Anatomy of a Fight (or the Breath of Life)

A true fight is one where one or more of the fighters has the potential to sustain grievous bodily harm or even death. When a fighter understands this possibility, a whole range of physiological and psychological changes will occur, to different degrees. I will try to explain the process so that a person can train to overcome some or all of the detrimental effects. These changes are the symptoms of the “fight/flight” (or freeze/fornicate) reflex, otherwise known as survival instincts.

The human body is an amazing piece of architecture. It is controlled by a “supercomputer” that far outstrips the highest tech computer that can be purchased. It can regenerate itself, is extremely strong and flexible, yet is fragile at the same time.

Responding to Danger

Our minds and bodies respond reflexively to danger. When the brain registers a threat, it sends out a set of orders to the body to prepare it. The heart rate increases, vasoconstriction occurs, breathing speeds up, and the adrenal gland kicks into high gear. As a result, physiological changes occur.

The heart can actually increase the body’s blood volume threefold when under extreme stress. It increases its rate so that some people experience a pounding heart. In extreme circumstances, the heart may even skip beats.

Vasoconstriction is the body’s way of ensuring that the vital organs get plenty of life-saving oxygenated blood. The blood vessels of the outer limbs constrict to force the blood into the torso and head. Symptoms can range from cold hands and feet to completely numb arms and legs. Due to the increased blood flow, the artery directly behind the inner ear becomes dilated, applying an increased pressure on the inner ear, which prevents the eardrum from functioning properly. This can lead to diminished hearing and, under high levels of stress aural exclusion (temporary deafness). Increased blood pressure in the head can even lead to complete ocular exclusion (temporary blindness).

In addition to blood loss in the extremities, any bodily function not associated with immediate survival loses its blood supply, such as the gastrointestinal tract. This causes the symptoms of stomach upset, nausea, diarrhea and dry mouth. Another side effect is that the body voids itself (bladder and bowels), so that it doesn’t have to waste precious blood processing food and waste.

The taste of fear occurs due to this realignment of bodily functions in survival mode. What, you can taste fear? Absolutely. This is the coppery taste or “cotton mouth” that a person gripped by fear experiences. This condition is caused by the body severely reducing, or eliminating, the production of saliva. As well, knocking of the knees is caused by the lack of blood flow to the legs.


The first key to overcoming, or managing the adverse physiological and psychological changes that are brought on by extreme stress is to know what they are, why they happen and what is in your control. In other words, by being aware you will be on the road to better management.

Freud discusses three levels of awareness: conscious, preconscious and subconscious. These three minds are critical to the understanding of data processing within the supercomputer called the brain.

Conscious Mind – enables us to pay attention to the moment. It includes our current thought processes and objects of attention.

Preconscious Mind – includes the thoughts that we are not aware of at the moment but are not repressed, so can be easily called to the conscious mind.

Subconscious Mind – its process and content are out of direct reach of the conscious mind. The subconscious thus thinks and acts independently. Much of our behaviour is driven by the subconscious mind. The alarming consequence is that we are often unable to control our behaviour, especially when under stress.

In order to have a healthy mind, a balance must be achieved between the conscious, preconscious and subconscious. If we are not able to utilize the three minds correctly, then our capacity to collect data for processing is significantly reduced. All three parts of the mind need to be working well under stress to provide a complete analysis of the event.

In the Canadian legal system, the statement provided immediately after an incident by a witness is the one that carries the most weight in a courtroom. The theory is that if it is provided immediately (or as soon as possible after the event), it will be the freshest memory and not influenced by the introduction of new data. However, recent research has shown that under high levels of stress the mind reverts to the more primal urges and instincts, preventing if from properly processing data collected by the pre- and subconscious minds.

Now many believe that a statement should still be given immediately but with a supplemental statement given after a good sleep, or even after two good sleeps. Research shows that it takes one or two good sleeps to allow the mind to relax enough to comprehend what the pre- and subconscious minds have gathered and processed. The goal of training is, of course, to try to overcome the “tunnel vision” that stress creates, both physically and psychologically.

In addition to Freud’s three minds there are three types of memories:

Short-term Sensory Store (STSS) – the first stage of memory. Using the perceptual senses, the STSS receives the information and holds an image.

Short-term Memory (STM) – the second stage of memory. Analyzes and evaluates the information received and formulates a strategy based upon training and past experience.

Long-term Memory (LTM) – the last stage of memory. It must be relied upon when the STM is unable to analyze and evaluate the information. This will cause an increase in reaction time.

As with the three minds, balance is the key to using the three kinds of memory. High levels of stress tend to inhibit the STM and LTM, which will often cause the person to “freeze” in high-stress situations. The person becomes a rabbit being chased in an open field. They stop dead in the hope of not being noticed. Irrational, you say, but hiding is a very primal urge and remember the mind reverts to its most basic and primal state when it is under extreme stress. If the mind is unable to utilize the STM, then it cannot analyze and evaluate, and if it cannot utilize the LTM then it cannot formulate a plan of action/reaction.


