An important thing to remember that during a serious violent confrontation that the human body undergoes some incredible chemical changes. We have detailed some of those and how we need to pay attention to them as we train. But there is one, perhaps above many others, that is one to consider. That is ‘stress induced analgesia’.

The more stress a human is under during a violent confrontation the less they perceive and feel pain.

Essentially the autonomic nervous system begins prioritizing some functions in the body to survive a confrontation. At the same time, it deprioritizes others. One of those is sensitivity to pain.

This is an incredible advantage, impact and manipulation of the body that would normally cause extreme pain and thus a severe reaction, no longer affect a person. This has enormous implications for how we train for ‘self-defense’. Many martial arts and combatives system rely on axioms that use pain as a deterrent or a tool to end a confrontation.

The Science

The science here does not support these assumptions. In fact, it contradicts them. Those kicks to the groin, broken fingers, and eye pokes have a limited effect on a person undergoing the chemical processes induced by the autonomic nervous system. There are two sources for why we should include this in our training:

No Pain:

  1. Reports by critical incident participants. Numerous studies on deadly force and violent confrontations have shown that participants do not feel the extreme pain they normally would. Sometimes they simply do not feel it, or the pain is not felt until well after the incident when adrenaline levels have come down significantly.
  2. The scientific research on stress induced analgesia. The brain simply does not register these pain sensations during a violent confrontation. The techniques that produce pain may be highly effective during sparring or as a surprise attack, but the science is clear, these are not infallible techniques to win fights.

We have developed a hierarchy of attack for our combatives training. It prioritizes attacks that will result in unconsciousness or central nervous system interruption.

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This is the rubric by which we must train for self-defense and critical incidents. Many martial arts and combatives systems invert this triangle to some degree, relying first on the assumption that pain is both a deterrent and effective during the confrontation itself. Both these are assumptions made by people who have not conducted serious research and who have not experienced stress induced analgesia in reality.

Remember, avoidance is always the priority.

Violent confrontations are unpredictable and dangerous, no amount of training can make you invincible. Failing avoidance train so that your approach to a violent incident reflects this hierarchy. Do not rely on assumptions or what has worked in a controlled sparring environment.

I have personally experienced the effects of stress induced analgesia.

During a boxing match I had unknowingly broken my right hand after landing a hard shot on an opponent. I felt absolutely no pain and continued to fight. Between rounds I noticed that something was not structurally right with my hand, again no pain, just the realization that my 4th and 5th metacarpals were completely shattered. Below is a picture of my boxing glove being removed, my face isn’t one of pain but rather disgust at feeling the crepitus of the broken bones grinding together:


Pain is not a Deterrent

One thought on “Pain is not a Deterrent

  • August 16, 2018 at 4:35 pm

    In my limited experience in physical confrontation what you say is exactly correct and is overlooked by almost any non trained combatant I know of. Then when you add a few drugs to the mix, look out. Great article Alex.


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