It 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.”
…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”.
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