FirstDefenseFirst Defense:
Anxiety and Instinct for Self Protection
By David Hopkins, PhD
Paperback, 200 pages, illustrated
ISBN: 9781594393426
Published by YMMA Publication Center, Oct. 1, 2015

Reviewed by Gila Hayes

We commonly think of anxiety as a bad state and avoid it, sometimes even to the extent of being drugged to hide from uncomfortable worries. What if we embraced anxiety as a useful tool, if put to its best and highest use? What if we learned to make anxiety work for us instead of against us?

In First Defense: Anxiety and Instinct for Self-Protection David Hopkins, PhD writes that anxiety indeed is a valuable weapon. The author combines psychological principles relating to violence and psychotherapy with martial arts and self defense, drawing on his experiences in close protection and investigative work against terrorists and criminal elements, including organized crime. Pondering those experiences, he began to ask himself why he had prevailed in risky situations and likewise when he was injured, what he had missed that might have let him stay safer?

Right from the beginning, Dr. Hopkins identifies three key maxims:

  • Instincts are the key to making the right decisions under the most challenging conditions.
  • Anxiety is the link between instinct and good decision-making.
  • Being “fully present in the moment” opens access to details anxiety identifies so we can get through “the difficulties of life.”

Anxiety is different than fear, Dr. Hopkins asserts. Fear creates a reactive state. Properly managed, anxiety acknowledges the threat, enabling responses and a variety of options. “Anxiety connects us to what is really happening, which allows us to choose the right path based on true reality,” he writes, adding later in the book, “We ride the anxiety, allowing it to drive us in our resolve. We read our experience through our senses and take action.”

First Defense is “about strengthening any martial artist’s ability to be more successful in facing the enemy,” Dr. Hopkins writes. Harnessing anxiety for self preservation must be honed through practice and training. Training exercises are included at the end of each chapter, with advice to readers to put what they learn into daily practice so the skill becomes stronger with use. “It is really a way of life, like any martial art when practiced to its full potential,” he writes.

The exercises focus on every-day life. This starts with listening fully, instead of making assumptions about the speaker or analyzing him or her. The same openness to the unknown helps in defending against a threat, Dr. Hopkins adds. “If we want to be more proficient in sensing whether a person is a threat, or even predict what action the person is going to take, we must listen with the third ear,” he notes, quoting psychologist Theodor Reik who wrote that the third ear is sensitive and attuned to the person to whom you’re listening

In the first chapter, Dr. Hopkins explores the considerable volume of sensory input of which our brains are aware that falls below conscious acknowledgement. We can gain access to this information and use it by consciously feeling anxiety and using it to take in details we’re missing consciously but logging subconsciously, he asserts. We choose which sensory inputs to be consciously aware of and deny those that make us uncomfortable. “We all help shape our reality by allowing ourselves access to the information that helps us stay in our comfort zones,” he explains.

Bombarded by tremendous quantities of input, we separate them into hearing, smell, touch and vision, trying to make sense of it. Through categorization, the whole is lost. Focusing on a single sense is like tunnel vision. When our senses pick up something out of the ordinary, Dr. Hopkins advises registering the “peculiarities…without immediately making a decision as to why they are peculiar. As you focus on a particular stimulus, whether a person or something else, keep allowing yourself to take in the entire environment at the same time,” he teaches. Acknowledge the threat, but stay open to the greater experience, he urges.

Dr. Hopkins posits that realistic training cannot teach self defense as “a playbook” because threatening situations don’t happen according to rules. “Even with technical training we are not truly armed as warriors unless we season our ability to experience anxiety and follow it as it guides our actions through accurately reading our world,” he writes. Day to day life creates expectations that act as playbooks. When reality deviates, the dangerous situation seems surreal, so we freeze or deny the danger. The only path to safe resolution is facing the danger “with decision and focus, accepting reality and anxiety we feel, following our instincts,” he warns.

I think this explanation of why we freeze up when danger surprises us and how to avoid the freeze, pays for the book all by itself. Trying to apply a playbook from “normal” prevents successful resolution of a dangerous situation, and applying conclusions from earlier similar experiences to the one at hand is ineffective, too. Dr. Hopkins relates that once, when a crowd of drunken soldiers ganged up on him, panic tunneled in his focus on only one of the assailants. “I did not concentrate on being completely present in the moment, without interpreting or trying to control it. I did not allow myself to simply live the how of the experience, allowing the anxiety to flow and fuel my instincts to take over and use my training to defend myself…Instead, the little boy from the playground fights was there, and the situation was too much for him.”

This leads to a valuable discussion of associations—memories that come strongly to mind, sometimes with seemingly no connection to the present. As training, the author recommends being aware of memories, even when they “have nothing to do with the conversation taking place. It is a mistake to think the information is simply haphazard and of no value. Often at such moments, our unconscious is picking up something the conscious mind is not,” and the association, while probably not literal, hints at something important. For the armed citizen, this skill can pay big dividends if called upon to detail what he or she perceived to create the instinctive knowledge that lethal attack was imminent.

Correctly reading an aggressor’s intent—early enough to preempt injury without becoming the initial aggressor—is a problem for armed citizens. In First Defense’s fourth chapter, Dr. Hopkins writes that in nearly every nation on earth, the right of the individual to use force, up to deadly force, to prevent injurious or deadly assault, is an accepted standard. “What is less clear is the degree to which we are allowed to protect ourselves in that narrow window when an aggressor has decided to attack but has not yet attacked,” he warns. Mind reading would be useful, he notes, adding that psychology establishes that humans “have something approaching that ability…If we are completely present, and we pay attention to our instincts, we can pick up on an enemy’s intent to attack before he does so.” Signals of impending attack may be “a miniscule amount of movement…in the shoulders, hips, neck, eyes,” he accounts.

Here, verbal intervention may be attempted, “to take away his edge by easing his anxiety,” but Dr. Hopkins warns, “That is not, however, a tactic to avoid physical confrontation as described previously…What I am essentially doing is creating a psychological distraction, tricking him into thinking I do not want to fight..”

Citing the “very thin line between psychology and biology,” Dr. Hopkins explains that defense techniques targeting anatomy associated with lethality can contribute to psychological dominance. He eschews pain compliance for defense against life-threatening attack, but recommends “playing on the enemy’s fear of death in order to weaken him.” Physical defenses that affect breathing, vision or hearing are all effective, he writes, concluding, “Attacks that target several or all of the senses can be especially effective in giving both physical and psychological advantages over the enemy.”

Toward the end of First Defense Dr. Hopkins teaches after action assessments to get the most learning from experience. This chapter also serves as a very tidy synopsis for the material in the foregoing chapters, tying together different elements and clarifying some of the more obscure concepts. In the introduction, the author offered, “In this book you will learn to effectively use your anxiety with true presence and concentration, feeding your instincts with information vital to survival. This is the key to success in a combative situation. You will also learn to manipulate the anxiety of the enemy in order to weaken his or her abilities.”

How well was that goal met? Dr. Hopkins’ instruction is complex and nuanced, so a study of First Defense is not likely to be successfully completed over a short reading period. Think of it, instead, as a workbook for use over a number of week or months. Used thus, it promises a valuable improvement in polishing our perceptions and awareness, with unexpected side benefits of better articulation abilities after use of force in self defense.

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