Man's arm sticking out of water representing drowning in stress.

Rock steady: How to control your emotions under stress

I scanned the room through my one good eye, trying to spot the next attack. Earlier,  I took a finger smack to the eye. I had always heard it created temporary blindness. I thought that meant seconds. Apparently, it means hours. 

By now, everyone was on board with the strategy. Each attack pressed harder and faster from my blind side. 

Heart pounding in my chest, every breath became more labored as I tried staying one step ahead of what was coming next. The physical toll was bad enough, but then it birthed an emotional toll. Doubt and panic began setting in as I sensed myself falling further behind each new assault.

Then I heard the call. Seven minutes left. I felt my body slump, and for the first time ever the thought of failure crept into my mind.  

I didn’t really see the next punch coming; more like felt it bearing down. It was coming in fast. I could feel the tension filling the space between myself and the attacker. This one was going to land if I didn’t move, and I was stuck in place like someone had nailed my feet to the floor.

Observing stress

Luckily I was learning the lesson above in a training environment- albeit an excruciatingly realistic one- as part of my second instructor test. It was an honest lesson in how stress affects the body and mind.

Since then, I’ve watched many of my own students face the same challenges. Those observations reveal three basic reaction patterns, two of which are detrimental in real life.

Though the two negative reactions are different, their symptoms begin the same. High heart rate, increased breathing rate, tunnel vision, and hyper-focus. Of course, that list related directly to the (improperly named) fight or flight response.

The two negative reaction patters are 1) fear, and 2) anger. 

Of course, if your life is in danger, fear- and possibly even anger- will always be present. The trick, for lack of a better word, is not letting fear or anger dictate your actions. Ideally, you steer your actions back toward the midline action, which we’ll refer to as neutral.

Why is control or “neutral reaction” important?

Fear and anger are natural parts of the survival instinct. The problem comes when those reactions take over to the extent they- instead of you- control your actions. We don’t want to cancel the effects, only corral them into a positive influence.

Fear, for instance, tends to cause the freeze effect. The problems with freezing while under attack are so obvious, you know them without me stating them here. But digging a little deeper, there are some more subtle problems with the freeze response. 

The freeze response isn’t always a literal freeze, as in stand in place and do nothing. It often occurs as instinctive actions like reflex movements. And herein lies a problem. It isn’t unusual that nothing happens after the initial reflex.

Natural reactions are a great for initial survival, but not necessarily for what comes next. Let’s take a fall, for instance. When we fall, we instinctively reach out to catch ourself. But that also puts us into position to injure wrists, elbows, and shoulders. If we have to stand back up and fight, that’s a problem– and why we have break falls.

Another example is reflexively lashing out with ineffective strikes. Or worse, merely trying to hold an aggressive person at arm length. If your arms are flailing, the strikes aren’t doing any damage except to yourself. You’re wasting energy, and quite often allowing the other person time to create a more dangerous attack.

But what about anger? Wouldn’t a fighter full of fury be a good thing? 

Not necessarily. 

Man extending middle finger as an anger response.
Photo by Jack B on Unsplash

An anger response often leads to a vengeance mindset.  Setting out to get back at the attacker, make them pay, or prove something to them is an ego based response. Getting mad, to the point it control your actions, gets you in trouble. Even in training, I see students get angry and lose control of their technique and intensity levels. 

Whether in training or real life, anger can lend a false sense of what you can or will do to the other person. It rarely, if ever, ends well.

One other consideration here. When you react based on anger and a vengeance mindset, you run the risk of using excessive force. Even if you’re in a legitimate self defense situation, too much force will land you in legal trouble.

So how do you control these negative reactions under stress?

5 steps for controlling emotions under stress

1) Focus on your shoulders

Humans tend to hold stress in the shoulders. When we feel stress, our shoulders hunch and tighten. This causes a couple of problems for self defense. 

For one, when we tense we can’t move efficiently. Furthermore, hunched shoulders restrict the lungs’ ability to expand, meaning you can’t get much oxygen to your brain and muscle cells. 

Instead, focus on letting the shoulders soften and drop

2) Breathe deeply

As mentioned above, hunched shoulders restrict your breath. But even if your shoulders are loose, we tend to hold our breath under stress. I’ve had serval student come to me after a Tai-Chi-speed drill and ask why they feel so out of breath. Every time it’s because they’re holding their breath or breathing improperly.

Holding our breath is just something we do; one of those reflexive responses that serves a purpose (braces you for impact) but can quickly become detrimental in an attack.