Before I launch into data processing, personality must be explored. Why the personality you ask? Well, clinical psychologist Don Banner described Freud’s position on the human personality as being “basically a battlefield. He is a dark cellar in which a well-bred spinster lady (the superego) and a sex-crazed monkey (the id) are forever engaged in mortal combat, the struggle being refereed by a rather nervous bank clerk (the ego).”

Id – contains our primitive drives and operates largely according to the pleasure principle. So its two main goals are the seeking of pleasure and avoidance of pain. It seeks to satisfy its needs through primary processes that dominate the existence of infants, including hunger and self-protection. The id has two major instincts: Eros (pleasure-seeking tendencies), and Thanatos (the death instinct that motivates people to use aggressive urges to destroy).

Ego – this is the functioning, rational part of our mind. The ego develops out of growing awareness that you can’t always get what you want. The ego is essentially the honest broker that constantly negotiates the competing demands of the id (pleasure) and the superego (morality).

Superego – this is the last part of the mind to develop. In essence it is its moral beacon. The superego becomes the embodiment of parental and societal values. It stores and enforces rules. The superego constantly strives for perfection, even though this ideal may be unreal or impossible to achieve. Its power to enforce rules comes from its ability to create anxiety. Anxiety is not a bad thing in itself, but too much anxiety is. Balance is the key – just enough anxiety to heighten awareness levels without overloading the mind and body.

So far we have discussed three minds, three memories, and three components of the personality. Sanchin kata, the kata of the three battles (mind, body, soul), falls in step with the “theme of three” and begins to take on a whole new meaning, in this light.The relationship between body and mind is truly an interesting one A direct corollary between the “three battle” kata – Sanchin – and the three parts of personality according to Freud can be easily made. If the ego is a weak negotiator and either the id or superego becomes dominant, then balance cannot be achieved, and one of the three battles becomes impossible to win.

Processing of Data

We have five true senses that provide our supercomputer with data to analyze: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. There are other things that affect this data processing that are more esoteric and subjective, such as belief systems, cultural history and upbringing.


For many sight is the most overwhelming sense. The eyes convey a huge amount of data to the brain, almost instantly – so much data that our consciousness has a hard time comprehending the deluge. In fact, our consciousness will often store some of the data in the preconscious, without immediately processing it. In high-stress situations, this filter can take a very unbalanced approach and the brain will freeze up and become focussed on single things. It will prioritize the data and deal with the most critical things only. What it determines to be critical will vary depending on the person’s ability to manage stress.

Everyone processes data slightly differently. Our brain uses established norms for comparison with new data, in order to make decisions and come to conclusions. Therefore, past experiences and circumstances reflect heavily in our decision-making process.

While our sense of sight feeds us the most data, it is also the sense that is most easily fooled. Many things affect the reliability of sight, such as light, distance and predetermined thoughts. In fact even colour and pattern can distort the processing of data received through sight. Something seen for the first time can pose the biggest problem for data processing, since the brain has nothing to compare the data to. As well, the way the brain organizes data in the long-term memory will determine how it is accessed. And, as discussed previously, the ability to actually see becomes jeopardized due to the physical changes to the eye that occur because of unchecked high levels of stress.

The first sight issue is mitigated, if not solved outright, by training the brain to use a comparative process, comparing that which cannot be comprehended with a known “comprehendible” quantity. The raw data gathered must be compared to simple known things in order for the brain to make a reasonable conclusion. Distance is best compared to known quantities, like length of arm, length of a football field, etc. Height is best determined by comparing it to known quantities, such as the height of a door jam or car roof.For the comparative process to work,  you must learn a simple set of distances that can be easily referred to, such as the size of the average (non-commercial) floor tile (12 inches or 30 centimetres square).

While under stress the heart rate increases significantly and the body produces, and dumps into the bloodstream, a large amount of epinephrine. These two factors cause the eye to physically change shape and can severely hamper its ability to function. Two major things occur simultaneously in a high-level stress situation: One, the increase of epinephrine causes a hyper-vigilance, of which the physical indicator is the flattening of the lens, causing the pupil to dilate. The dilation allows for a wider viewing area, thus “more” sight. However, this change of shape is also attributed to tunnel vision, monocular vision, loss of near vision and loss of depth perception.

In order to compensate for the change in shape of the eye, you have to use a different technique of looking. Normally a person looks directly at the intended object to see. However, with the change in shape, different parts of the eye take on more emphasis.

Sight . . . continued

Within the eye there are rods and cones, which in essence are receptors of light patterns. Normally we use our cones during high light periods, to get the majority of our light patterns, but with the change in eye shape that occurs under stress, the cones lose significant functionality. Therefore, the rods take on more significance. However, the rods can only receive direct light patterns, which means lyou will only see objects directly in front of you, and due to the dilation of the pupil, the lens shape is optimized for distance vision, but near vision can be reduced significantly and even eliminated.

