Fear & The Freeze Response

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Few people know more about Fear and the Fear Response than Marc MacYoung and Rory Miller. Along with their many personal experiences, both Marc and Rory have investigated this subject deeply with many other knowledgeable and experienced people.

This Learning MAP is filled with information and insight that will help you to “break the freeze”.

Rory Miller

Three Concepts of the Freeze

Three concepts first:

  1. The three stages of a fight;
  2. Fight-Flight-Freeze-Posture-Submit (FFFPS);
  3. and predatory versus social violence.

(1) Three Stages: Being on the receiving end of an unexpected attack you will go through three stages.

  • The OC stage. This is where you get hit. If you have trained by operant conditioning (OC) a response to a sudden attack, you may  be okay.
  • Then you freeze. Almost everyone freezes, even experienced fighters.  Some break out of it fast. Some don’t and it tends to end very badly.
  • The fight. If you made it through the other two, most of what you have trained will now start to work.

(2) FFFPS  Classic  Behavioral Biology lists three survival responses to extreme stress, the ‘three Fs’ Fight, Flight and Freeze. Dave Grossman (1) lists four: Fight, Flight, Posture and Submit. All five of the listed responses are hard-wired reactions to an immediate serious threat (note- a living threat. The responses to major disasters are quite different, more limited and predictable see “The Unthinkable” by Amanda Ripley). All are important to this discussion. Fight-Fight-Freeze-Posture-Submit.

The first two are self-explanatory. Freezing will be the subject of this entire paper. Posturing and submitting need some exploration. First we have to distinguish between FFFPS as hard-wired responses and as strategies. These responses have evolved and are hard-wired because they work. Things that work can be used as strategies. In the hard-wired version of these responses Posturing and Submitting will only be used within the species. Submitting to a lion gets you eaten. However, both can make conscious strategies- looking large and being loud will tend to scare off predators; I can’t count the number of times I have befriended a ‘dangerous’ dog by showing puppy/playful body language. However, I cannot think of a single case when either of these strategies happened involuntarily cross species, only as a conscious decision.

So, three hard-wired strategies for predator assaults and another two for social danger.

(3) Predatory vs. Social Violence.

Predatory and Social Violence

Predatory and Social Violence.  For our purpose, violence breaks down two ways: social and predatory. A lot can be said here. The bottom line, in social violence who the victim is is important to the threat, in predatory violence it is not. Social violence- fighting for territory, for ideas, for status- the threat fights against someone he acknowledges as a person. Most people ‘dehumanize’ the enemy with epithets, jokes and insults. A predator does not have to dehumanize because he never really saw the victim as a person anyway, only as a resource.

This breakdown is critical for freezing because some of your brain is wired for surviving a predator attack (FFF) and some for avoiding social violence (PS). Animals have different attack/fighting strategies for intra and interspecies violence. Dogs do not fight other dogs the way that they pack and run a deer to exhaustion. Do not attack each other the way that they kill elk. Elk go antler-to-antler with other elk, but use mostly hooves against wolves. A human, however can choose as a strategy tom use the Monkey dance fighting of establishing social dominance or the predator/hunting behavior of stalking or ambush or sniping or…  When and if you are attacked, accurately telling whether the threat is in a social violence or predatory violence mindset is critical. Lastly, most of what people train for and have experience in are very specific levels of social violence. The appropriate skills for those experiences are not good survival choices at other levels of social violence or in predatory assault.

What is freezing? It is not moving under stress. Sometimes it is a choice and a good tactical decision and sometimes it is a very bad decision (sometimes conscious, sometimes not) or involuntary.

One of the factors that complicates this further is time perception under stress. I have a report at home from a cell entry on a barricaded armed threat. From the time the door was opened until I shot I remember about 3 seconds of stuff. The team leader remembers about a minute of stuff, including a conversation that never happened. The rest of the stack wrote it as almost instantaneous.

The team leader was more adrenalized than I was. He perceived a very quick event to take a lot of time and his brain nicely made some stuff up to fill in the details. I was pretty adrenalized, but I was in the zone. Did it take three seconds? It would take me three seconds right now to do what I did there- scan, aim, reject target, acquire another target, aim, fire, rack a round, step out of the way- but in the zone? The rest of the team was probably right. It was pretty quick.

