Freeze! Forget Fight or Flight: The Quiet Survival Technique

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fight or flight

Frozen, that's what he was.  "Deer in the headlights" would perfectly encapsulate the moment.

He was like the quiet deer stuck in the middle of the road, and she was like the headlights, her mouth beaming insult after insult.  I was sitting in a park watching this young man take responsibility for unwittingly getting in the way of a cyclist and almost making her fall.

She cursed at him - not with a casual cursory curse, but with carefully thought out, long, comprehensive curses, that embraced the whole of his humanity, and went off into the distant future, including all his relations and offspring, covering everything that would ever connect to him.  These were good, substantial curses.

And it was while watching all of this that something occurred to me.  All of us have a very special quiet, innate survival method which, like everything else that is silent and low-key, is forgotten or ignored.

Why What You Learnt In School Was False, And Why

The "Fight or Flight Response".

We read it all the time in modern self-help books, and in human biology classes in school and university.  As you would know, the essential idea is that whenever we encounter danger of some sort our limbic system will either choose to make a run for it, or brave it out and face our predator.  If this were truly the case, we would be bruised, battered or exhausted most of the time.

But alas!  We've all seemed to overlook the very first strategy our bodies adopt to defend themselves against any perceived threat, a reaction that if acknowledged, could be an essential strategy in helping us reach a state of acceptance in the face of the anxiety-provoking situations we find ourselves in.

It's called the 'freeze response'.

Movement draws attention, whereas remaining unnoticed ensures our survival.  Think back to those days in high school when the teacher was picking "volunteers" to solve a maths problem on the white board in front of the entire class.  We would slouch a bit, sink into our seat and take shallow breaths.  We were trying to make ourselves small, almost invisible, by freezing.

Or imagine that you're strolling through the jungle when you encounter a wild Lion.  Would you realistically stay and fight, or would you turn and run away?  Neither.  You freeze.

Many of us fail to realize that Fight or Flight is a secondary response, and was never the best response to deal with danger on hand.

Quiet Courage

Many animals not only freeze, they go all Zen-master and 'become their actions'.  They play dead.  Opossums are one of several animals who embrace the freeze response.

But what does this all mean?

Society hails and worships gung-ho, powerful, action-orientated, extroverted ways of behaving.  To society, to fight or flight is to behave "successfully".  It is to be dynamic, vibrant, attractive, and all the other crap you read in American CEO job descriptions.  Sure non-action can be harmful when misused, but there are certain situations in life when the "freeze" response deserves respect.

Non-action is not weak.  It takes immense self-control and courage to remain completely immobile while every every nerve in your body is telling you to run in panic or attack back.  In fact, not reacting actually teaches you the power of acceptance , of facing your fears head-on without the reactive desire to attack, or run.

Perhaps this is why we never acknowledged the "freeze response"?  It's the outcast of human behaviour.  It doesn't make us look like dominant-race heroes.

And we, the outcasted people understand that.  By nature, many of us are sensitive and quiet.  We don't attempt to juggle with danger in order to be heroes.  We realize that running isn't our strength, and we have no desire to escape to return later and win the war.

Nature doesn't care about heroes, it only cares about survival.  Just look at the school shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech.  Many of the surviving students used the freeze technique to survive.  By playing dead they managed to remain alive even while a few feet away from the killer.

There's no shame in using the freeze response when under stress or danger.  Don't feel the need to fight it, or run away from it.

So what's the end to the incident I observed?

After five minutes of the cyclist allowing her own blood to boil, the young man apologized and walked away into the distance happily listening to his music.  And the cyclist women mounted her bicycle continuing to rant into the air.

Photo by: Keirsten Marie

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  1. James Corvus Jackdaw says

    I was familiar with the freeze response. It use to be my go to way of dealing with things. Stop and just take it all.. until one day I snapped. the world kept on closing in on me. Abusing me, screaming at me, yelling at me. One day when I was in 7th grade the classroom bully tried to forcibly rip me from my seat after I basically ignored all of his insults. I stayed my ground and locked down. He eventually got in my face and told me to “bring it on bitch”

    My normal reaction would have been to just ignore it till he went away, but I snapped. I drove my fist right into his jaw and hoped over the desk he punched me after recovering nearly stumbling over. I let out a roar that you’d only associate with vikings or celts. And I fought back. Nearly had my ear torn off but by the time they “Broke” it up I had him on the ground pinned like a police officer. the weeks I was mugged by a gang in school slammed against a locker demanding money. There was five of them. My locker was in a dead end hallway. There was nobody around. I sighed.. not because of defeat because I had to fight. I sighed and placed my foot on locker dove off and slammed the leaders head into a brick wall rode his back out to the main hall twisting his back skin so he would scream and make noise so somebody could end this stupidity. I earned a reputation of being a psycho after that. When all I wanted to do was be left alone.

    In highschool freshman year I had a knife pulled out on me after I defended a friend. He pulled out the knife shined the blade in the light trying to scare me. his grip was weak and wasn’t reversed so I just took in a breath held my arms out chris angel style and I looked him straight in the eyes and walked closer to the blade. I knew there was a high chance he wouldn’t stab me, but even if he did it would have bounced off a rib and I would have driven my elbow into his arm shoving the blade into his leg. I told him if he stuck the blade in me his life would be over.

