If you ever researched Krav Maga on Youtube, you probably found some big, bulky men breaking necks and throwing their opponents around a room with full-on aggression.

Then you came to train with us, and one of the first things you heard me say is, relax, breathe, don’t be tense. Stop being aggressive. Don’t respond with violence! And a long list of messages that seemingly contradict what you saw on YouTube and what you thought Krav Maga was.

I know, hearing this from an Ex-IDF combat soldier and Krav Maga professional seems a bit weird and unexpected.

Why am I asking my students not to be tense?

First and foremost, the chances of getting hurt are significantly higher when you are tense.  You may hurt yourself or your partner. When practicing self-defense, at least for the first few months, it is natural for the brain to get into a “fight or flight” mode.

When your brain enters “fight or flight” mode, it becomes focused on survival and not on learning. The amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for processing emotions, is activated and sends signals to the hypothalamus, which triggers the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones prepare the body to either fight or flee the perceived threat.

The release of these hormones have a number of effects on the body. You probably felt these before:

   •Increased heart rate and blood pressure

   •Increased breathing rate -or – ultimately holding of your breath

   •Increased muscle tension

   •Dilated pupils


   •Tunnel vision

And when it really hits you hard, you may feel:



   •Dry mouth

These physical changes make it even more so difficult to focus and learn. In fact, research has shown that people in “fight or flight” mode are more likely to make mistakes and have difficulty recalling information.

In order to optimize and fast-track learning, you need to know when to slow down. When you are feeling stressed or anxious, take steps to calm down and relax. Once you have calmed down, you will be better able to focus and learn. Taking time to relax is so essential for your physical and mental health.

So what do you do when you try to relax, and all you feel is anxiety, stress, or even guilt for not making your “to-do list” shorter? 

I find it extremely interesting that most people CAN’T relax. The thought of relaxing terrifies them, and naturally, it makes them more tense.

A student of mine responded to my instruction to relax with an interesting answer. “It’s a useful reminder. Still, when I try to relax, I feel more stressed, like I am losing control, so my immediate reaction is to stop relaxing,” she said while clearly trying hard not to cry.

At this point, I think she felt that she was failing to perform the technique correctly, and when I asked her to relax, she also felt like she was failing at that too. This doubled the amount of frustration for her.

Truth be told, it’s quite common for individuals dealing with anxiety to experience increased stress when they’re not engaged in any specific activity. What can be expected to provide relief ends up exacerbating their discomfort.

Several factors could contribute to this phenomenon:

  1. Trauma stands out as the most apparent explanation.

    When faced with traumatic events like physical or emotional abuse, our bodies react by triggering hormonal responses, even during progressive muscle relaxation exercises. But why do these trauma responses persist? When trauma remains unresolved, it becomes chronic. The body retains the tension associated with past traumatic experiences. That is “the law of conservation of energy, “ and it won’t go away until you learn how to release it.That is why I always prescribe self-defense classes to people who have experienced an attack. It is crucial to control the narrative and not let our body build tension around it, resulting in becoming more tense and afraid of violence than ever before. This tension serves as a defense mechanism, shielding us from potential harm. It’s akin to keeping our guard up constantly, and dismantling these defenses can make us feel highly vulnerable and unsafe. The “activated state” is where many individuals frequently find themselves stuck. It manifests as chronic hyper-vigilance, accompanied by a constant sense of vulnerability. This situation becomes particularly prominent for those who grew up in an environment where connecting with others was not “safe.”

  2. You carry worry like a shield.

    You subconsciously carry it around as protective armor (as if it is actually helping!). This happens with people who fear a sharp spike in uncomfortable emotions, so it feels “safer” to worry and maintain a low level of negative mood rather than being happy and relaxed and risk feeling very low. Worry serves to protect us from things we have suppressed from coming to the surface.

  3. Contrast-Avoidance, which is avoiding letting yourself feel big positive emotions and big negative emotions, is connected to generalized anxiety disorder.

    When we grow up in this culture, we grow up completely immersed in its beliefs; those are often subconscious, so we don’t even realize why we feel anxious or guilty when we relax. Growing up in an environment with these unwritten rules, you’re supposed to constantly assume what everyone around you needs, and you’re supposed to always “walk on eggshells” and contort yourself to accommodate others. Feeling guilty for sitting down and relaxing can create a sense of wrongdoing, causing you to strive to be “good enough.”However, you may find that constantly being in motion doesn’t make you feel secure; instead, it perpetuates the belief that you must keep running to find safety. This behavior can become addictive and is closely tied to a scarcity mindset, where you believe there’s never enough time, money, or opportunities. It extends to thinking that your home is never clean enough or that you haven’t worked hard enough. If this resonates with you, it’s essential to address it. Start by identifying your true fears and writing them down. Then, challenge their validity. Is it genuinely necessary to stay busy all the time? Is it beneficial? Does it align with the kind of home environment you desire?

    Clarify what you genuinely want and envision how it would feel to accept yourself as you are right now without dwelling on your shortcomings. To rewire your mindset, combine visualization with intentional behavioral changes. Instead of continuing the rush and hustle, deliberately slow down and proceed methodically. As you do so, recognize that you are still safe and worthy, and nobody will reject you. By consciously choosing a different approach, you can retrain your mind to learn that you don’t need constant busyness to feel secure.

  4. You are relaxing “wrong” – Relaxation isn’t about forcing the body to relax and thinking of nothing. This can backfire, so instead, learn to identify your thoughts and be curious about them instead of trying to change them.

    Your nervous system prefers the familiar discomfort rather than the unfamiliar safety of comfort. When you’re used to constantly feeling anxious, busy, and on edge, entering the parasympathetic state of your nervous system, which promotes relaxation, can feel incredibly uncomfortable. We can become so accustomed to tension and anxiety that the idea of relaxation becomes unfamiliar and unsettling.However, it’s essential to create space for this unfamiliar feeling and be willing to embrace discomfort. That is what we do on the mat. We learn how to create a different “ending” to a situation that is usually triggering and unsafe. We learn to find comfort in discomfort.  Over time, as you persist in your efforts, you’ll become more fluent in your movement. When your body changes, your thoughts change.

  5. Executive function.

    People with conditions like ADHD may encounter greater difficulty in focusing their attention on slow-paced activities, such as learning to move gradually and safely. Performing with greater speed and confidence becomes easier by practicing at an appropriate pace and allowing oneself to learn and repeat the techniques sufficiently.

Mastering the art of self-defense will bring you peace and calmness. Everyone has a need to know they can defend themselves. The way to mastery isn’t fast. It takes time and patience. It may be a challenging journey, but the rewards are truly fulfilling. As we develop the skills to defend ourselves and stay protected from external threats, we also acquire the ability to conquer our internal battles. The most formidable fight we face is the one against ourselves, and through this process, we learn valuable lessons and experience personal growth.

It can be frustrating, but it’s extremely rewarding.

Do something amazing,

Tsahi Shemesh

1 comment

  1. The timing of this article couldn’t be more perfect as I sit here reading it with a cold and body aches that are begging me to relax. Yet my inner thoughts are focused on things I really want to be doing and have to do. As a krav maga practitioner, I know it’s important to listen to my body. Thanks for yet another reminder of when and why it’s important to listen.

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