QUESTION: “Tells us about a personal experience in which you have been “frozen”.
ANSWERS: Rory Miller, Garry Smith,Teja Van Wicklin
MY FREEZE – Rory Miller
BREAKING THE FREEZE – Garry Smith
I have given this much thought and was thinking that this was my hardest assignment for the group to date, because I simply could not remember freezing in a fight or before a fight. Until I sat at the computer to write I was almost convinced of this, almost but I had a nagging doubt. Now I teach the theory and the practical together as what I believe is good practise and strive for openness and honesty in my teaching. We all know that is not always what paying customers want when they first hear it because virtually nobody ever tells them the real truth as they are too busy selling. Also because as we write scripts to help us predict the behaviour and risk level of others to us, we write scripts for ourselves too, we also edit them.
I met up with Marc in Bristol, UK at the end of May for a long talk and a beer. It was a few days after I was involved in a quite violent encounter and in the aftermath I was still making sense of how I ended up back in a street-fight and how it had panned out. In fact some of the bits only fell into place very recently after the 2 guys involved were found guilty in court. I think I have what happened that night more or less in my head now, but, as we all know the distortions of perception, when it goes hands on unexpectedly, affect us all and on reflection I recognised a point where I froze as things happened in a way I did not expect. The script was wrong or the script went wrong, the muppet facing me did not understand the script. So as events played out it went badly for some and not good for any of us.
After a very relaxing Sunday I went to bed early for me at 10.45pm, as I was getting into bed I heard male voices talking loudly in the street, not that unusual but noticeable as this is generally a very quiet area, then there was a bang and the crash of bottles and cans spilling out of a bin that had by the sound of it been kicked over, a recycling bin put at the bottom of the neighbours drive for collection the next day. I went to the window and from our elevated position there were only two men anywhere near, walking towards the road junction to our left. As I was about to get back in bed I saw my neighbour and his wife come out opposite and whilst she picked the bin up he did a quick scan and set off walking quickly after the two guys.
I turned to my wife and said that this is not going to end well, she told me well you get back into bed it is not your problem and I was getting back in when it all kicked off. My neighbour had confronted them verbally and they responded by both starting to punch him, he is an inoffensive 56 year old professional guy and these two 20 year olds, under the influence of alcohol had more than an advantage. I got back to the window and they were monkey dancing him back up the road to outside his house, I thought the screaming started later but my wife says then, she calls 999 and I grab shorts and vest and head for the stairs. My neighbour’s wife is now screaming my name and for help, I had to use both hands to get the key in the lock as the adrenaline started to kick in.
Once I went down the front garden steps into the street I expected to approach them and break up what was happening, that was the script, they saw me, thought the better of carrying on their assault and leave rather than take it any further. Unfortunately they had not read the script. I thought I went up to one of them, took him by the shirt front and started walking him away whilst advising him to leave, sort of. I was convinced that is what I did, others told me how as I reached the bottom of my steps one of these guys ran across the road at me swearing and grabbed my shirt and I grabbed his too, both left handed grabs, recognise this?
Well I froze, this was not how things happened outside my house on a Sunday night, nobody puts hands on me, but this young guy did not know that, the combined effects of surprise, adrenaline and somebody breaking the rules I had in my head caused the freeze I think. As a well trained martial artists and self defence instructor with lots of real life fight experience this could not happen, could it? Well fact is it did, time stood still, not for long whilst I worked out what was happening.
Thing is he drew his right arm back and that is when my first punch hit him in the face, freeze broken, once he moved my training and experience kicked in and I broke the freeze and whilst from marks on the left side of my head I found afterwards I think he must have landed three, I was hitting him repeatedly, square in the face, we hit a car and fell to the floor where I quickly got on top pulled his arms down out of the way and went to town with rights to the face until he stopped resisting. His mate who had beaten my neighbour quite badly necessitating a number of visits to hospital, then attacked me from behind so he got a few smacks too, no freeze now, then it was all over apart from the screaming and the shouting. I was up for the fight now but my wife appeared and told me to back off. I backed off.