The point is that some of the people who see themselves in slow motion or even frozen, were in fact moving; or were only frozen for a fraction of a second that they remember as a very long time. Personal reports of events, particularly freezes, are very unreliable for establishing facts.

Tactical Freezes

First, let’s dispense with the Tactical Freezes. I’m not too concerned about them because they are choices.

Sometimes, it is a very good idea not to move. Predators key on motion. Not moving allows them to move on to something else. This is the basis of the hardwired freeze response. When you decide to do this, hoping not to be noticed, it is a tactical freeze. It is also a good decision when you are making matters worse. As an old friend used to say, “When a wise man figures out he’s in a hole, he stops digging.” In a social violence situation a tactical freeze may allow the threat to cool down. It is not a good strategy after damage starts. It is also not something that works if you continue to antagonize or challenge with your body language.

There is often (always, actually, but the victim sometimes is not a part of it) a lead-up to an episode of social violence before the three stages mentioned above. The lead-up is where this tactic applies.

The third possible purpose of a tactical freeze is information gathering. If your intuition tingles it may be a good time to stop, look, listen, and smell. And evaluate and plan.

As said, not too concerned about these as freezes, though people do get stuck there.

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Physiological Freezes

Second, physiological freezes. I think I can identify two distinct kinds. When the body switches from its normal metabolic state to an adrenalized state, there’s a little tremor as described by Marc in “The Professional’s Guide to Ending Violence Quickly”. It is literally a new mind and body and there is a slight freeze while you switch gears. We’ll do an engines and brakes analogy later, so this stays in theme. The engine is not powering the wheels between gears. Some people switch gears faster than others.

The second is when the danger is so overwhelming, or appears to be, that it triggers the hard-wired freeze response- “I couldn’t move.” Sometimes with the loss of bladder control and everything else. This is the deer in the headlights or the baby bird so terrified it sits in your hands in a near coma. There are a lot of levels of this.

Side note- being frozen can be triggered by fear, but it doesn’t usually feel that unpleasant- kind of warm and floaty with a sound in your ears like the ocean. People who have been so terrified they couldn’t move have described this state and decided that they weren’t really afraid so they weren’t really frozen. It just seemed like a good idea at the time not to move.

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Mental/Non-Cognitive Freezes

Mental/Non-Cognitive: A lot of the freezes are mental, which doesn’t mean that they are all cognitive.

Lonnie Athens posits that one of the reasons that change is hard is that no matter how screwed up your life, how horribly you are being victimized or how clear it is that death is inevitable on your current path- you are alive. Your subconscious mind, especially if it has seen a lot of death, is very well aware that your big plan to change your life is only that, a plan. Subconsciously, it knows that planning is a game, this is real and it will try to stick to what works. He called it working from the blueprint. Any time that you attempt to deal with a dangerous situation from a training perspective for the first time, you will get this freeze. If your OC response was good, you may have bought the time to get over it, but now you have to deal with the fact that your hindbrain was indulging the child by letting you take all those martial arts classes and doesn’t believe any of it. You will have to consciously force yourself to act. IME on the second successful action the hindbrain will relent and you can act.

A related phenomenon is behavioral looping, doing the same thing over and over again when it is clear that it is not working. Sometimes, tragically, when it is very clear to an objective outsider that the action will certainly lead to death (Kyle Dinkheller). The mechanism is the same- death may be in the air, but the hindbrain only knows that what you are doing has not gotten you killed and any change might.

Switching maps is the slight hesitation freeze it takes to adjust to a change in situation. When you think you know what you are dealing with e.g. handcuffing a resistive but not dangerous drunk and it suddenly becomes apparent that you were wrong (a knife appears in your stomach) it takes a small amount of time to switch modes. Changing gears again.

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Pure Cognitive Freezes

Pure Cognitive Freezes are the thought process errors that can make you freeze.

