Q&A: The Stress Limit

Low-priority question that I’m just asking out off curiosity: what is this psychological “break” that you keep mentioning?

It’s a psychotic break. Everyone has a mental limit to the stress their mind can handle before it becomes too much, and they have a psychological break. This isn’t the fictional “sexy” psychotic break where they turn into some kind of animal. This is just the mind temporarily losing contact with reality. It’s a period of high emotional stress where the mind reaches a limit to what they can handle. In a combat role, the individual can no longer handle what you’re asking them to do. They can still go on with their lives, go home, get treatment, and, possibly, recover. However, they can’t fulfill their combat role anymore. This isn’t the kind of injury you tough your way through, either. The damage is, for the most part, permanent.

From a martial perspective, the psychological break is when a combatant is stressed beyond the limits of what their mind can handle. Whether that is in training or on the battlefield itself. The kinds of abusive training scenarios that many writers envision serves only to hasten this break by layering so much trauma on the trainee so quickly that they’ve no time to adjust to the new stress levels. This is usually because the writer in question has limited experience with any sort of training, much less martial training.

The problem with having a character kill a friend or even just a training partner during training is it’s traumatic. This won’t actually make it easier to kill people you care about less in the long run, especially since killing people you don’t care about is, usually, less traumatic. Your trainee could kill their buddy and be fine, but they could also end up grieving, depressed, guilt stricken, and suffering from PTSD. They might be pushed to the point where they’re no longer suitable for high stress situations. You’re gambling a lot of effort on their mental stability, especially when there are plenty of other methods available to test whether their personality is compatible with the role they will be assigned. (Like the training itself.)

You see, killing someone at the end of your training is not a test so much as its an initiation ritual. If your character succeeds they will be welcomed into a new brotherhood, a graduating class among which all of whom share their experience and their sin. This post-trauma love bombing serves as a means of lowering their stress, and adjusting reality so what they did becomes normative. The kill feels like an accomplishment, paling in comparison to the goal they’ve spent their whole lives working towards. They’re not unique, and they’ve a whole collection of new brothers and sisters who can help them work through it. That’s ultimately what binds them to whatever group or organization they work for, and not the kill itself.

If your character is part of an organization like this, you can guarantee they’ve been mentally worked over and prepared for this point during the course of their training. Morals are fluid, ever shifting, and entirely adjustable. After all, the point of training is to teach your student how to handle more stress and avoid an overload.

Your mental limit isn’t a hard one. In fact, your mental and physical limits can be moved. They’re not static. This is one of the purposes of training, so you build yourself up over time by learning to handle more and more stress. The goal is to prepare the student for the crazy training they’ll see five years down the line by teaching them how to break through the mental barriers they’ve set for themselves on their physical limits.

The mental limit and the mental barriers are in two separate categories. The mental limit is the point their mind can’t go past and that’s much further out than the mental barriers. Mental Barriers can be broken because those are based in what the student believes they can do versus what they actually can. An example of this is that most students in high school, for all their moaning, can actually run a mile. Their bodies can handle that, but they don’t think their bodies can or they don’t want to. Unless they’re part of a sports team or run a mile regularly, most of them will end up walking the minute they’re outside their teacher’s sight.

The good trainers understand the difference between the mental limit and physical limit versus the “I can’t” mental barriers. Over time, you teach a student to push past the barriers they’ve internalized. Those are what they believe is possible for them to do, you move their mental limits and physical limits forward.  This allows you to push them to perform more challenging actions and pursue tougher training. The student learns to discern the difference between discomfort and actual pain, and then they are the ones who are figuring out when enough actually is enough. The elite fighters we talk about are the people who are constantly pushing those barriers forward on their own, they are finding their boundaries and working to break past them. That is the major difference between them and the more average trainees around them.

The crazy training most people imagine is a point we work towards, not where we begin. This isn’t these teachers “going soft” on their students, it’s acknowledging that everyone has limits and we’re going to work them toward that point rather than throw them at it.

If you asked a guy who just signed up to go through Special Forces training of seven days of constant work without  sleep, the vast majority are going to crack. They’re not mentally or physically prepared for it. They could be, though. If you gave them the time and training they needed to get themselves ready.

Like every other type of physical training, martial combat is a staircase. You are climbing toward specific goal points, these points allow you to take on more stress than you did before. This includes tougher training, more dangerous techniques, tougher conditioning, more reps added, more responsibility, and even teaching younger students as a means to improve your skills.

In this way, the stress your mind and body can bear is strengthened. You come out of it a stronger person.

This is especially important to understand when working with children. Children are still developing, their brains are making patterns, and this means they’ve a chance to go much further in what physical stress they can take when they reach adulthood. Properly conditioned with not just faster reflexes but reflexes honed specifically for martial combat. They’ll also be in peak physical condition.

However, the manner in which you could hurry an eighteen to twenty-one year old who signed up for the military through extensive and rigorous training and quickly escalating over a matter of weeks can’t be done with a child of nine. Their minds aren’t developed enough yet to handle that kind of stress, much less the murder party stress some writers imagine.