    My freeze has turned into just an action for instant fight. I no longer flee. I just freeze and wait. Wait for the moment to end it. Quick actions with dead locked eyes scare people. Its unpredictable, not flashy and concise. I detest fighting . I hate violence. I hate the fact for a good portion of my life I had to live with the reality I may need kill somebody in self defense. I’m happy life has moved on for me, but one just doesn’t recover from being in the jungle. I wish acceptance would work for me, but my mind just couldn’t take the abuse anymore.

  2. Fizzy says

    I don’t really comment on blogs and any sites but… WOOOOOW what a wonderful post. I can’t believe what I just read. It’s fantastic and I completly agree with every single thing you wrote. I loved it!!!! I really hope I could meet people who think like you Sol. :)

    • says

      Hello Fizzy!

      Well Im so happy that you did stop by this time and comment :). These comments serve as a motivator to keep writing about unusual perspectives and points of view, we are constantly taught things that we remember as common sense when in fact a lot of the time they are erroneous in one aspect or another.

      I know the feeling, I wanted for a long time to meet kindred spirits till I created LonerWolf and somehow theres a way for knowledge to attract similar knowledge, and the knowledge beholders :P


  3. says

    I have thought myself as introverted but have a few extrovered qualities. This is the first time I have heard of a middle personally. this is very helpful to me as I was not totally introverted and did not know how to explain what I really was. I am quiet and don’t say a lot but that doesn’t mean I’m not thinking and foumulating thoughts in my mind. I am well liked my most people and concerted as passionate by others. People tell me things they don’t even tell their friends, I guess that is if I did say something no one would know who I was talking about. I go out to a blues jam and I entertain an audiance, people have told me that the world is my audience and I preform well for them. I am had a new high when I get home because I feel like a human being and I’m not alone. can you guess my age?

    • says

      Hey Sandra,

      Im so happy to hear you found solace in this article. I often and amazed at how many people open up to me as well, perhaps some people emit a quality of non-judgement, of being good at listening and caring for others problems that some people can pick up on.

      You might like to read our Old Soul articles as it could very well be the case with you. The way people open up to you and from what you describe as the world being your audience I would assume youre older than you actually are, my guess is your in your late teens or early twenties? :)

  4. Indigo says

    Brilliant! I never really thought of this until you mentioned it! :) But it does make perfect sense, first you freeze THEN you decide whether to fight or flight or continue freezing. xD
    What are your thoughts however on the “survival of the fittest” theory? There is a little-known counter theory of “thrive-al of the fitting-est” or aka the species and group that works together survives together (not survival of the fittest individual but survival of the fittest group) and also that they are the ones best adapted to the environment, aka “best fitting” rather than “fittest”.
    I in a moment of solitude combined the two theories into one that I call “Survival of the Fittest Tribe”. It acknowledges both the interdependence and working together of the “thriving of the best fitting group” theory with the yes documented competitive nature that can also pop up with the working together nature, as most popularized in the “survival of the fittest” theory.
    My “Survival of the Fittest Tribe” basically says that within your “tribe” or group of people you love and care about, your family or friends or even just “family of your heart”, then you help each other with things and increase all of your best chances for survival. But you can also be competitive not just with each other (USUALLY tends to be more harmless with each other in the same tribe) but also with those “not of your group” (can be more deadly this), and thus allows for both the warfare in human history as well as remarkable banding together of human groups for survival to both make sense in a simple theory of things. Also can be where the “us vs. them, insider vs. outsider” thought mentality can come from or stem from.
    Also can allow the thought of some scientists in regards for the “evolutionary benefits of homosexuality” even if they do not directly propagate their genes, they can help propagate someone else’s genes as well as nurture the offspring of one’s species for the whole species’ benefit. Since its not as focused a theory on “survival of just ONE individual” but rather of “survival of the group/clan/tribe/species”. Also can explain/allow for heroic acts of others for those they care for, regardless if an actual blood relation is had by them, and regardless if the person has had any direct/biologically related offspring or not.
    My theory more pulls the current attention on the individualistic survival terms away from that focus onto more of an interdependent, supportive, helping each other kind of terms; which has been sadly neglected in the scientific community thanks to the focus on the former and not the latter.
    In any case I wonder what your thoughts are in regards to this? :) Even though I did go on a tangent here which I apologize for lol! :)

    • SolW0lf says

      It’s alright, I go on tangents all the time with my thought processing that seems to like finding connects from different sources and topics. It’s great for thinking and creating new concepts, it’s bad for being a good writer and focusing on your lead rather than burying it with too much information.

      I think you’re hybrid theory sounds very possible, and quite interesting. I always imagined that our of all the humans that spread around throughout different environments, the ones that managed to survive were the ones that managed to adapt to the environment the best (the best fitting). Then out of those that established themselves in the harsh environment where the others perished, the ones that reproduced and continued the legacy were the ones that were the strongest or the most useful (hunters, women, shamans and such).

      I’d like to explore the idea more though, thanks for bringing this up! :)