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Introduction to the Freeze Response

Many people worry about "What if I freeze in a self-defense situation?"

To which I say "Good thing to worry about."

Freezing can be a problem, but it isn't THE problem. The problem is that there is no simple answer to 'what to do' about freezing.

That's because while freezing is the end result, there are many roads that can lead there. What works to overcome freezing on one road, doesn't necessarily work if you're coming at it from the other direction.

As for the freeze part, you might want to read what I wrote in Secrets of Effective Offense. The story behind it is this. Dave Grossman (author of On Killing) mentioned to me he was thinking of changing his four part model from fight/flight/posture/submit to fight/flight/posture/freeze.

I told him NO.

It's less elegant than the four response model, but submission IS a legitimate strategy ... ergo stick with it. The model I told him was a five possible response options:

  •        Fight
  •        Flight
  •        Posture
  •        Submit
  •        Freeze

But then I went on to explain that there are two kinds of freezing. 'Tactical' and 'At A Loss' I explained those in Secrets. I've expanded it since then, turns out there are three kinds of freezing and a few more variations within those categories.

Tactical Freeze Response

'Tactical' is you are freezing because it serves a purpose ... usually camouflage or buying you time.

Camouflage is obvious, you see a tiger and you freeze so hopefully it doesn't see you. This is pure animal response level. On this one though you need to tell people DON'T F**KIN' LOOK AT HIM SCHMUCK! (Whether you believe in mojo [i.e. he'll sense you looking at him'] or the scientific explanation [that our monkey brain searches for forward looking 'eyes'] doesn't matter). Freezing and staring will get you noticed.

Eyes track movement, especially the peripheral vision. It attracts our attention. The flip side of that is that peripheral vision doesn't really see that well. If a predator isn't looking directly at you, NOT moving is a good way to avoid being seen -- even if you're in the open(1).

Here's the thing about tactical freezing. It's temporary. You're waiting to see the results of the freeze. Did it work to not get you noticed? Grrrrrrreat. Now get the hell out of there before Tony the Tiger DOES notice you. Did he see you any way? Okay, plan B.

Buying time is also tactical. Generally  this version comes in three types. One is you know you've f**ked up and you also know further movement will make it worse. The analogy I use is a pressure-release mine in a rice paddy (Okay, so I'm showing my age). It blows up when you step off it! So when you step and hear something go 'click,' you freeze!  As in OH S**T!  Take another step, you and everyone around you dies. You tell the rest of your squad and hopefully they can come up with something to get your a** out of there instead of everyone getting blown up.

A key element in this type is you usually have back up who can haul your a** out of the sling. Freezing allows you to call in the cavalry.

"Something ain't right"

Another type is you know something ain't right, but you don't know exactly what's wrong. You freeze while you try to figure out what's off about the situation. Because, if you move you might make it worse.

Now this is a good thing BEFORE things start going sideways. However, if it is going bad, it's time to move. The trick is to figure out which is which.

In fighting, this is categorically a BAD f**king response. I learned long ago that if something is coming at me that I don't recognize GET THE f**k OUT OF THE WAY! I didn't want to know what it was until it missed. I was talking to Aaron W*** last night about an honest to gawd flail/morning star that he used to carry up his sleeve. It didn't have spikes, but it was a medieval fail. It was a brass ball on a chain that he taped to his bicep. If he flicked his arm just so it, came loose, rolled down his sleeve and fell into his palm. The chain looped around his wrist and he basically had a pool ball on a string. That also gave him 18 inches of extra reach. A lot of guys went down trying to figure out what that weird arm flip that he'd just done was. So tactically, there is a time to freeze to figure something out and a time not to.

Gather More Information

The third type of tactical freezing is gathering more information. But not in the sense of WTF? It's watching for extra information that will help you decide on the best course of action. You're gonna act, but you want as much information as possible. I'm sure you've 'stayed still' a couple seconds longer to gather intel rather than just run around like everyone else.

