series of problems that you have to solve. In fact, many times attacks are presented as "problems" to start to de-escalate the situation by subtly changing the language we use. Instead of yelling, "oh my god, he's trying to kill you!", we will coach the students by saying, "what's bugging you right now?"

This takes some stress off students and gets them concentrating on the most immediate threat and solving the crisis one piece at atime. It's easier to eat a pizza one bite at a time, slice by slice, than to try and figure out how to eat the whole pizza all at once. Breaking down the problem into manageable steps helps students focus their minds. This results in a calmer, more measured approach to defending themselves.

Military psychologists studying elite performance assert that attention to the most critical aspect at the right time is the key to high-level functioning in a high-stress environment. In other words -- first things first.

Concentrate on the most important -- the most necessary -- problem first:

  • If the attacker is choking you, you have to keep your airway clear instead of trying to get away.

  • If the attacker is stabbing you, you must first stop and secure the knife instead of trying to hit him in the groin.

Just as a fighter pilot uses a checklist and works the problem in the cockpit in a systemic approach, we want you to follow a mental checklist as you solve the problem of the attack. If you take the online courses, you are going to see and hear how we coach with a verbal template. We break down the key parts of the defensive technique and repeat the key points as you perform the moves. For the defensive position when you are pushed to the ground, the attacker is in between your thighs, and rape is imminent, it will sound like this:

  1. Hands up!

  2. Feet on his hips!

  3. Push back!

  4. Kick, kick, kick!

  5. Escape!

Breaking a technique into the key performance points is something similar to what golfers might call 'swing thoughts'. High-level competitive shooters report using the same method. One national champion says his template goes like this:

  1. Grip!

  2. Sights!

  3. Trigger press!

  4. Follow through!

Another shooting instructor says his thoughts are:

  1. Sights!

  2. Stablize muzzle!

  3. Trigger press!

When we instill a verbal template for key thoughts into our training, it provides a mental checklist to both remind us what to do, and also to calm our mind by concentrating it on our process to solve the problem.

Instructors and students tell us they can "hear" our voices in their head guiding them through the techniques when the stress is turned up. I've had students who've prevailed in real-life incidents and attacks who said they heard the key points as they defended themselves. I've had one female student tell me, "I heard your voice telling me what to do". Another male student says the attacker came at him with a common swinging attack. We routinely practice the response to just that attack. He followed the verbal template to solve the problem. "It was just like class", he reported.

Responding automatically takes concentration on what you are doing. You can't expect to have a clear mind during a life-threatening attack just because you've read this book and promised yourself you'll do it when needed. I have always had a serious disagreement with a personal safety author who is well-known on a national level about physical responses to sexual assault. He is an expert on the mechanics and the motivations behind interpersonal violence, but he asserts that you'll simply "know what to do" if you are using your intuition and awareness to predators. Your inner warrior princess will come out when you are threatened and you will naturally fight back.

I'm going to say 'nope', I don't agree with that at all. If you've never seen, experienced, or practiced something, you are not going to be able to respond well, especially when you are thrown into it unexpectedly. If you never studied for the test, you are probably going to fail the test. If you've seen any video tapes of normal people caught in violent situations, it's not unusual to see people exhibiting these types of responses:

  • Frozen into inaction.

  • Mouths open in shock, hands coming up to their face or to their chest.

  • Complete surrender and cooperation.

  • Strangely trying to carry on with their behavior like everything is 'normal'.

The Two Things You'll Need to Save Your Life

To save your life, you'll need to be focused like you've never been before -- something rarely happens naturally during a violent assault. To be this focused you'll need:

1. Preparation

2. Practice

Preparation and practice will include both psychological and physical aspects. It's often said that knowledge is power. Knowing what to expect, what you're likely to feel, how your body will react, and what an attacker most likely will do gives you valuable psychological preparation. This aspect is extremely important to begin conditioning your mind and body to handle the effects of stress, adrenaline, fear, and physical pain.