If too much information is coming in, like a flurry of blows, you can be caught in the OO bounce (From Col. John Boyd’s OODA loop) getting new Observations before you have Oriented to the ones you already have prevents you from ever Deciding or Acting. There are two training strategies for this. Both require using the fact of the OO bounce as a stimulus in an OC stimulus response pair. When you perceive an information overload you either shut down the source of the information or remove yourself from the source of the information.

Because the OO bounce prevents cognitive reasoning, this response must be trained by OC. The nature of OC prohibits two responses to the same stimulus, so you can only train to one of these strategies.

Novelty- if you can’t figure out what is happening, you can’t formulate a response to it. As with any of the cognitive freezes, don’t think of this as purely a logic problem. It happens in a cascade of chemical fear. The phenomenon of “My life passed before my eyes” has been theorized as an attempt to scan memory for something that relates to the situation you are in. Two examples of this from my own experience: Face contact, especially open handed, among adults is a very strong taboo in our culture. When it happens it is a sign of great dominance or great intimacy. Criminals use this, sometimes opening an attack with a ‘bitch slap’ that reliably makes people freeze and fall into a submissive mindset. For most people, the last time they have been slapped was as a child being punished. The mind falls back to that mindset.

The second example- there is rarely a physiological reason to collapse when shot, barring brainstem or spine compromise, but I have seen officers in training, not actually injured at all, collapse and play dead when shot. After all, the only time they have been ‘shot’ before was playing cops-n-robbers as kids and if you don’t die, you’re a cheater. Are the officers who choose to ‘die’ in training the same officers who collapse and bleed out from non-lethal wounds in real life?

Novelty can cross over the line into cognitive dissonance.

If your expectations of a fight do not match what you see, your brain is almost compelled to sort it out and come to an understanding. If the fight you are in doesn’t look, feel or sound like the fight you have trained for, you will freeze. This, IMO, is compounded in martial artists who are very certain that their training has prepared them for reality.

The next two are very closely related. One of the Tactical Freezes is for the purpose of intelligence gathering. This is only appropriate before damage happens. Once boots are flying or weapons are out you need to be doing something. One of the most common reported freezes is the victim trying to figure out ‘why’. Trying to understand is something you can do later, when you are safe. In the moment of assault moving, not understanding, is required.

Very similar is the desire to come up with a plan before acting. Each second spent planning is a second of damage. Damage decreases your ability to execute plans. You can easily die, doing nothing, while groping for the perfect plan.

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Social/Cognitive Freeze

The next types are the Social/Cognitive freezes. These are basically what happens when you attempt to apply your internalized set of civilized rules to an uncivilized situation.

Lack of confidence falls under this heading. If the person believes, on any level, that his training is flawed or unrealistic, that will compound with the hindbrain’s reluctance to work off the blueprint. This is not always a bad freeze- bad training can make situations worse. The cure is almost as bad. It is far easier to instill confidence than competence.

A friend in Montreal, Mauricio Machuca distinguishes between capability and capacity. Damaging another human being is a skill and almost anyone can develop the capability in a short time. Many, however, do not have the capacity to injure another human being. Some internal value or belief- that violence is always wrong or that gouging an eye is unacceptably ‘icky’ will prevent them from acting. In a training environment it is almost impossible to tell if a capacity has actually changed. It is more likely that the person has only convinced themselves that training is just a game and it’s okay to pretend to eye gouge. If so, the freeze is still there, waiting to be triggered.

I sometimes use the analogy of ‘slipping the leash’. Some people either do not have the capacity or it takes extraordinary provocation. Capacity can change under certain provocations. I’ve done it and I’ve heard of many other instructors who motivated a woman in a self-defense class who was not effectively defending herself by telling her that the bad guy was coming after her children.

The person’s identity itself, through the mechanism of denial, can also prevent him or her from acting. Whether it is, “I’m not the sort of person this happens to, this isn’t happening,” or the equally devastating, “I know what I should do, but I’m not the kind of person who would.” The identity, the perception the victim has, prevents action. Even, sometimes at the cost of life.