Into this category you can also add, "I'm making a plan."  As in 'okay, that tree is too far away, that one's closer. Tree B it is.' A lot of the time you'll see varying degrees of 'freezing' as in the person isn't totally frozen, but is moving very slowly (e.g. easing his hand towards a weapon)

Aside from the guys who get knocked out while trying to figure out what is wrong, let me stress again -- tactical freezing is temporary. It is a phase you pass through not only in the hope that it works (so you don't have to act), but it also allows you to get READY to act. That last one is a BIGGIE!

At a Loss

However, a lot of time the freeze extends past 'freezing for tactical purposes' an moves into the the next kind. At A Loss' freezing happens in four basic manners.

First  type is you just totally skip a groove. Boy I really am dating myself, using vinyl record references (but a CD skip just doesn't have the same sound). You are confronted with a problem that your amygdala just doesn't have an answer for.

The stimuli comes in, the amygdala goes 'F**k if I know how to handle this' and sends the problem back to the higher brain for clarification. But the higher brain is at a loss too. ALL parts of the brain are stuck going 'homina, homina, homina!!!!!'

Another type is that you have NO experience letting your lizard brain drive. The monkey often steers the lizard, but few people really have experience letting the lizard brain truly drive. (Actually that's not true, women who have given birth do). They've spent so much of their lives disassociated from this aspect of themselves that they have NO experience giving it control to let it do what it needs to do (e.g. run like hell). This is ESPECIALLY common in people who pride themselves on how 'smart they are.' This to the point of arrogance about them being 'better' than dumb violent types. I tell them, "You're smarter than a dog, but you can still get bit ... especially if you don't apply that intelligence to understanding dog psychology."

I've seen both types of freezes when the fecal matter hits the fan. People just stand there. I started making the distinction between these two types because talking to them later I'd get two different answers.

1) I didn't know what was going on (or what to do).   

2) I knew I should run, but I just couldn't(2).

Both of those are closely related to the third option that you do NOT have 'faith' in what you know. Specifically you're not sure what you want to do is going to be enough. You see this in martial artists and rookies all the time. They've learned a move but they don't KNOW that it works. I mean to the point that you're willing to bet your life on it. So when the moment of truth comes around, they freeze up instead of following their training.

A BIG issue of this is that you can get a partial freeze (if you've ever played a video game where your character can get frozen and it slows him down you'll have a good model). Instead of executing the move with full force and commitment (which might work) you get a mamby pamby execution where the person is hedging his bets. It's almost as if the person is chanting to himself "IhopethisworksIhopethisworksIhopethisworks!!!"

while doing it half-assed. The weak execution pretty much guarantees whatever you're doing is going to fail. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A subset of this type isn't physical freezing, but mentally skipping a groove. Here is where the scratched record analogy really works. You do something you expect to work. When it doesn't, you do the exact same thing over again. But usually harder or louder.

A common example of this is security recordings of people trying to escape a fire when they come running up to a push-bar door. Such doors are NOT supposed to be locked from the inside (but often clubs do because one person pays the cover and then lets his or her friends in through the fire door). What you will often see is, during a fire, people will hit the push bar and when it doesn't open they continue to beat on it. Even though it isn't working, it is 'supposed to' so their monkey brain gets caught in this loop. Instead of seeking another exit they try to 'make it work' until they are overcome by the smoke.

I know those two examples aren't exactly 'freezing.' But they are so damned intertwined with the issue that we either need to include them or come up with a new term other than 'freeze' to describe what's going on. That's why I like the 'cold damage' idea from video games. You aren't frozen stiff, but you're cold enough to be seriously slowed down, either physically or mentally.

The fourth type of 'at a loss' freezing is when two programs inside your head collide. And this does result in actual inability to move.

Basically it's like when two programs in your computer try to fight over the same extension. What it ends up doing is freezing your computer. Let's say for example you've lived your life according to humanist principles. So down deep you believe in the value of human life. Yet you're so angry that you want to kill someone. Just as you're about to pull the trigger your respect for human life shows up and says "But wait!! Is this really the right answer?"  And you can't pull the trigger.