This is when emotional or psychological trauma comes in. When we reach a point where the mental limit breaks, the trauma endured puts them into a state where they can’t function, at least not in the way you want them to. Everyone has a mental limit for what they can endure and when you push them past it, especially with extreme situations, they break down.

Trauma is the main issue with most fictionally imagined abusive training scenarios. You can’t traumatize people into being better soldiers. Trauma specifically is putting intense pressure on that mental limit, this training is not attempting to forcibly push it forward but actually break it within a short span. The way abusers want to break their victims, so it’ll be easier to make them behave how they want. The problem with this mindset, especially when turning out combatants, is that you need your soldiers to be able to make decisions in the field. Extraordinary skill is all well and good, but that’s all it is. What makes a combatant truly great is their mind, their willpower, and understanding they can push themselves farther than they might ever be made to.

With children and violence, they don’t understand what they’re doing in the moment. The ability isn’t there to process what’s happening. Grief in children is different than with adults, and the true weight often hits as a delayed reaction at some point later in life. So, when you put adults through traumatic events the emotional and psychological bill for it will eventually come due.   With kids, they’re still developing as people. They don’t know what normal is.

You can ask kids to kill people. The problem is they will, eventually, realize what they’ve done and they’re not absolved within their own heads just because they didn’t know what they were doing at the time. That’s a bill coming due, and ultimately will affect the long term health of your fighting force. Worse, you have no idea when or how it will manifest. The goal is to get your trainees through their training without giving them a nervous breakdown.

This is actually even more important with warriors who need to operate anywhere on their own for prolonged periods of time, like special forces, spies, and assassins. They need to be stable enough to do their jobs and what their jobs ask of them, make decisions, plan operations, and act as their own agents where there’s no possibility for backup.

You can have a guy who just does what he’s told as a regular soldier. That’s a good grunt, he’s not going anywhere up the ranks but he’ll serve his purpose and may take on more responsibility if he manages to survive. His job isn’t to do any thinking, but to follow the orders he’s given. The issue is you need your warriors who work in isolation to be able to think. They have to plan, problem solve, and create their own initiative. They don’t sit around waiting for orders. Even when they’re given an assignment, told to go somewhere, and kill someone, they’ve got to do the ground work themselves. This means establishing their cover, do their scouting, build on the information they’ve been given, and perform all other work associated.

You actually have to train them to think. If you never contemplated the idea that your assassin or covert operative as a highly driven and intelligent individual, you probably should consider it. If they’re used to working solo they could break from whatever organization they’re in, provided they’re willing to accept the associated risks. They’d be looking over their shoulder for the rest of their life, but they have all the skills they need to create a false identity and just go teach at a primary school somewhere or work as an office bureaucrat. Lots of spies end up working for corporations as security services. Your hitman easily could land a cushy office job somewhere with a major company cleaning up small problems on their dole. If they want to lay low, they could land a job as a small time bounty hunter hunting down bail jumpers.

Always remember, whenever you’re writing training sequences, these characters have options. Also remember: their teachers know they’re imparting a useful skill set.

For certain personality types, assassination is going to be one of the most stressful kinds of work. Not just as combat work, but getting close to people, earning their trust, and ultimately breaking that trust wears on the mind over time. This is a stressful job with a lot of responsibility where you’re constantly simulating connections that you don’t feel. There’s no reason to jumpstart that stress during their training outside a set of limited and controlled circumstances. It won’t help them do their job. Worse, it could sabotage their development in the end.

When working with training for field operatives or real world combat, trainees are always prepared on the assumption they may die. This is already a fact of life for soldiers throughout history, and the idea they may watch their friends die is going to be a given. This is going to be a major source of trauma. Survival is just as much luck as it is skill. Abusive training methods won’t change that.

The mental limit is when the mind endures so much psychological trauma they have a nervous breakdown. You can’t psychologically scar someone past that damage. People don’t tough their way through it, they can work through it with the aid of therapy but not on the battlefield. On the logistical side, someone who has been mentally compromised to that degree is unlikely to be making sound decisions. That, or the trainee breaks for freedom at first opportunity. This is also a bad thing. They’re taking whatever knowledge your organization gifted them with into the wild.

Again, abusive training is ultimately a form of self-sabotage. This is why smart people don’t do it. The people who are good at combat are ultimately the people who want to be there. Loyal combatants are better combatants. If they’re part of an organization, assassins aren’t just making themselves money. They’re making their organization money.

Always ask: why is my character fighting? Why are they here? What are they getting out of this? Why are they doing this?

If they answer is “they were forced to”, you may want to think on it further. Human beings aren’t automatons who blindly do what they’re told, and anyone who’s been in business for awhile will know incentivized training is more effective than forced. Students work harder when they want to be there.

Why grab kids from nice suburban homes when you can grab runaways and orphans from the gutter instead? They’ve already got the mental outlook you want, no one will miss them, and they’ll be happy to have three square meals a day. Worst case you’ll have to dry out the drug addicts. This was actually the plot of the original La Femme Nikita and the film(s), by the way. The government pulled runaways and drug addicts off the street,  cleaned them up, and taught them to be assassins. No one was going to miss them, and if they died? Well, they link back to no one.

-Michi

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