Fight or Flight or Flee or Freeze Response

For decades it has been taught in Law Enforcement training, Military training and even in the civilian defensive training classes. The theory that our response to a critical incident where there is a perception and fear of serious injury is going to be fight or flight. A basic reaction among animals, including humans, to preserve life and prevent injury. The theory was first described by Walter Cannon back in 1932. Needless to say the theory has been around for a while. The Autonomic, Sympathetic, and Parasympathetic nervous systems all have a part in the theory of how we will react. Fight! Or Flight! There are a lot of factors that play part here though. Let us take a closer look at Fight, Flight, Flee and Freeze


The response where we make preparations and begin to fight and defend ourselves. This is where we fight back in defense of ourselves or others. Now take a fighting stance. For most people the stance is weak side forward, hands up with closed fists. This similar to a boxing stance. For some with martial arts training and experience it can be more of a neutral stance. In the more neutral stance we are somewhat squared up to the threat, hands up with arms out to just past 90 degrees and the hands open and splayed. The decision has been made the best response in this situation is to put up a fight.


The response of taking flight to get away from the perceived threat. Flight is not fleeing. Flight is getting away and evading from the threat while maintaining visual contact and awareness of the threat. In flight we create distance while still being cognitive of and giving regard to the threat. Moving quickly to cover, changing of angles as we create distance, getting out of striking distance, getting of the line of attack. Flight may be very short or long in action.


Flee is the response of simply turning tail and running away with no regard or awareness of the threat other than it is now behind us. Fear has taken over and we run away as quickly as we can in the hopes of being able to outrun the threat. There is no looking for cover or barriers to place between us and the threat. Running until we can run no more or we think we have gone far enough to have gotten away.


The worst response we can have. To freeze up and loose all fine and gross motor skill, Cognitive thinking skills are gone. The is no thought to defense or preservation. Frozen in time and space. The voice is gone. It is a dangerous none reactive response. Death or serious injury is almost guaranteed if we do nothing.

What affects the freeze response to a perceived serious threat? Take a serious look at it from the standpoint of defense.

Start with heart rate. For a long time there has been a chart that documents what we will do based on heart rate, heart rate alone. The problem is heart rate alone will not cause the freeze response. It was a big thing in the law enforcement community for a long time. The chart went away for a while and came back and went away and came back. The chart depicted that at 175 bpm you would freeze. Optimal heart rate for most people is between 125-145 bpm. But it has been documented in studies that for some the optimal heart rate is closer to 175bpm. So heart rate alone will not cause you to freeze. The heart rate is just one part.

What about the chemicals that will dump into the body. Adrenaline and Endorphin. They can enhance performance or they can destroy performance. They can affect heart rate.

What about food intake and fluids? They affect energy and blood flow. Dehydration affects the blood.

Breath? Without oxygen flow into the lungs and into the blood the brain functions slow. Muscles stop working. The body and mind will shut down without oxygen. Eye sight is affected and one of the first to go.

Fear? A reaction to a stimuli. Fear is a response to a real or perceived imminent threat.

Anxiety? An emotion. A feeling of fear, uneasiness, and worry, usually unfocused as an overreaction to a situation that is subjectively menacing.

Stimuli we are presented with. The level of the threat.

So, many things affect us!

Something else affects all of the responses. It helps our performance when under threat. Helps us to avoid possible fatal responses. Keeps our mind working under high stress and serves us in a life threatening situation. It is where we get our responses and build the rolodex file of appropriate response in our mind. It helps us to overcome the affects of fear, anxiety, chemical dump, stress and helps us to keep breathing in crisis. These things are Experience and Training.

Experience, This is your personal experience in dealing with stressful life threatening situations. Your experience dealing with physical confrontations, verbal confrontations, knife fights, gun fights, combat situations. The problem with experience. Not everyone has had or ever will have the experiences of dealing with such things to put in that so vital rolodex. Not everyone has been hit in the nose and knows what it feels like.

How do you make up for the lack of experience? Through the next step and next best thing.

Training, The one thing we can do to give us the skills we may need, help us prepare our mind, get stress inoculation through scenario training, and prepare our bodies through both physical and force on force training.