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Training Anticipatory Stress: Part 1 by Mark Hatmaker

Today’s offering will start with a quote from American literature and a word or two as to what that might have to do with our own combat training, then proceed into the physiology of how your body reacts with ZERO training in the shadow of physical confrontation; we will ponder how those evolved reactions are the height of wisdom — and how they can go horribly wrong.

Next, we have a look at a piece of fascinating research in exercise physiology from the domain of competitive running and offer the mighty interesting implications of how it is most likely a vitally useful attribute to hack our own combat-training and increase our own ability to bear anticipatory stress and to wield mid-conflict stress with greater aplomb.

We’ll end with two prescriptions for Anticipatory Stress Hacking: The Scheduled Red-Line and The Derring-Do List.

Quite the menu, huh? Let’s get started.


First, the American literature reference, the following is from Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. Here we have our protagonist agonizing over whether or not he has “the stuff” to face battle. Is he a hero, or is he a coward?

“For days he made ceaseless calculations, but they were all wondrously unsatisfactory. He found that he could establish nothing. He finally concluded that the only way to prove himself was to go into the blaze, and figuratively to watch his legs to discover their merits and faults. He reluctantly admitted that he could not sit still and with a mental slate and pencil derive an answer. To gain it, he must have blaze, blood, and danger, even as a chemist requires this, that, and the other.”

There we have the anticipatory perils of conflict/fight training in a nutshell. You may have logged all the gym hours in the world, shined on the parade ground, gone through all the “warrior dance” motions that can be made, but… as first hand accounts of battle, fights in the ring, the cage, the street from time immemorial, your training and what you “presume” you will do, or what you “hope” you will do, do not always match the preparatory deed or desired intention.

Now why is that?

After all, we all want to be heroes and heroines, at the very least none of us want to be labeled cowards.

There is that wide fearsome gulf between what we do with good intentions in the gym and what we wonder “might” happen when our fans meet with excrement.

This dichotomy of “will we or won’t we” is rooted in our physiology and the early days of this species where we were living as face-to-face tribal members with skin-in-the-game allegiance to one another and not some abstract noun connection of flag, deity du jour, or country.

First the physiology: You Are the Offspring of Survivors [Excerpted from my book No Second Chance.]


“We prey animals, who must rely on our intellect for our survival, have some extraordinary automatic support from our bodies. Millions of years of evolution have allowed for some astonishing adaptations that are in place to aid in our responses to threat. Every human prey animal who has ever survived a physical threat was able to pass along whatever attributes he or she possessed to assist in that survival. Those who did not survive did not pass along their particular characteristics good, bad, or indifferent. It is in light of this fact that we can say with all surety that we are all the offspring of successful survivors.


The amazing thing about these inherited gifts is that we have to do nothing to access them–they lie encoded within us ready to do their job at a moment’s notice. As soon as a perceived threat appears on the horizon our blood pressure and heart rate elevates to accelerate the speed of blood flow that vital musculature needs to launch into action. Along with this increase in blood pressure and heart rate a coagulation agent is released into the blood, thickening it slightly in case of injury. Respiration spikes to increase the oxygen content of the blood that is fueling the muscles.


Our pupils dilate to increase visual acuity so that we may take in more detail, this automatic dilation also aids in increasing visual perception in low light environments. In many cases the visual centers slip the system into tachypsychia in which we process information at a greater rate and thus action seems to move at a slower speed increasing our reaction time to visual stimuli.


Our digestive system shuts down to divert all necessary resources (blood and oxygen) to the necessary musculature. The body knows that digestion is a major consumer of energy and we need all the energy we can muster in times of threat. This accounts for the feeling of nausea during times of stress as the body must decide if the stomach is too full for immediate action. If it is deemed too full, voiding the contents may occur but this must not be interpreted as unsightly weakness but as another astonishing adaptation evolved to aid our survival.


A mixture of hormones is secreted into our blood, among them adrenaline and endorphins. The adrenaline to increase reaction time and boost energy, the endorphins to dull pain in the event of injury and allow for greater focus. (We’ve all experienced the jittery post-adrenaline dump feeling after a surprising event of some import–a car wreck, let’s say–this jitteriness is a body at rest at odds with the adrenaline that calls for action). Carbohydrates (our first energy source) are dumped into the system for immediate use providing us with a turbo-boost of fuel.


We should take a moment to marvel at such beneficial adaptations that are in place for no other reason than to assist us in times of threat. We should be deeply appreciative of these inherited gifts that our ancestors passed along to make sure that we, like them, survive whatever is put in front of us. And that by using these inherited gifts as a foundation for our intellect we are, in those moments, superhuman. I mean “super” in the true sense of the word. When the attributes described above are functioning, the body is performing at above normal levels; that is the very definition of super.


We should take comfort in the fact that we have super-normal abilities available to us with zero conscious action on our part and add this comforting reality to our “knowledge is power” dictum. We may never know the where, the when, or even the if of an attack but the twin weapons of evolutionary biology and inculcated preparedness start stacking the odds back into our plus column. With luck on our side we can utilize these gifts, if need be, and be good ancestors to future survivors.”

With our physiology in mind, we are adapted to do one of two things in the face of conflict: Fight or Flee.

The body is going through the same “Red Badge of Courage” questioning that your mind is.

But knowing the internal conflict goes deeper than “I hope I’m not a coward” does not explain why some of us “lock up,” why some of us “turn tail and run,” or how we might actually hack this evolved system to better our odds of “courage” to lighten the load of this anticipatory stress.

In Part 2, we’ll dive deeper into this area and touch on some fascinating science that points to solutions.

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