14147568216_0a95218edb_zIt was the Harvard University physiologist, Walter Canon, back in 1915 who first used the term fight-or-flight to describe the instinctual, biological reaction of all animals to fear.  From field mice to humans, when meeting with a sudden threat, animals respond with a state of nervous excitement to either flee or prepare to battle, literally, for their lives.

Adrenaline rushes through the body getting the muscles ready for emergency action. Surface blood vessels constrict so that any bleeding will be minimized. Vision heightens as pupils constrict. Breathing and heart rate speed up as more oxygen is channeled to the muscles.  All nonessential processes cease. The body sometimes even unloads extra weight…through emptying the bladder or bowels. (hence the term “scared shitless!”) Now, the brain decides instantaneously whether to fight or flee or maybe a little of both.

However, Walter forgot one.  There is a third natural response to fear: to freeze.  In his book Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool, Taylor Clark gives the example of a person walking alone down a dark street.  They hear a startling noise. Without thinking, the person stops dead in their tracks.  Their senses become razor sharp.  Their eyes widen and scan the scene taking in as much visual information as possible. They may even hold their breath in an effort to become completely silent and still, and to hear better.  They become “an alarmed-looking human statue.”

He writes:

…this freezing response probably seems somewhat wrong headed; wouldn’t it be better to get a head start and dash away from the potential threat immediately?  Actually, no.  In the wild, many predators react to movement, and if you abruptly go rigid there’s a chance that the tiger that you just spotted won’t notice you.  Think of freezing as a state of defensive preparation.  The body gets the same jolt of adrenaline that readies it for fighting or fleeing, but the brain has calculated that at least for that moment, your best odds of survival come with no action at all.”

Some animals take this to the extreme and play dead because, as an evolutionary safeguard against poisoning, most animals have an innate disinclination to eat something that is already dead.

According to Clark, the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre in which a deranged gunman killed thirty-two people before turning the gun on himself provides an example of the third “F” – freezing.   Many survivors reported falling to the ground upon hearing the shots and entering what they described as a type of catatonic trance even though they had not been hit.

In humans, freezing is usually just a prelude to the other well known “F‘s”.

image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/124465514@N06/

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  1. I wonder if freezing is the same as being aware of what’s going on? Once we become aware, then may be we can fly or fight? Or is it complete unawareness – we have no idea what’s going on?

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      In the book, he says to think of freezing as defensive preparation. The body gets ready to flee or fight, but the brain takes an initial second to assess the situation and take in as much information as possible. This is instinctual, and is not always a good thing. He cites the example of the deer frozen in the headlights. People do the same thing when public speaking. In this example, he says the audience most likely does not even contain any predators. (The book is excellently written with casual terms and easy wit.)

  2. Debbie,

    In his book Waking the Tiger, Dr. Peter Lavine also speaks about this phenomenon. Animals literally go into a catatonic-like state as a defense mechanism. One of the benefits of this state is that if they are eaten, they feel no pain. If the predator turns away from their catch, they can wake up quickly and get away. If they do, they shake off the episode. You can see this in cats when they shake. They are shaking off the hormones that were released into their body. Afterwards, they go back to being an animal with no residual effects. They don’t remember the event the way humans do. We live traumatic events over and over in our minds restressing our bodies. However, we have tools that can help us release the chemical prisons of life and our minds. These tools, which you were exposed to, not only help us get rid of the thoughts, they help us rid our bodies of the harmful chemicals created by our reactions to stressful or traumatic events. Loved the article.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Thanks, Tony. You would find this book fascinating. Guaranteed. It is all about the latest research in fear, stress and anxiety and why our modern lives create so much of it and what to do about it. Apparently, not reacting to all of it through various strategies they discuss involves calming and conditioning our amygdalas on a biological level. More blogs to follow!

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Thanks much, Angela. In this case, the F word is a good thing!

  3. Ande Waggener Reply

    I think this freezing has huge implications for our lives. If we can stop and assess before we charge into action–even in benign situations, we often act with more wisdom, from a center of peace and clarity.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Absolutely! I sure as heck did not do it for most of my life. My amygdala only did the fight or flight…mostly fight.

      My brain has surely benefited from freezing, assessing the situation, taking in as much info as possible and then acting.

  4. Really important stuff, Debbie. Thanks for sharing. We also correlate fight or flight and freeze with the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Too much dominance in either can cause one of these reactions. Often a life trauma — either meotional or physical — can cause a fight-or-flight or freeze behavior. With Brainwave Optimization, we can actually show people where they stand. Lee Gerdes’ book, Limitless You: The Infinite Possibilities of a Balanced Brain also speaks the this brain-related condition. Thank you so much for all you are doing to help educate people about the enormous capabilities of our brains. http://www.brainstatetech.com Dianne

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Thank you for your comment, Dianne. As with most everything else in life, it all comes down to balance. BWO is amazing for getting the brain back into balance and optimizing its performance…quickly too! It helped me tremendously. I am a life time fan!

  5. Esther Steinberger (Abergel) Reply

    I’ve been reading a wonderful book CPTSD by Pete Walker who adds another reaction: fawn, co-dependency and people-pleasing. So he calls it the 4Fs: flight, fight, freeze and fawn when the trauma has been ongoing and he presents lots of info and strategies to overcome this.

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