That's an extreme example, but I've seen this happen ... a lot. Hell, I've had it happen to me; where I knew someone had to die, but the raw fact was I really cared for the guy. I couldn't do it. (Fortunately the issue was resolved by someone who didn't care about him as much as I did).

A huge component of conflicting programs is something Desmond Morris talked about. Unless someone is totally off in Goonie land, it is THE  'hitting the gas and brake pedal' issue when it comes to violence. It's the desire to get what I want vs. the fear of getting hurt.

Conflicting Programs - "Hitting the gas and the brake"

Now this last one is also something that professionals have to watch for too. Someone who's done this a hundred times can one day find some little factor has changed, or some cue triggers something, or he's just having an off day and ZAP! He chokes.

A huge component of conflicting programs is something Desmond Morris talked about. Unless someone is totally off in Goonie land, it is THE  'hitting the gas and brake pedal' issue when it comes to violence. It's the desire to get what I want vs. the fear of getting hurt.

Morris talks about any alpha no matter how much bigger it is over a beta, risks the danger of pushing the beta too far. IF the would-be alpha tries to take away what the beta needs to survive, the beta will turn on the larger animal and do everything in its power to hurt it. This isn't about dominance or status any more. The beta will go psycho.

AND if the beta does -- even if the larger animal kills it --that injury will lower the bigger animal's status. Unable to function at its former capacity, the alpha will be turned into a beta. So there is both a short term and a long term fear of getting hurt, even in the monkey brain. You were right in telling your guys NOT to push someone into panic. Cause if they did, all hell would break loose.

Here is where you get another kind of 'conflict freeze.'  It's between 'I need to go forward' vs. 'this sucker is out to seriously hurt me.' And I'll argue with you that this level of danger is always panic based (beta in survival mode). There are many agendas that can bring a person to this level of 'ohs**t!' danger.

When you find yourself facing it, the need for accomplishing the job vs. danger to yourself can often cause a freeze. This isn't fighting, this isn't dueling to first blood, this isn't an emotional hijacking and acting on your emotions ...

It is combat.

Where even if you don't get killed, there's a good chance that winning involves you taking crippling injury.

I've seen a lot of folks -- who had been convinced how big and bad they were -- piss themselves when the other side returned fire. Or opened fire first. All that tough-talk, posing goes out the window when serious s**t comes flying back at them. Going head on at someone who is actively trying to kill you is something most people -- including murderers -- can't do

The Map is NOT the Territory

Rory Miller is working on his own theory about freezing. In a phone conversation after what you just read was emailed he brought up an extremely valid point: The map is not the territory.

This is true of ANY model, but it especially applies to human behavior. However, when it comes to violence there is an added dimension to the problem. I'm going to frame this in terms of teaching: A bad model is going to get YOUR students hurt.

While you can't prepare them for every possible situation they will encounter,a flawed or shallow model WILL increase the numbers of injuries of the people you don't want injured. This is further complicated by restraints of time, budget and -- in the case of professionals -- the need to have 'boots on the ground' instead of in training. Even if that training could save their lives.

The problem with freezing is (because it can happen in so many different ways) there is no ONE map that tells you everything. And this is over and above the 'map is not the territory' problem.

So how do you help people whose lives -- or the lives of others -- can depend on NOT freezing?

There is no one answer. Can adrenal stress/scenario training help? Absolutely, but the problem with any training is that it is task specific. So a medic who is trained not to freeze while applying triage might freeze when attacked. And in the same vein a fighter who doesn't freeze when attacked can freeze when it comes to applying first aid to a wounded comrade. Just because you're conditioned to respond in one set of circumstances doesn't mean you will be able to react every time. Again, the map isn't the territory.

