Now we are going to discuss some psychological concepts and principles that can help students manage their innate reluctance to use violence. We will introduce some cognitive control techniques as well as drills that will help mitigate the particular revulsion they might feel about using a knife against another person.
Cognitive control techniques are designed to provide students with increased control over distracting or stress-inducing thoughts. They can be instrumental in managing fear and resolve.
HOW TO DIMINISH OUR INNATE RELUCTANCE TO USE VIOLENCE
This reluctance is a very interesting and important factor that we need to consider in order to develop the optimal mindset for self-defense. It is widely accepted that the reluctance to hurt or kill another human being may be innate, but it’s important to look at the whole picture. While it is true that these emotional responses are innate and difficult to change, it is also true that they were developed to benefit the members of our family and clan. Not outsiders.
My hypothesis is that in our modern society, we have come very far from the daily life-and-death struggles of our ancestors. Most of us don’t have to kill to procure our food and have been sheltered, to various degrees, from interpersonal violence so effectively that we extend this “genetic courtesy” to non-members of our family and clan as well.
If we are serious about taking responsibility for our safety, we need to reacquire that distinction, to intuitively discriminate between non-threatening people who can rightly be considered part of our “extended” clan, and a violent and aggressive person, clearly a stranger, an outsider to our clan, a threat to our own survival.
Think about it: the aggressor is trying to take your body or your life. He is trying to prevent you from going home to your husband, wife, kids, sisters, brothers, parents, friends … it’s a long list. And everybody on that list wants you to fight back. They want to enjoy your company again. To smile, laugh and grow with you. What if this violent predator is trying to take a loved one away from you? How quickly the ability to visit violence becomes valuable, indispensable even, to our physical and psychological well-being, to our very survival.
COGNITIVE CONTROL TECHNIQUES
First the students need to come to terms with the hard fact that sometimes violence is the only available solution. They need to look within and reconcile that fact with whatever ethical, moral, religious, and philosophical values they may hold. They need to explicitly give themselves permission to hurt or kill a human being if their life or the lives of their loved ones are at risk. This decision cannot be taken during an attack because it will surely slow down their response. It needs to be taken ahead of time and it needs to be deliberate. Students should articulate it and write it on a piece of paper, preferably during class.
As an example, here is mine: “In order to protect my loved ones and myself, I’m ready and willing to use all the skills at my disposal (avoidance, de-escalation, defensive tactics, weapons) to stop the threat with the least amount of violence necessary.” These words are supported by my moral and ethical beliefs and are congruent with laws regulating self-defense. These words resonate deeply with me. Find words that resonate as deeply with you.
2. Positive Emotional Triggers
“A tribe including many members who … were always ready to give aid to each other and sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.” (The Descent of Man, 1871, Charles Darwin)
But the true value of this genetic trait for our survival on any given day is psychological. When I’m focused on protecting someone, I’m not intimidated by thoughts about my safety and I’m much less prone to be distracted or give in to fear. My mind is free to focus solely on what I need to do to stop the threat.
If a loved one is present, they become my Positive Emotional Trigger, but I would like to reproduce that effect even when I’m alone. I want to mentally switch from “defend” to “protect,” from feeling threatened to feeling challenged.
I choose my wife as my Positive Emotional Trigger. If I find myself in danger, I visualize her right behind me. I am the only thing standing between her and the attacker. At that moment, I couldn’t care less about the consequences to my safety, about what may happen to me. All I want to do is stop the threat by any means necessary.
This is not bluster … try it. Sit down for a minute and visualize it. On an emotional level, the visualization of someone trying to hurt a loved one immediately elicits sheer indignation and rage. Rage is an extremely powerful emotion. It is an antidote to fear and has the potential to push us through our psychological barriers to use violence effectively.