Ambivalence is a situation that Freud would love. It is the word for when what you want and what is expected of you or what you believe yourself to be come into direct conflict. Mark uses an analogy and an example for this. The analogy is engine and brakes. You really want to clobber your brother in law but you don’t want to listen to your sister bring it up for the next ten years. Less flippant, this is what happens when an officer involved in a deadly force situation starts thinking about lawsuits and the internal affairs process during a life-or-death encounter.

Marc also mentioned alphas pushing betas until the beta fights and that the resultant injury could weaken the alpha to the point that his status was in jeopardy. The resulting equation, fear of injury versus desire to maintain dominance over the beta, would tend to freeze the alpha. I disagree - in a healthy society the alpha doesn’t maintain his position through physical domination. I think the glitch/hesitation equation will come from the fact that going physical with an underling at all shows that the alpha is insecure in his position. Provoking the conflict would compound that. The alpha, in that example, has a lot to lose not from the physical injuries making him vulnerable but from his own actions eroding his reputation (2).

As people grow up in society, they learn a variety of skills to deal with conflict. But that is conflict between civilized people, low-level social violence. When faced with a true predator, someone who does not care about society’s rules or who the victim is, it is an entirely different world. I call this the ‘looking glass effect’. The rules- the social rules; how your brain and body work; what you have been taught about how to handle other people; or what people value no longer apply.

Suddenly finding yourself in an alien culture where you don’t know the rules and your life is at stake creates a pretty deep panic reaction. All of the physiological reasons can combine with information gathering and denial to make you a gibbering wreck.

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Pure Social Freeze

Lastly, the Pure Social freeze. In essence, some people are trained to freeze. It probably started as or was intended to be submission, but the programming has gone far deeper. This trained helplessness is a survival strategy for long-term abuse where the abuser chooses to see any sign of independence or spirit as an affront to his social status. I have seen the effects of this training, but there are people far more qualified to write about the process and implications than I am. The similarities between some of the abuse stories and what the victims became have eerie parallels in Elie Wiesel's Night.

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Three Stages of Response

Three Stages: Being on the receiving end of an unexpected attack you will go through three stages.

  1. The OC stage. This is where you get hit. If you have trained by operant conditioning (OC) a response to a sudden attack, you may  be okay.
  2. Then you freeze. Almost everyone freezes, even experienced fighters.  Some break out of it fast. Some don’t and it tends to end very badly.
  3. The fight. If you made it through the other two, most of what you have trained will now start to work.

Five Survival Responses - F.F.F.P.S.

FFFPS  Classic  Behavioral Biology lists three survival responses to extreme stress, the ‘three Fs’ Fight, Flight and Freeze.

Dave Grossman (1) lists four: Fight, Flight, Posture and Submit. All five of the listed responses are hard-wired reactions to an immediate serious threat (note- a living threat. The responses to major disasters are quite different, more limited and predictable see “The Unthinkable” by Amanda Ripley). All are important to this discussion. Fight-Fight-Freeze-Posture-Submit.

The first two are self-explanatory. Freezing will be the subject of this entire paper. Posturing and submitting need some exploration.

First we have to distinguish between FFFPS as hard-wired responses and as strategies. These responses have evolved and are hard-wired because they work. Things that work can be used as strategies. In the hard-wired version of these responses Posturing and Submitting will only be used within the species. Submitting to a lion gets you eaten. However, both can make conscious strategies- looking large and being loud will tend to scare off predators; I can’t count the number of times I have befriended a ‘dangerous’ dog by showing puppy/playful body language. However, I cannot think of a single case when either of these strategies happened involuntarily cross species, only as a conscious decision.

So, three hard-wired strategies for predator assaults and another two for social danger.


Rory Miller

“Force is a form of communication. It is the most emphatic possible way of saying “no”. For years my job was to say no, sometimes very emphatically, to violent people. I have been a Corrections Officer, a Sergeant, a Tactical Team member and a Tactical Team Leader; I have taught corrections and enforcement personnel skills from first aid to physical defense to crisis communication and mental health. I’ve done this from my west coast home to Baghdad. So far, my life has been a blast. I’m a bit scarred up, but generally happy.”

Marc MacYoung

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