To this we're going to suggest that instead of trying to make one map cover everything, you think in terms of a map with overlays. One map is the topographical. An overlay shows waterways. Another overlay shows roads. Still another one shows population centers. And another shows state, county and city divisions.

The map is still not the territory. But the more accurate your maps and the more information you have, the less likely you are to find yourself lost when you're standing on the ground your maps represent.

An example of this idea is that the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)undergoing a massive surge is the physiological cause of a lot of 'freezing.' That is a huge factor when discussing this topic. As is the fact that when you are in a SNS surge it's hard to think. That could be the topographical map. The system I just presented could be different overlays.

How much of each is important? They both are, but how much is going to be going on in a given situation? Until you are actually in a situation, you won't know how much of each is going on nor what it will take to break free of the freeze. Or -- if given the circumstances -- if you should (e.g. it's a tactical freeze).

Conflicting Programs - Tonic Immobility

The third category of freezing is appears to be as much of a learned response as a survival strategy. You'll see it in both humans and animals.

What's weird about it is it's a blend of both types. It is both tactical AND 'I don't know what else to do.' What's more is it is EXTREMELY emotional.

Among humans, it appears less about buying time than it is 'this is a strategy that is known to work.' At the same time the mind kicks the person into a "I cannot move" mode.

The term 'Tonic Immobility' seems to especially apply to this kind of freezing. When there is the perception of no chance of escaping or 'winning' this kind of freeze. A study by Bados, Toribio and Garcia-Grau (above link) states: Tonic immobility is characterized by pronounced physical and verbal immobility, trembling, muscle rigidity, sensations of cold and numbness or insensitivity to intense or painful stimulation.

In short, it shares a great deal in common with 'going into shock.'

This kind of freezing is common among abuse victims who have been 'groomed.' But that statement bears closer examination. What is interesting is that among wild animals this behavior occurs during the attack. This too applies to humans who have no (or little) experience with physical violence. The freeze occurs during the assault.

This kind of freezing can often be seen in 'stompings' where the person has fallen. In that case he simply curls up and protects himself to the best of his ability while being beaten. If the person is still upright, you will often see a hybrid with the 'flight' response where the person covers up and attempts to flee from the rain of blows.

With individuals who have been systematically abused this kind of freeze can be induced verbally -- or with just the presence of visual and emotional cues.

I'll return to that in a bit, but I want to point something out, in a situation where the person has deemed there is no chance of escape or winning, freezing is a strategy. They've learned to freeze and take the abuse becausein a deep level of their brains, they KNOW they can survive IF they freeze!

We're not talking a wounded mouse playing dead so the house cat might lose interest. We're talking a proven strategy

The reality is in an ongoing abusive relationship maybe this time they won't, but their lizard/monkey brain has stable data that if they lock up, they will survive. Is it horrible? Yes. Is it awful? Yes. But this strategy has a proven track record of working when that person is attacked.

Where things get complicated with this kind of situation is that this 'program' usually kicks way before the first blow is ever struck. Which causes one to wonder if it is a kind of pre-shock. By just receiving 'previously experienced' stimuli the person goes into this pattern of behavior.

I say this because this reaction is often triggered, not at the legitimate danger of an assault from an abuser, but in any kind of conflict -- with anybody. No matter what degree the conflict, this person's monkey brain kicks it into a matter of life and death. It's not(3). But their limbic system is convinced it is.

You're not going to overcome this deep seated conditioning with a couple of counseling sessions or a weekend long adrenal stress inducing self-defense course. The raw truth is that such behaviors are complex cocktail of interactions between two people. Sometimes it IS between a bully and a would-be victim, but other times it's a person with a dysfunctional past reacting to a normal conflict as though it were another round of abuse(4).

Wrap Up

These different categories of freezing are just a roughed out summation of the factors I have come while looking into this subject. I don't claim to have an answer to this problem. But I can tell you that anyone who does is lying to get your money.

The thing about the 'freeze' response is that while standing there doing nothing is end result, there's like ... 18 different ways to get there. The bitch is what works to get you over the freeze when you're coming at it from one direction DOESN'T work for the other 17. And that goes for those 17 other answers too.