But knowing something intellectually is not the same as knowing something physically. Just because I tell you the water is cold, you're still going to feel the shock of the sudden plunge. You have to experience the physical aspect of it as well as the psychological aspect.

There is also a performance issue that we sum up as If you can't show it, you don't know it.

In other words, if we can't perform a technique physically, it's moot that we are "familiar" with the technique in our mind. We see it all the time in training martial artists who get stuck in a position and say, "I know this move, but I'm not sure how to do it." What is happening is that a technique or move is familiar to them because they have seen it before. But it's not been practiced enough (or practiced at all in some cases) to actually perform it. So, their brain says hey, I know this move, we've seen it before. Our brain accesses this file from memory. It feels familiar and, therefore, we 'know' it. However, when our brain tries to find the pathways to command our physical movements, they are either not built yet or not paved well enough to perform the technique.

That's why I say, if we can't show it, we don't know it. The correct answer is for us to be responding physically to solve the problem.

This happens regularly when we look at something in a book (like this one). We study it, believe it makes sense, and tell ourselves we'll remember how to do it if and when we need to. Baloney. When the stress is on, you'll not be able to "think" of how to do it. You have to "know" how to do it.

And knowing how to do it comes from most people call muscle memory, but what is actually more of developing neural pathways in the brain. In reality, muscles have no memory, they simply contract in response to the stimulus of an electrical shock. Skills, on the otherhand, are honed in the brain as our brain grooves a pathway after we perform the movement enough times. The more times performed, the thicker the groove and the easier to perform under stress.

This groove I mention is really called myelination:

The thicker the myelin sheath, the easier and faster the electrical signals can move.

We can actually build the generation of new myelin by habitual practicing. By repeatedly firing the signals along our neural pathways, our body recognizes that this is a thought process or action that is important. In turn, our body thickens the myelin sheath along this pathway to make communications faster and our thoughts or actions more efficient and effective.

Consistent repetition. This is critical. Conversely, it is said that if we stop doing an action for 30 days, the myelin along that pathway will start to break down.

"The used key is always bright." Benjamin Franklin

Researchers say it’s important to repeat the behavior frequently, even if only in short bursts. Surprisingly, working on the skill or habit is more about the quality than the quantify. Apparently we don't have to spend hours doing a skill, just some high-quality reps every day.

Appropriately, there is a very famous Russian kettle bell instructor who uses the phrase "grease the groove" by advocating simply performing five repetitions of a movement multiple times a day. For example, when trying to perfect a movement, he suggests to find a place or an activity which triggers our action and then just do five repetitions of the exercise. This trainer's claims to make us realize remarkable gains in skills with this simple trick seems to be well-founded in science.

There is definitive research that shows the highest performers in sport have substantially more hours of practice than lesser athletes. We know this -- when we first learn something we feel clumsy, but gain more competence as we do the activity over and over. Little kids are great at this. They will do something over and over again naturally, without fear of failure. I heard there was one study that showed toddlers learning to walk fell an average of 70 times a day. But that doesn't stop them from continuing to learn.

There is a famous study about musicians done by Anders Ericsson and popularized by Malcom Gladwell which has become known as the so-called 10,000 Hour Rule. Ericsson's research showed, not surprisingly, musicians who were rated the most competent practiced more during the week than less competent musicians. Seems pretty self-evident, I know. But somehow we seem to forget this key point in our busy daily lives.

Mastery is evident by smoothness and grace in motion.

Bottom line, we need to practice. And practice. The more we practice, the more our techniques and our responses become more automatic, more efficient, and more effective.

The more prepared you are mentally and physically, the more likely you are to prevail.

When facing an attack you have to be ready, you don't have time to get ready.

This is going to be one of your most valuable lessons in preparing for your own self-defense.

There are no tricks or magical techniques. Only responses that have been well trained.

  1. Get prepared with instruction, preferably realistic instruction.

  2. Practice your techniques regularly. Even if only five times each time.


bottom of page