HOW TO MANAGE OUR REVULSION TO USING A KNIFE AGAINST ANOTHER PERSON
In order to have a better chance at prevailing when attacked, we need to push through our psychological barriers to using a knife to stop a threat. We need to be able to use a knife and use it efficiently. To find the best way to achieve this, I started to research Stress Inoculation Training.
“In both medical and attitudinal inoculations, a person’s resistance is enhanced by exposure to a stimulus strong enough to arouse defenses and coping processes without being so powerful that it overwhelms the individual.” (Stress Inoculation Training, Donald Meichenbaum, 2007)
SIT was developed as clinical intervention designed to treat pathological psychiatric conditions, and is very effective at helping patients cope with the effects of traumatic experiences. One adaptation of SIT that became of particular interest to me was Stress Exposure Training, which takes a slightly different approach. Its general structure is similar to Meichenbaum’s cognitive behavioral approach, but SET differs from it in one very important way: it takes a proactive approach to stress inoculation. It is not a cure. It provides prophylaxis. It can prepare students for potential stressors and situations that they are likely to encounter.
I started to integrate SET into my program with very positive results. SET methodology is divided into three phases.
- 1. Information provision: Provides information on the human stress response, conditions participants should expect to encounter, and other preparatory information.
- 2. Skills acquisition: Designed to develop and refine behavioral, technical, and cognitive skills.
- 3. Application and practice: Includes practicing skills under conditions that approximate the operational environment and that gradually attain the level of stress expected. (Stress Inoculation Training, M. Lauria, 2015)
During this phase, I provide students with information about the reasons behind the difficulty most people have training to strike with a knife, and the targets they have most trouble attacking. I explain how we are going to train past that. We talk about the physiological effects that stress has on performance, and what they can expect going through the drills. I assure them that with proper training, they have the capacity to work past these inhibitions.
This is a very important but often misunderstood phase. We need to develop the fundamental technical skills of how to use a knife efficiently, and develop them in as much context as possible. We have to do that in conjunction with the appropriate cognitive and behavioral techniques that will enable us to apply those skills under stress. A lot of people unfortunately miss these points and focus primarily on practicing the technical skills in very limited context, very possibly setting themselves up for failure.
The cognitive control techniques we talked about earlier can be implemented here in training. They are designed to change emotional condition: decrease fear and anxiety by substituting negative thoughts with positive, task-focused thoughts, and they are as important to train as our “tactics.”
The students have to gradually focus their strikes toward the face, neck and groin, and I push them to make contact through the target each time, whether they are stabbing or slashing. It is not easy for the students at first. You can see the coping process: students get nervous, giggle, joke, make faces, and generally try to switch to less intimate targets, like the limbs, torso and back. This is normal; they are working through the stressors that would normally inhibit them. At times I have to remind them of the increased efficacy of striking the more intimate targets, but eventually most students are able to consistently target the face, neck and groin areas.
That’s when we begin to gradually increase the complexity of the simulation. The student acting as the “anatomically correct dummy” starts to move and tries to hamper his partner’s defensive strikes so he/she learns to control the aggressor’s limbs, varying angles, trajectories, and strikes on the way to access the high-priority targets.
APPLICATION AND PRACTICE
This phase is designed to take the skills developed in phase two and apply them under increasingly stressful conditions. Sound familiar?
In fact, when I put them through the first low-intensity scenarios, even under a moderate increase in the emotional load, most students revert to striking peripheral targets with poor follow-through. When that happens, the students have to go through scenarios with the same level of intensity until they can manage to strike through the priority targets. Only then is it beneficial to up the stress level. The cycle continues until they can apply the appropriate responses during high-intensity FoF scenarios.
Following these steps ensures that students will gain familiarity with the effects the stressors involved with using a knife cause. They will find ways to successfully cope with them emotionally and psychologically and will assertively practice the efficient application of their tactics, thus increasing their self-efficacy, confidence, and mindset.
I sincerely hope this series of articles has been beneficial to you and your students. Leave a comment below or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.