What makes this worse is that people want a simple answer to a complex problem. They're looking for 'that one thing' that will solve their freezing problem. When I tell them there ain't no such critter, they get pissy.

There's a reason I drink...

My best answer is that it is critical for BOTH the instructors and students to know that FREEZING WILL HAPPEN. Both tactically and because of the 'homina, homina, homina!' and 'oh s**t!'  factors. No matter how big and bad you think you are, it's gonna happen. It happens to everyone.  It's especially likely if you're monkey and lizard brain have stable data that enduring the abuse is a reliable survival strategy. That's some deep programming that ain't no weekend seminar is going to unwire.

People who survive 'factor in' the potential for freezing in their strategies and tactics.

For example, with civilians when you get the "F**K I CAN'T GO FORWARD!" you need to be able to 'slam it into reverse.' Unfortunately a lot of civilians can't do that (whether they have an emotional investment in getting what they want or pride in the story they've told themselves about who they are) so they end up freezing in the absolutely worst spot. The hardest thing to teach these people is NOT to put themselves into situations where this is likely to happen.

This especially applies to people who want to 'rewrite their history' where they WIN this time. That's a muther'n big problem because they are the ultimate gas and brake stompers. Their monkey brains sends them speeding towards situations like this and then they slam on the brakes at the worst possible time. Or they do what so many RBSD/violence geeks do and spend their entire lives obsessing about violence at the same time strenuously avoiding situations where it goes down (what's the definition of a fanatic? Someone who won't change their mind or the subject?).

With cops and military, if someone freezes  in a team entry, it is not unlike one of your team members got shot and is out of commission. However, a cool thing about these tactics is back up. If you freeze, hopefully your partner won't. The problem is how do you teach cops to not freeze when they are alone? This especially applies to correctional officers.

In conclusion

As you can see there is NO simple answer for  the freezing problem. Often a tactical freeze changes into a different kind of freeze. Another common problem is that people are so wrapped up in their magical thinking (If I do that he'll do this) that they are totally caught off guard when someone chooses a different option.

Our intention with this isn't to give you a prepackaged answer that will solve all your freezing problems. It is instead to show you why you need to research further into WHY you might freeze. The more overlays you have foryour map, the less likely you are to get lost when you are out there.


1) Lt Col Dave Grossman, founder of Killology On Killing

2) This is one of the things Rory and I (Marc) have to sit down and talk about. The 'alpha' pushing a beta into a frenzy is not my idea, it is Dr Desmond Morris's. Specifically it is what can happen when an insecure alpha (a beta who is attempting to be an alpha) pushes the lower beta to the point that the lower beta can no longer get what he (or it) needs to survive.

Following Morris's idea the lower beta is literally fighting for its life -- or to be more specific what it needs to live. I think of it as a kind of berserk that the lower beta can be pushed into. This is a very dangerous situation for the aggressive pseudo-alpha. Even if the lower beta is killed there is a good chance of the aggressor being injured. Rory and I have discussed this and something he knew from time spent working in Yellowstone National Park is a grizzly bear will attack a car and then walk away. A moose however won't stop attacking until the car is stomped flat. A predator knows dead is dead, a prey animal (the moose) doesn't so it will continue to attack.

I think this 'not knowing when to stop' same mechanism for both lower betas and the insecure alpha. I say this in light of the fact that the insecure alpha (glorified beta) IS trying to establish his or its dominance and usually makes a hash of it. Rory is not convinced it's the same thing To be fair, his assessment of a real alpha not stooping that low is accurate. This issue is going to need face time, a couple of chairs and some whiskey and cigars to iron out.

In the mean time, you might take this idea of 'prey animals not knowing when to stop' over to the What If Monkeys page and see if the WIM syndrome makes more sense in this light (as in, since they don't know when to stop, they assume nobody else does either)

Marc MacYoung