Fight of Flight Response (Experience IS a Factor)

As we all live our day to day lives ,we are inundated with daily exposures to a variety of individuals and experiences.  The vast majority of the time, our exposures with others is generally pleasant.  We generally make our best effort to get along.  This is why confrontational situations can be so completely foreign and frightful for many of us.  Not many people experience confrontation on a daily basis, be it verbal/emotional assault or a physical attack.  Most people simply do not possess the proper coping mechanisms to address these situations.  As  “Human Animals” we all have a built in flight or fight response.  This is well documented and studied.  The issue is that in today’s rather passive society, the “fight” response gets diminished and “flight/freeze” response commonly takes over.  Of course this is a generalization and does not apply to those who live in high conflict areas or possess employment positions where confrontation is part of the job.  This leads me to heart of this blog entry topic.

Having spent 15 years working as a Correctional Officers in Maximum security detention centres in both Canada and the USA, I know the “flight or flight response” first hand, as well as how experience with the response really does make a difference.

A bit of background on myself:

I have always trained and held interest in Martial Arts.  I do not remember a time when I was not training in one thing or another.  As a kid, my parents would always encourage me to get involved in sports.  I did quite well with anything athletic I would attempt.  Sports and myself have always seemed to get along very well but out of all the activities I tried, the mats, pads and bags of the martial arts schools always sucked me in.  I was always drawn to it.  As a kid, I remember the first time I got my “ass handed to me” in sparring vs a more experienced, talented and older teen.  I remember thinking “If we got in real fight with no rules, I would win” ha ha ha…Maybe I was right but maybe I was wrong.  One thing I was certain of, I wanted to beat that kid in sparring.  He was good.  He was the standard at the teen class.  I kept training and kept at it and overtime, I begin landing my own shots on this kid and eventually, I figured him out.  This reinforced to me that when it came to fighting, experience DOES matter!  It is not always about just “being tough”  Lots of people walk around thinking they are “tough”, they talk about how tough they are, walk with their head high and chest puffed out but they have never been hit in the face.  They have never been screamed at by an irate person who is not thinking logical and is hell bent on taking a confrontation from verbal to physical.  There is absolutely no substitute for that uncomfortable experience.

Let’s fast forward a few years.

By 21, I had gotten my first job at a detention centre in Boston MA.  It was  great opportunity for a young man to build some job experience and live in a new city and new country.  Entering the job, I thought “I am pretty tough, I know how to fight…I have been training for years”  I was WRONG!

This jail was NOT a “treatment centre” in the sense that you’d hope for a “youth centre”.  The place had teens ranging in age from 14-21.  Many of the teens were in for dangerous crimes including assault and murder.  At the time, me being 21, I was the same age as many of the senior inmates but I did not have the same life experience with real world confrontation that sadly, many of them did had.  I remember one night on duty, everything seemed business as usual.  Then from out of nowhere, I head a big ruckus breaking out in the far wing of the living unit.  I did my job and ran to the danger.  What I saw was a high ranking gang member getting assaulted by his rivals (multiple attackers and weapons involved).  I did not freeze but I did not react right away.  I remember the massive adrenaline jump and my heart rate spike like I had never experienced before.  I forced myself to snap out of it and quickly do my part of break up the conflict as quickly and safely as possible.  What I then remember most was the look on the “victim’s face”.  He was stone cold in his stare and was injured but was not phased by the unfair beating he took.  He walked to medical on his own, all the while looking at his assailant’s with that blank stare.  Although his stare was blank, the look in his eyes was clear…retaliation was coming.  It was in this moment that I realized he had the experience with real conflict, that in spite of years of Martial Arts training, I had little to no experience with.  In fact, at the time, none of my previous training was of much use in that particular real world scenario.  I did kids Karate classes when I was young and focused on kickboxing as a teen.  Not to disrespect either of those disciplines but neither came to much use when you are ripping assailants off a victim and moving them into restraints against their will.  The lesson was leaned and I knew some changes needed to be made if I was to survive in this enviroment.  This is how I eventually found Krav Maga.  The style that I believe is the best Martial Art for real world conflict.  Krav Maga is the preferred fighting system of Law Enforcement, the Israeli Defense Forces and has been adapted for the real world.

Let’s fast forward a few more years.

