Freeze! Forget Fight or Flight: The Quiet Survival Technique

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'.

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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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