My feet, knees and elbows were a bloody mess from going to ground but the fight was over and I had won. Nothing skilful occurred in terms of techniques, kicks or throws, just a fast regression to that lizard brain once I broke the freeze. As my fellow CRGI members know full well is that the freeze can and does affect us all what is important is in breaking it and doing something. In my arrogance I was fully convinced I had not frozen at all but as I reflect I am now very sure I did, have I frozen in other encounters, well most of them were before I learned all this stuff so I guess I must have but cannot retrospectively analyse it.
Lots of other things happened, not least these two guys telling their girlfriends we had attacked them with bottles and that we were white racists to boot, (they were of Pakistani in origin), the police saw though that in about 2 seconds, and their girlfriends went out to the patrol car driving around looking for them and demanded they come and arrest us!!! Final question, how long did I freeze for? No idea, a second, two, less? No idea as there was too much distortion, too much interference, but I think all the training and experience and knowledge helped break the freeze and unleash the lizard and whilst I hit him multiple times, the police and the court were happy I had used reasonable force. That, is another subject.
We hear about “Fight or Flight” often enough mainly because that’s what we call the physical system in our bodies and brains that trigger our emergency reactions. But there’s a third emergency reaction that gets forgotten as a result, and in reality, it’s probably the most prevalent. Think “Deer in the headlights”.
We freeze when we hear a noise too loud for us to register. We freeze when we see lights coming at us – is it a car? A train? We freeze when the guy on the street freaks out and gets in our face, calling us names because we didn’t get out of his way quickly enough.
Sometimes we start, or flinch first, but right after that there’s a pause while our brains catch up and decide what to do.
Lot’s of research has been done about this. Experts have linked it to primal mechanisms for being thought dead and therefore too stinky to be being eaten, or to the idea that when you’re frightened making decisions can be bad so it might be better not to move at all. The freeze mechanism also keeps animals from being seen by predators who track the movement of prey animals who are otherwise well camouflaged. The military has broken it up into its cognitive pieces and called it the OODA loop, initials for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act – the idea being, that’s what the brain is doing while we stand there, blank eyed, waiting for our central computer do give us directions, like a GPS looking for a signal
The first time I remember being aware I was stuck in a freeze, I was in my early twenties and on vacation visiting my cousin in Italy. She was babysitting a young child and was walking said child, buckled into the child seat of a grownup bike. She tripped and let the bicycle go and the child fell with the bike, just suspended above the ground by the child seat and it’s belt straps.
I just stood there. For what seemed an interminable time. I knew I should move. I knew she needed help. But the shock of the sudden event, the thoughts of what might happen to the child – and to us after – filled my brain.
My cousin struggled with the bike as I continued to stand there, starring. It wasn’t until she turned and snapped, “help me!”, that I woke up and jumped into action, embarrassed and confused.
The perception of time is a scientific study in and of itself. Sometimes milliseconds feel like hours – especially in emergencies. In this case I calculated I must have been standing there for two to three full seconds, which is a lot in terms of reaction time. It felt like 30 seconds or more. There was a dialogue in brain telling me I had to do something- asking me why on earth I was just standing there. I’ll never forget it. Not because it was particularly traumatic, but because it made a big impression on me.
I’ve watched myself in similar situations after that, and am happy to report every subsequent freeze has been shorter.
The bad news? Everyone freezes, it’s built in. High level military operators undergo months and years of hard core training to “inoculate” them so they can think and react faster than “normal” people.
The good news? You can practice getting out of a freeze faster by learning to recognize when it’s happening. Begin by observing yourself during any kind of sudden shock, cold water, loud noises, etc. Just observe yourself and label your state of mind. There are more techniques for breaking freezes (read Facing Violence, by Rory Miller), but self-observation is the starting point. In this way, startling moments of all kinds can help us get a bit of control over our primal freeze mechanism.