First of all, focus on belly breath, meaning breathing from the diaphragm so the belly expands and contracts. Improper breathing involves breathing high in the lungs, and usually happens along with tense, slouched shoulders. 

Next, make sure you take deep breaths. Belly breathing helps. Deep breaths help regulate the blood pressure and calm the mind. That’s one reason meditation is a great stress reliever. 

In contrast, short staggered breaths deprive the brain of oxygen, leading to quicker fatigue and keeping you from thinking clearly.

One way to ensure you breathe is to speak. When you speak, you exhale. That means you’ve got to take a good breath in at some point. But what do you say?

If you’re in an alpha/ego type scenario, speaking likely entails de-escalation tactics. if it’s a predatory attack scenario, maybe you’re screaming for help, or screaming at the attacker.

3) Scan

What if I told you the obvious threat isn’t always the real threat?

People tend to hyper focus in a self defense situation. A mistake I see often is students focusing on their attacker’s hands. The problem is, when a punch is thrown, they tend to watch the punch all the way to their face.

Hyper focus is especially present during knife attack drill. Everyone want to focus on the blade. But the blade can move much faster than your eyes can track. 

And there are even bigger problems with hyper focus. For instance, if you’re locked in on one person, how do you know what’s going on around you?

Scanning- meaning your attacker and your surroundings- helps solve that problem.  

Woman scanning the horizon.
Photo by Andrew Ly on Unsplash

If you’re watching the attacker’s right hand he has balled up in a threatening manner, you may not notice the knife he’s hiding in the other hand.

Likewise, if you’re hyper focused on the person approaching you from the front, you’ll miss his partner creeping up behind you.

In both of those scenarios, the obvious  threat isn’t actually the real threat. 

In the first scenario, the fist is a distraction; the knife is the real threat. Same in the second scenario. The first person in the front is a distraction; the real threat is the person approaching from behind.

4) Move

When you stand still, you become an easy target. Once the attacker gets his range, he’ll rain down continuous attacks. There are instances, too, where moving first- becoming the attacker- is your best survival option.

Scanning, which we mentioned above, is the first step to creating movement. Scanning means you’re moving your eyes and your head. But we also need to move the body, especially the feet.

It’s basic physics. An object in motion tends to stay in motion, while an object at rest tends to stay at rest. When we plant our feet, we become stuck there.

The best form of movement is for you to run like hell. But that’s not always realistic. 

Setting physical boundaries helps you move because you’re actively creating space between yourself and the attacker. Likewise, you could position yourself closer to an escape route or an improvised weapon

Plus, moving your feet keeps you primed for action. When you stand flat footed, the first motion your body makes to step is shifting your weight to the balls of your feet. When you keep your feet moving, weight is already there. That means your first reaction will be faster than if you’re standing still.

5) Focus on solutions, not the problem 

Perhaps the biggest frustration for self defense students is feeling like they can’t do something. I don’t mean they can’t do a technique they just learned. Think more of an attacker grabbing you in a rear bear hug, and you find you can’t move your arms.

Human instinct makes us focus on moving our arms, even though we can’t. This is another type of hyper-focus. We tend to focus on what we can’t do instead of what we can do.

Or, we tend to focus on the problem instead of the solution. In other words, we focus on what is happening to us rather than what we need to do in order to rectify the situation. 

Concentrating on the problem doesn’t fix the problem. Plus, if you’re busy focusing on the punch instead of moving your feet, that punch can quickly become a new problem- maybe being knocked to the ground and a bigger person jumping on top of you.

Focusing on the problem leads to an “I can’t believe this is happening” mindset. Instead, focus on the tactics you need to perform in order to handle the situation.


I didn’t really see the next punch coming; more like felt it bearing down. It was coming in fast. I could feel the tension filling the space between myself and the attacker. This one was going to land if I didn’t move, and I was stuck in place like someone had nailed my feet to the floor.

I took a deep breath, picked my spot, and mustering what felt like the last ounces of willpower, un-nailed my feet to get there. From that moment on, I focused on one pattern only: scan for the threat, move my feet, meet the threat. 

The rest of test went smoothly- or as smoothly as an instructor test can.

Like any other self defense technique, controlling your emotions under stress takes practice. It’s something I see students struggle with on a regular basis. And yes, I still struggle with it from time to time.

The good news is, it’s something that can be handled if you take time to learn- and practice- how. Even though we don’t face survival scenarios every day, most of us do face some kind of stress every day. Sometimes it’s at work. Other times it’s a family situation.

The five tips, while written for self defense, can help you take charge of emotional stress in any situation. The more you train it, the less you’ll have to think about it.

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*Featured image by nikko macaspac on Unsplash

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