Sunday, 25 August 2013

Why we freeze during an assault - the fear response

We've all seen it: a car comes racing down the road, a deer is in the middle of crossing, and rather than run to safety, it simply stands there, watching as the car gets closer to it. And...well, we all know how the story ends. 

Fear is an evolutionary survival mechanism, though it causes us to do some weird things, including freezing during violence. Chances are, it will probably happen, which makes sense because most people's last response is to fight.

  There are many reasons why people freeze though, so let's go through some of them: 
  • Too many stimuli - your brain is taking in so much information at a rapid rate that it is unable to process what it is seeing effectively. Because most people have never been in anything even approaching a self-defense situation before, your brain has no reference experience, and because of that, it takes your brain time to find its bearings. Unfortunately, in the time that it takes your brain to do that, you can sustain some serious damage. 
  • Disconnect between 9-5 brain and combat-brain - unless you are in the military or in law enforcement, very few people train themselves to be able to shift from their 9-5 brain into combat-mode at the drop of a hat. It sometimes takes some time to shift between your day-to-day mindset into combat mode. Unfortunately, the longer this takes, the longer your freeze will be, and the higher the likelihood that you could sustain injuries from your attacker. 
  • Ethical struggle - this is especially common in martial artists/military/law enforcement people. You may have trained for years, though capacity and capability are not mutually exclusive. Just because you've gone through the motion of how to break someone's knee over and over doesn't mean that when it comes down to actually doing it that you can go through with it. This ethical struggle often causes trained people to pause before defending themselves. An assault is not the time to work out your ethics; spend time well beforehand thinking about what you could or couldn't do in any given situation. Have a few go-to techniques that you feel comfortable relying on, and that you know that you could perform in the heat of the moment without the slightest hesitation. 
  • Evolution - running away from a predator can often trigger the chase-reflex in them. Part of the reason that you freeze is that this survival method helped our cave-dwelling grandparents survive some pretty terrifying predators, and this trait has been passed down to us. Your brain is on autopilot during a high-adrenaline state, and the only thing it tells itself during a freeze is, "this hasn't gotten you killed yet, so keep doing it." This type of behavioural looping pattern can also be seen during other phases of an attack, particularly when you continuously punch an attacker in the arm, for example, even though it's not doing anything to them. Again, your brain is simply saying, "this hasn't gotten you hurt yet, so just keep doing it." Unfortunately, behavioural looping can also get you killed if you fail to break out of the loop and do something different. 
Ways to break a freeze: 
Yell loudly to break a freeze and get the attention
of people nearby who can help
  • Talk yourself through it out loud - paramedics often do this in the early stages of their career, and talking yourself through what you are trying to do can be the trigger to ground you back into the reality of the situation: "Strike to the face hard, strike to the sternum", etc. 
  • Yell, move- Loudly vocalizing or moving parts of your body (like in kicking) can sometimes bring you back to the present moment and out of the freeze. You'd be surprised how conscious you can feel during a freeze, so tell yourself to do SOMETHING! Yelling, of course, has the added benefit of hopefully drawing attention to what's going on, and having people either come over to help, or at least call the police. 
Further reading: 
Miller, Rory. Facing Violence. New Hampshire: YMAA Publication Centre, 2011. 


  1. Excellent post. The ethical struggle is particularly interesting, I think you really do have to think about what you could and couldn't do to another human being however much they are trying to hurt you - a lot of people just couldn't poke eyes whatever is being done to them. You just have to be honest with yourself about what you can do and train in those responses and don't train for things you can't do.

    1. I agree, Sue. There are some things that I just know I'd be incapable of doing; on the other hand, I know that there are a handful of things I'd have no problem doing and are totally my go-to techniques that I could perform on anyone, at anytime, if they were assaulting me. It's good for martial artists to work these ethical struggles out way beforehand.

  2. really it's superbb post. i like this.