You’re in a situation with your wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend that makes you nervous. Your car has broken down, it’s dark, and you’re in a bad part of town. Your try to tell yourself to relax. You’re a martial artist with years of training. A shabbily-dressed man approaches you. Your stomach tightens. He asks for “spare change” for a drink. You refuse but he persists. You start to walk away and he follows. You can smell the alcohol on his breath. He starts to reach out to you and you pull away. You back up, your wife behind you. You do not want trouble. Does he read this action as fear? Predators feed on fear, you remind yourself. He stalks closer, he eyes moving behind you to your wife. He has crossed your safety line. You get feelings you tell yourself you should not have ?doubt and fear. You tell yourself to be calm but it worsens. You don’t know what to do. You’re frozen in indecision. Fear overcomes you. Your heart races and you have trouble catching your breath. Your hands shake, your vision narrows, your hearing shuts down, and your mind races with negative thoughts. Where is my Zen-like peace? Where are the techniques I’ve worked on for so many years? Why am I afraid? You pray your skills will kick in, but will they?

Every martial artist’s deepest fear is that when they need their combat training to defend themselves or their loved ones, they will hesitate or freeze. Most martial artists spend years sharpening their physical skills, yet spend little or no time developing their mental ones. They fall into the trap of thinking that physical techniques alone will ensure peace of mind in a violent encounter. Then when a real fight occurs, they are shocked at their response. Many quit training in the martial arts after such an experience, thinking their art failed them, or that they failed their art. In reality, though, they only neglected to train their brains as well as their bodies.

Mind Training

To train the mind to resist fear, you must first be able to realize the difference between an “adrenal push” and its physical effects, and the psychological state we label as fear, and make friends with both. Only then can you put them to good use. The first part is to separate our physical responses from our psychological interpretations of them.

Fear is defined as a strong, often unpleasant, emotional and physical response to real or perceived danger. Adrenaline is a natural hormone secreted by the adrenal glands that are nature’s response to stressful environmental triggers. Its only job is to prepare the body for action ?be it fight or flight. Fear should be your ally. The process of fear comes in basically four steps.

  1. Pre-Event Adrenal Drip: This state occurs often. Many people refer to it as a stress reaction. You’re tense, slightly nervous and on edge. If this state is prolonged it can exhaust you. This is why stressful jobs “burn” you out. This state is intended to put you on alert ?physically and mentally. It also releases neuro-transmitters for heightened mental focus. Fear of fear can increase this.
  2. In-Event, Primary Adrenal Dump: This occurs rapidly and very intensely. It is when your adrenal glands “dump” large amounts of the hormone into your system. This is to prepare you for major physical activity. The effects of adrenaline are varied, but it is important too remember that this state is the ultimate survival tool. Adrenaline can cause a variety of effects to the body. It can tighten the muscles in preparation for trauma. It will cause visual exclusion or narrowing of vision, which causes you to lose your peripheral vision, creating tunnel vision. It leads to auditory exclusion, in which you lose a high percentage of your hearing ?this is why athletes can’t hear the crowds at athletic events. Adrenaline can speed up the heart rate. It can release ATP to give extra physical strength, but it can also cause rapid exhaustion, giving you the shakes.┬áMentally, it can cause rapid cognitive activity, giving you an overload of thoughts ?usually negative ?which can flood your mind, making you feel overwhelmed. It can also increase your breathing rate. These things, in and of themselves, are bad and are not to be feared. They prepare your body for action. People that channel this into productive use excel in tense and stressful situations. These are the people who do better on rank tests, fights and other events when most people go down a notch.
  3. In-Event, Secondary Adrenal Dump: This is a second dump which increases the effects of the above, as well as blocks pain, gives a secondary rush of energy, and creates extra negative thoughts. This state is intended to give you that “second wind,” of extra physical endurance, strength, and power to finish your task. This state explains why some people get better as a game, or fight, goes on. This is why in football, some athletes go out of their way to get hit a few times, in order to “get into the flow of the game.”
  4. Post-Event Adrenal Drip. After an event, the adrenal glands secrete small amounts of adrenaline. This causes slightly higher physical tension and leads to mentally repeating the event and reliving the fight. This state is much like the first and is intended to help your body readjust to the effects of the stressful event. This leads to physical and mental exhaustion.

Channeling Fear Into Power

Once it is understood that the physical states of fear are intended to help you, the importance of not labeling these as “good” or “bad” is obvious. Just accept these states, then let the mind take over and channel the extra energy from the adrenaline to your own use. To learn to harness fear, the first step is to recognize that it is normal. Insight and knowledge opens the door to channel this wonderful, power-packed state into something that can give you an edge in hostile situations. The first step is to find and identify the first feelings of fear ?the pre-event adrenaline release: How do you feel? Where do you feel it (stomach, chest, shoulders, back, et cetera)? What is your state of mind? To do this exercise, think of something that makes you fearful such as a confrontation with your boss, an IRS audit, or stepping onto the mat for a tournament fight. Relive the situation, note the above sensations, label the information, and store it.

Next, think of a time you were at your very best and were physically and mentally sharp. It could be a tournament you did well at, an academic test, or a business deal. Now imagine a circle on the floor. This is your circle of excellence and power. What color is this circle? Does it have a sound, a taste, a smell? Do this until you’ve established a recognizable and identifiable presence for it.
Now, think of your positive event and step into your circle ?pull the circle into you. Throw your shoulders back. Feel the focus and the power. Repeat this twice. Now step out of the circle and access your fearful state. As you begin to feel the fear (the adrenaline state), step back into your circle and breathe in deeply. Do this five times. This is the first step in turning fear into power. Now, when your body starts to access the state of fear, it will naturally go into the circle of power. The more often you do this training, the more automatic the response will be when confronted by a stressful situation. As Tsunetome Yamamoto, an 18th century samurai, said, “The realization of certain death should be renewed every morning. Each morning, you must prepare yourself for every kind of death with composure of mind. Imagine yourself broken by bows, guns, spears, swords, carried off by floods, leaping into a huge fire, struck by lightening, torn apart by earthquakes, plunging from a cliff, or as a disease-ridden corpse.”
It may sound morbid, but if you can imagine your deepest fears, death, humiliation, loss of pride, and step into power, you will be in a better position to face whatever comes your way. It will help you to develop the heart of a warrior.

Dr. Will Horton, a martial artist and the founder of The National Federation of Neurolinguistic Psychology, is available for consultation, speaking engagements, or seminars by calling 800-758-4635, or visiting