The figure below shows the distribution of rods and cones in the retina (bottom portion). In the top portion, you can relate visual angle to the position on the retina in the eye. Notice that the fovea is rod-free and has a very high density of cones. The density of cones falls off rapidly to a constant level at about 10-15 degrees from the fovea. Notice the blind spot which has no receptors. At about 15-20 degrees from the fovea, the density of the rods reaches a maximum.

At this point, in order to overcome the changes in the eye the technique you should use is a figure-eight viewing pattern. This method of viewing will manipulate the eye in order to utilize both the rods and cones, gaining the optimal light pattern.

As well, the upping of the heart rate causes an elevated blood pressure that increases the pressure applied to the optic nerve. Since the body can actually increase the blood content by as much as threefold, the pressure exerted on the optic nerve by the central retinal artery can actually cause ocular exclusion (temporary blindness).


In high-stress situations, hearing can degrade up to the point of full-blown auditory exclusion (temporary deafness). This hearing loss phenomenon becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. Stress causes hearing loss and hearing loss causes more stress. This leads to significant gaps in the data-gathering process, causing a poor analysis of the situation, thus producing a poor plan of action/reaction

The reason hearing impairment occurs is similar to the reason causing visual impairment. The artery that runs behind the inner ear and along the canal expands due to the increase in blood volume, to the point where the delicate inner/outer ear pressure balance is disturbed and the canal is squeezed shut.

In order to mitigate hearing loss, the first step is to understand that it will occur and why. The second is to be in good physical shape – cardiovascular as opposed to musculature. The next step is to learn how to properly breathe, lowering your heart rate and reducing the blood flow behind the inner ear. The final step is to learn how to position your body to aid in reducing the negative effects of the blood flow.

If you open your mouth slightly, it allows for more internal atmospheric pressure to build, helping to counter the pressure caused by the blood flow. Then if you tilt your head to one side, it stretches the inner ear away from the artery and eases the pressure.


I wish to deal with these two senses as one topic, since they are more dependent upon each other than most people realize.

Smell (scent) – the olfactory nerve is located in the roof of the nasal cavity, allowing us to smell with our nose. However, both the vagal and glossopharyngeal nerve located at the back of the throat make a contribution, and even the taste buds located on the tongue aid in our sense of smell (thus the link to taste). Smells evoke an emotional reaction, and activate memories. Memories and emotions can be powerful enough to incapacitate a person physically.

Taste – in a combative situation this sense has very little effect on you. However, it is another method of data gathering that aids and enhances the sense of smell. Quickly there are five primary taste sensations: salty, sour, sweet, bitter and umami. Taste is a sensation that occurs in the brain. If the ability of the brain to process is thrown off balance then the sense of taste is similarly affected. At the same time, the sense of smell is affected.


Earlier we discussed vasoconstriction, which is probably the single largest contributor to a loss of touch sensation. Most of our receptors that we rely upon to give us data are located in our extremities, in the dermis (skin).

Once heart rate exceeds 145 beats per minute, then our fine motor skills degrade, and the vasoconstriction kicks into high gear, which we know causes the blood to be squeezed away from the extremities. This causes the loss of the sensation of touch. The amount of loss can be, in extreme cases, total. This means that even sensations of heat and cold cannot be detected. With the loss of fine motor skills,  a person will, for example, find it difficult or even impossible to put a key into a lock.


By now you should be getting the message that remaining calm is the key to avoiding most, if not all, adverse physical changes within the body due to stress. Of course, how to achieve this state is the big question. What is it that your sensei is always saying (okay, I admit the sensei is always saying a lot of different things): Breathe! Through the application of proper breathing techniques taught in class, and prior knowledge of the symptoms of stress, you will be able to overcome almost all of the adverse effects of stress.

The necessary component that I have not delved into too much is the psychological one. With regard to the psychological side, I will say this: You must believe in yourself, know that your ability is such that you will prevail in the confrontation. If you approach the combative situation with this strong, positive state of mind, and employ good breathing techniques, then you will be able to avoid many of the adverse effects of stress on your body and mind.

Oh yes, and if time permits, go to the bathroom to avoid any embarrassing moments.

Captain Jamie Creelman, nidan, Barrie Ryusei Karate and Atlantic Karate Club. On April 7, 2011, Jamie passed away after suffering a heart attack. The following is his obituary:

Creelman, Jamie Gordon-50 of Halifax, passed away at the Halifax Infirmary on April 7, 2011. Born in Moncton, New Brunswick, he was the son of Sylvia Creelman (Lund) and the late Robert G. Creelman. Jamie was a man of passion, great strength, pride and honour in his commitment as a soldier, as a karateka and toward his family. He loved to teach, provided great leadership and was always willing to lend a hand. Jamie is loved and will never be forgotten. He is survived by his wife, Cheryl Lorette-Creelman, Halifax; sons Blake Creelman, Yarmouth and his mother Michelle Comeau, Joshua and Jordan Creelman, Halifax, and their mother Jessica Weidenfeld; brothers Gordon (Wendy) Creelman, Edmonton, Robin (Janice) Creelman, Halifax; one niece and two nephews. Memorial donations may be made to the Atlantic Karate Club in memory of Jamie G. Creelman.