Most people can’t fight ‘cold’. They need the emotional edge of fear or anger to get over the taboos involved in hurting people. Not everyone, but almost everyone. Even very experienced fighters, whether good guys or bad guys, want to be “in the zone” just like any other athlete. Part of being in the zone is an optimum level of adrenalization.
I’ll use adrenaline throughout this as easy shorthand, but know that the SSR (Survival Stress Response) is caused by a slew of hormones and neurotransmitters, not adrenaline all by its lonesome.
There are lots of symptoms of adrenaline– breathing changes, pulse rate, pupils– that I don’t care about because you can’t see them. Signs are distinguished from symptoms in that signs are what you can see.
So common adrenaline signs:
Gross motor activity. Under an adrenaline dump you want to move. Pace. Flex. It seems like as the adrenaline increases both the activity increases (the pacing becomes faster) and seems to concentrate in the big muscle groups– legs and shoulders.
Clumsiness. Big muscle groups up, small muscle groups down. Shaking, dropping things.
Voice gets higher pitched. Loud is one thing, but I listen for the squeak. Couple of reasons. The funny one is that every team leader so far has had his voice crack the first time he gave the ask-advise-order-check. That reads as nervous to the threat, and we almost always had to fight. Second reason, high pitched voices are one of the signs of fear and fear, like any emotion, is contagious. If one person squeaks or screams, nearby people are more likely to get stupid. Third reason, if the threat hears his own voice break, he may feel compelled to fight to prove that he is not afraid.
Swallowing and licking lips. Or drinking a lot of water if available. Adrenaline burns up a lot of water and makes you very thirsty. Side note: Tardive dyskinesia is one of the side effects of long-term use of psych meds. Street people call it the ‘thorazine twitch.’ Tardive dyskinesia also involves a lot of lip-licking with darting tongue movements but will also have sharp twitches and (usually) hard blinking.
Rhythmic movement. Almost every person I’ve seen under an adrenaline dump does something rhythmic. They tap their fingers (especially if they are trying to hide the fear/anger.) Or they bounce on their toes. Some hum. Not usually whistling, the mouth is too dry to whistle.
Color change. Getting red is part of the threat display. These guys don’t tend to bother me. They might get stupid and become dangerous, but that’s not the sign I’m looking for. When a threat goes pale, things are about to step off. The paleness, of course, comes from peripheral vasoconstriction. the body is trying to make sure that if the saber-toothed tiger gets an arm or a leg you won’t bleed too much. Think of sudden pallor as the body clearing the deck for action. Things are imminent.
Danger happens at the intersection of adrenaline and purpose. A drowning man will be adrenalized and have the purpose of breathing, which makes you look like a flotation device. A mugger needs money for drugs and will get his adrenaline into the zone to do the crime.
Some notes, before we go on.
1) Fear, anger and love. I’m a big believer in the James-Lange theory of emotion. The theory states that first there is an event, then there is a hormone dump and THEN you ascribe an emotion to it. They noticed that there’s not really a huge difference in the signs and symptoms of intense emotional states. If your mouth is dry and your palms are sweating and your knees are weak and your breathing is rapid and shallow… are you afraid? Or in love?
You get those symptoms when you see a bear, you call it fear. See someone attractive, the exact same symptoms are called ‘falling in love.’
So, especially for this subject matter, fear and anger are different labels for the same chemical state. The labels, however, can be powerful motivators. If you call it fear, your instinct may be to curl up in a fetal position. You call it anger and you may fight. There is huge power in consciously labeling. More power, IMO, in NOT labeling and just using the chemicals… but I don’t think that’s something you can do the first several times. Maybe.
2) Whistling and lighting cigarettes. There are some iconic things in old movies. Lighting a cigarette will show any tremor in your hands, and it is one of the things the heroes and some of the bad guys used to do to show how calm and in control they were. In real life, back when bars allowed smoking, many bouncers practiced so that they could calmly light a cigarette under an adrenaline dump. People subconsciously got it. Calm can be very intimidating in the right circumstances. Same with whistling. I don’t suggest whistling around threats, especially mentals, since any high-pitched sound tends to increase adrenaline, but it might help calm you.
Most of the adrenaline control methods taught require a certain amount of time. They work better for people responding to a violent situation than people who are attacked. There are a few tricks, but this is about reading a threat, not controlling yourself.
Someone engaged in social violence generally won’t try to hide his adrenaline. It’s part of the show. The two groups that will try to hide it are criminals and professionals.
Professionals (like bouncers lighting cigarettes mentioned above) tend to have elaborately relaxed body language. Their job is to defuse the situation if at all possible, so they will close distance and get in position while giving relaxed and non-threatening body language. They will be focused on the threat, however. If you see someone who should be showing the signs and isn’t and they are focused, assume you have a professional. (As opposed to someone who should be adrenalized and is oblivious, in which case you have your basic nitwit.)
Criminals have to close the distance and set you at your ease. They have to appear NOT to be focused on you and they want to control the adrenaline. Many will engage in self-calming behavior. When your kids are hurt or afraid you pick them up and hug them, right? You basically pet them like small animals. Self-calming is doing that solo. Rubbing the face or neck are the most common.
This probably goes at the end, but danger is in the matrix. When you see someone rubbing his neck and not making direct eye contact but looking at you it’s a sign he is adrenalized and trying to control it. If you’ve known him for awhile (the social aspect of the matrix) he’s probably working up his nerve to ask for a date. If he’s a stranger? Hmmm. If he is a stranger standing at an abnormal range, with asocial feet alignment and no witnesses? Big red flag.
There is one more professional reaction, but not necessarily criminal. One of the things with criminals is that they can time when to attack, so they can control their own adrenaline. They can get themselves excited (with visualization, ritual or self-talk) to raise their adrenaline and they can get the adrenaline under control by waiting a little longer, breathing, or other self-calming behaviors.
Victims don’t get that choice. When the threat arises, they get an adrenaline dump. If YOU are a force professional (LEO, soldier, bouncer) your job will be to accost people. From their point of view, you are the threat. You will use the same techniques bad guys use to control your own adrenaline (and, hopefully, more consciously, trained and taught and more effectively.) But the people you confront will not have that option. They will get an adrenaline dump.
If they go pale, things are on the edge of going bad.
If, however, the subject goes pale and relaxes and his eyes unfocus, you may be in for a very bad day. Most people tense and shrink up when the adrenaline hits hard. If you see the relax and the thousand yard stare you have stumbled on someone with extensive experience with adrenaline. He knows how to use every last drop of it. If you see this you may well be in for the fight of your life.
On the good side, if you see this the subject is still thinking clearly enough you can reason. You can rarely do that with the ones who go white and tense up.