Now I am 23.  I finished my time at the Boston “Treatment Centre” and was back in Canada.  I used my previous work experience in Boston to obtain as position as a Correctional Officer at home in Toronto.  I was proud to be an Officer and excited to do my part of protect and serve the community.  By this time I had much more experience with conflicts, both physical and verbal.  I was learning but still hadn’t really “come into my own” as an Officer.  I relied on experienced senior offices to help me learn the job.  They had the experience and know how that I did not have at the time.  As time went on, eventually I became the experienced officer that the rookies relied on.  When you spend enough time in jails, supervising inmates, you start to see things that others do not.  You read such things as body langue, verbal tones and body proximity.  You see how groups can congregate into a pack mentality if they are planning an unfair group assault against an unsuspecting victim.  You spend enough time in there, you can walk on a range that appears perfectly normal to the naked eye, but you can “Feel” the tension and you know a storm is brewing.  This 6th sense gets built in and you never really turn it off.  I have not worked in an institution since 2013 and I officially resigned in 2015.  It has been 7 years since I have been on duty and to this day, those senses are still very much with me.  When I am in the grocery store and the PA goes off, I still immediately STOP what I am doing and listen to the announcement with keen ears.  This is after years and years of responding to a Jail PA,  “Code 1, 7A, Code 1, 7A” and running to whatever danger lied ahead on the other end of the code.   You can take me out of the jail, but you can never take the jail out of me.  I am still very much an Officer and I always will be one.  That job changes you.

Experience is a factor

Now before I conclude this Blog entry, let me make VERY clear, I am NOT advocating you go out and try to pick a fight to gain “experience”.  If someone steals your parking spot or gives you a bit of attitude or a dirty look, you’re best weapon is your brain.  Reading someone’s body langue ques like balling their fist, touching their face, moving in close, moving into a bladed stance, raising their voice, cracks and anxiety in the voice…All of these are ways the body responds to prepare you for possible confrontation.  I knew I had shifted from “Normal” to “Institutionalized” when I no longer got an accelerated heart beat when working my shifts at the jail.  I would confidently address unpredictable situations with my valued and talented shift partners.  By talent, I do not necessarily mean their ability to defend themselves, but their ability to use their intelligence and words as weapons to defuse a volatile situation.  Working as a Correctional Officer allowed me an opportunity to work with some of the most bravest and intelligent people I have ever met.  These everyday hero’s that keep us safe are often forgotten behind the walls of the institution, never to be thought of by the general public.  We lie safe in our beds at night, while they could be breaking up a fight or responding to medical emergency in the middle of the night.  If not for them, then who would keep our most dangerous members of society at bay?

In 2013, I decided it was time to start my own Martial Arts school to do my part of share my experiences and knowledge with the general public.  I wanted to help people feel empowered with the tools to needed to respond to confrontational situations.  At Elite, we commonly role play situational awareness training and mock fight scenarios.  I tell the students “I know you did not sign up for acting classes but this is an important factor in training”.  I can teach a person to be a very talented Martial Artist.  They can be physically superior and have a very high talent level in the class room BUT if they have never been in any conflicts before, they are prone to freezing.  If they cannot break through that frozen wall and react in time, they are in serious danger.  The Krav Maga training at Elite does a great job of providing this valuable life experience, without the consequences of actual real world confrontation (mainly the legal complications and physical dangers).  Fight or Flight is a real thing that I have experienced both ends of.  This doesn’t only apply to fights.  This can also apply to everyday adversity.  What if a loved one had a medical emergency and required immediate action to save their life? Do you have the ability to spring into immediate action to safe them or does the situation overwhelm and you freeze?  Every second counts in this scenario.

In conclusion

In conclusion, fight or flight is very real and there is no substitute for experience.  Fight or flight as it applies to any experience in life.  I do my best to share my knowledge with my students to provide them all the coping mechanisms I can.  My advice is to embrace your experiences both positive and negative.  Both the positives and negatives make you the person you are.  Use your life experience to grow as an individual.  Be honest with yourself when changes need to be made (much like my example of the gang fight at my first jail).  Learn about yourself, who you are and what makes!  With that knowledge and experience, you will continue to experience personal growth.  You may really surprise yourself with what you can achieve and the obstacles you can overcome.

I hope this was an enjoyable read for all of you.  Continue to grow and improve your life skills and a better version of you will be the end result,


Kru Dan Novak

Owner/Head Instructor

Elite Martial Arts Toronto