The Truth About Freezing

We were taught as beginning-level self-defense students that the enemy of success (success being defined as survival) was the dreaded freeze response. "Freeze and you're as good as dead," was the line we were fed time and time again. 

We were taught as beginning-level instructors that one of our most important jobs was to help students override the potentially lethal freeze response through the repetition of self-defense techniques under intense stress until they were committed to muscle memory. 

But what is the freeze response? Why does it happen? How important is it to overcome? How important is it to focus on in training? And is there a downside to focusing on freezing?

As the conversation about women and boundary setting of all kinds in the face of harassment and assault gets louder and louder, the infamous freeze response has become an issue that we can no longer ignore and should no longer demonize. 

What would happen if we stopped focusing on the spontaneous reaction; a short-lived response that we can’t control, can’t predict and that has almost no bearing on the outcome of the situation? What if we instead turned our attention to the actions we may choose to take following that response?

For well over a decade we've worked with survivors (some of whom had been students of self-defense prior to being assaulted, some of whom had not) wracked with paralyzing guilt over a previous freeze response, debilitating panic that they were destined to freeze again, and soul-crushing conclusions surrounding their self-proclaimed lack of strength, power, voice, ability, and sometimes even desire, to keep themselves and their families safe. 

We've worked with hundreds of students so convinced that a freeze response would be the same as a death sentence that even the slightest hint of a freeze during training would trigger an immediate and thorough collapse of confidence and self-esteem, leaving a smoldering pile of rubble consisting of fear and doubt. 

And we've worked with students and other instructors so desperate to right the "wrong" of a previous freeze response, or obliterate the potential of a future freeze response (the ultimate revelation of weakness in their eyes), that they set about adopting an extreme facade of aggression, vowing openly to castrate anyone who looks at them sideways, but often resulting in a struggle with the social isolation and internal stress that can come with such intense hostility. 

Into the mix let's add the universal experience shared by women (ourselves included!), and many men, of being spoken to or touched in a way that makes us feel less than, demeaned, undervalued, smaller, vulnerable and powerless but being unsure of how to respond, afraid to respond, or simply too shocked to respond. Oh the endless line of internal questioning that follows: "Why didn't I say something? Why didn't I do something?"

What does it mean about me as a person if I simply froze and did nothing? What kind of person would just let that happen?

Finally, let's include a society that continuously questions why someone didn't say no, walk away, or fight back if they didn't like what was being done to them; why someone didn't speak up right after the assault or harassment occurred; why someone waited hours, days, weeks, months, or years to come forward; and you get the very real, albeit illogical, untrue, and destructive myth that unless you IMMEDIATELY respond to a threat you're (a) weak (b) broken (c) into whatever is happening (d) as good as dead, or at the very least hurt, if the threat is physical (e) several or all of the above. 

There are factors beyond the instinctive nature of a freeze response that can affect when a person responds to a threat, or even if they respond at all (social, professional, familial, threat level, and financial just to name a few), but in this article we are only focusing on the biological predisposition we all have to freeze in the face of danger. 

We would never question or judge a person for immediately fighting back or fleeing, so why do it when they exhibit the equally instinctive, biologically preprogrammed response of freezing?

Here's a simplified version of the adrenaline response: your brain responds to a stimulus based on the perception of a threat which triggers your pituitary gland to release a hormone called ACTH, your adrenal glands to release epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline), and the production of cortisol to begin. These chemical changes result in, among other things, physical changes intended to prepare your body for survival such as: increased heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugars and fats; increased blood flow to major muscle groups and the reduction in blood flow to smaller blood vessels particularly in fingers and toes; increased blood clotting function; decreased digestive function and salivary as well as tear production; and the dilation of pupils.

These physiological changes prepare your body to fight or flee if/when either choice offers your best chance at survival. They do not initiate fighting, nor do they initiate fleeing, but merely prep your body for either or both. However, fighting back and running away are not the only choices; freezing is a survival mechanism that must be added to the list. Freezing is an instinctive response that occurs often and frequently in nature, and it's one that, for many people, is the default setting when faced with a threat -- perhaps originating from the need to gather more information, strategize, or in the hopes that the threat will move on. 

Most people have heard of the “fight-or-flight response.” It’s time we educated more accurately by teaching the “fight-flight-or-freeze response.”

At a recent event we taught, we found ourselves surrounded by a group of women who were completely preoccupied with worry about whether or not they might freeze during our upcoming full-force suit training portion, despite having just received hours of instruction from us. As a last ditch effort to support them freeing up some mind space and shedding anxiety, we suggested they simply assume that they will initially freeze. "Now you don't need to worry about whether or not it will happen," we offered, "Just assume it will happen since it's a completely normal and likely response. But a freeze does not mean you must remain frozen, so let's prepare to take action post-freeze, if you choose to do so." There was a collective sigh. This approach might not be the right fit for everyone, but it might be for you if you find yourself consumed with worry about freezing, or freezing again as the case may be.

The reality is that the fear of freezing, the misconception that action must be taken immediately or not at all, the erroneous conclusions drawn about freezing, and the freeze fear mongering taking place in self-defense and martial arts schools, all contribute to the incidences in which a simple, momentary, instinctive freeze response turns into paralysis. 

There is a huge amount of work left to do in order to shift the paradigm of victim blaming that prevails in our culture, as well as the outdated, fear-based "doom and gloom" method of self-defense instruction, but perhaps the greatest impact we can make at this moment in time is by accepting and normalizing the freeze response to ourselves, our friends, family, colleagues and students. 

5 Important Truths About Freezing

  1. Freezing is a normal, preprogrammed, instinctive response to threats. It is neither connected to nor indicative of strength (neither physical nor mental) in any way. 

  2. If you have ever frozen before, you are not weak. You are not faulty. You are completely, perfectly normal and capable of keeping yourself safe. 

  3. Just because you froze before does not mean you will freeze again.

  4. There is very (we're talking very) rarely an instantaneous one-and-done opportunity to respond to a physical threat after which time you're destined to be harmed. Almost always you'll have more than one chance to fight back and/or run. 

  5. Freezing isn't the same as remaining frozen. You can freeze and STILL take action if you choose. Action can be taken seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months or years after an incident begins or even ends. That is your right and your choice. 

We'd love the opportunity to train with you and your community. Connect with us so that we can learn more about what type of training you envision for your organization or network.