My wife and I have just finished watching the first season of Stranger Things. I quite enjoyed the homage to cult 80’s sci/fi which was punctuated by musical classics like “Should I stay or should I go” by the Clash. For me, it brought back all the same excitement of watching cult classics in the 80’s and early 90’s such as The Goonies, Ghostbusters, The X-Files and Buckaroo Banzai.
“Should I stay or should I go now?” is a good question to ask ourselves within the context of a self-defence situation. It is not only a question that we should ask when faced with a situation, but the broader question of “Will I stay or will I go?” is essential to answer while preparing and training for self-defence.
You might reply to this by saying “Well, I will be free to make a decision on what I will do when the brown stuff hits the fan.” I’ve heard so many people who are not actively engaged in a combat training program telling me in intricate detail what they would do in various self-defence scenarios. I have learned over the years to maintain a straight face although it can be challenging.
A truly dangerous situation in which you have to physically intervene in order to defend yourself is a scary situation to be in. The reality of the potential for you to become seriously hurt or killed in the event hits hard and can seriously compromise your ability to assess the situation and to act accordingly. Forget about trying to replicate a self-defence situation with a sports-based fight. A sports-based fight is nothing like a real combat situation because the conditions of the fight are known beforehand and there are referees, rules and other safeguards that are meant to prevent serious injury and death to the participants. Be warned about people and organisations that claim that sports-bouts prepare you for a real situation. A healthy degree of skepticism should be applied to these claims.
The fear of the potential for serious injury or death can badly undermine your response but it may do even more than that. It may render you completely incapable of any action at all.
This is where my understanding of the fight-or-flight response, developed through personal experience in these kinds of situations, differs from many mainstream sources. Many mainstream sources claim that there are three responses to a threat situation. Fight, Flight or Freeze. The Fight response amounts to a confrontation of the threat. The Flight response amounts to running away from the threat. The Freeze response amounts to shutting down mentally and physically and doing nothing in the face of the threat. I agree that these three behaviours are certainly observed in people when faced with a threat. What I do not agree with is that the Freeze response is a natural response to a dangerous situation.
I’ll qualify this by pointing out where the freeze response is apparently seen in nature. It is generally employed by creatures who rely on concealment and camouflage to avoid detection by predators. What generally happens when one of these camouflaged creatures realises that a predator has detected it? It either Fights or Flees. It is very rare to find a creature in nature which responds to a direct predator attack by Freezing in terror. This response has no survival value. Some examples of creatures which appear to freeze when faced with a threat include creatures which depend on armour or other natural defences such as spines to weather a predator attack. Examples include the wombat with its armoured rump and the porcupine with its spines. Even these creatures usually combine their natural defences with some form of tactical withdrawal, though. To Freeze is not a natural response. It is an unnatural response.
One of my private self-defence students shared a good illustration of this recently. The Deer in the Headlights illustration. When confronted by a threat, a deer is proverbial for its ability and prowess in escaping threats. Its brain is wired to get away quickly, its body is built for rapid movement and acceleration. It is almost the epitome of the Flight response. And yet, when confronted by car headlights at night, the deer freezes in place and is often struck and killed by the vehicle.
Why is that?
The deer’s response to a threat has developed over long periods of time. It is an evolved response to known, natural threats. To a deer, a car’s headlights are a ‘supernatural’ threat. There is no natural predator that can produce lights like a car’s headlights. When faced with a ‘supernatural’ threat, the deer’s evolved response is overcome, possibly with something akin to human terror, and its brain cannot process the threat. It is like a processing error which causes a computer system to crash or ‘freeze’. It would be interesting to experiment with this erroneous response under controlled conditions. I believe that the deer’s freeze response can be overcome with the right kind of ‘training’. Its response can be conditioned by repeated exposure to car headlights until it has learned to apply its natural response to a ‘supernatural’ threat.
In the same way, each of us is ‘wired’ in a different way. Some of us are wired for confrontation and some of us are wired for avoidance. When studying young infants within new environments, it becomes clear that some are drawn to confront scary, new situations whereas some actively avoid scary, new situations. Why do we see this level of diversity in human beings as opposed to other animals? I am not sure. The Fight response is associated with predatory behaviour to a certain extent whereas the Flight response is associated more with prey behaviour. It could be that our transition in the far-distant past from a mostly herbivorous, gatherer diet to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle has something to do with the diverse response. This change would have been nothing less than our transition from being a prey animal to becoming the planet’s apex predator. This major shift may have been recent enough in the evolutionary time-scale to still leave us wavering between the Fight and Flight response.
But of course, this is not the only reason for the erroneous Freeze response. My belief is that the reason we see so many people today who respond to a threat by Freezing is six-fold:
Lack of exposure. In most parts of the first world, such as here in Australia, we are not exposed to violence very often. Because of our lack of exposure to violence, a violent situation becomes a ‘supernatural’ threat to us. Very much like the car headlights to the deer. When faced with violence, we react as a deer caught in the headlights and Freeze instead of getting away or fighting to defend ourselves. The whole phenomenon of modern-day terrorism is based on activating the unnatural Freeze response in the majority of people within a terror-attack by exposing everyone to overwhelming displays of violence. I would hazard a guess that if a modern-day terrorist were to apply the same approach to a group of medieval peasants from a war-torn area in central Europe, for instance, the result would be very different. I would guess that there would be a great deal more running away and perhaps even more direct confrontation because of familiarity with violence.
Conditioned Compliance. A police officer friend of mine volunteered that our poor response to threats can also be traced to systemic programming. The media and official sources continue to recommend that everyone should comply when faced with a threat. This advice is usually good advice and can ensure survival but breaks down when we are faced with threats that are intent on harming or killing. This continued programming that we are exposed to through online sources, TV, written media and radio sinks into our brains on a subconscious level and conditions our response to reinforce the Freeze or compliance response.
Moral Confusion. In our clinical and clean first world environments, violence is often treated as taboo or labelled as morally incorrect. Because of this moral programming, our Fight response can be compromised. On the flip side of this coin, we are also conditioned by society to identify running away with cowardice. We are taught that being a coward is somehow morally inferior. This means that most of us are caught between these two programmed taboos. We are told that violence is somehow inherently bad and so is running away. So what is the result of this flawed programming? We Freeze.
Lack of Self-Knowledge. As mentioned before in this article, we are all wired slightly differently. Some of us are wired to favour the Flight response and some are wired to favour the Fight response. If we are wired to favour the Flight response and we erroneously believe that we are obliged to stick around and Fight, our natural response will conflict with our superimposed expected response to generate a Freeze response. It is critical to understand how we naturally respond to a situation without any preconceived idea of which response is superior. Both the Fight and Flight response are valid survival responses. Of course, we may need to override our natural response depending on the circumstances. There are some threats that we should avoid regardless of how aggressive we are and there are some threats that cannot be avoided by running away. Overriding of our natural response takes significant control and training.
Lack of Preparation. Training, training, training. I had a friend who worked for the Australian Air Force on one of their restricted bases. Part of the training for his job was to watch a video showing CCTV footage of a real illegal entry attempt into an American restricted military building which was patrolled by trained security dogs. This video’s purpose was to drill into new recruits the need for respecting the local base perimeters which were patrolled by similar security dogs. The CCTV footage showed three men breaking into this building. They were all armed with baseball bats and wore motorbike helmets and protective gear. They had come prepared for the dogs. Three dogs detected them and responded. The first dog to attack was struck down by a baseball bat. But it just got up and continued to attack. Initially, it looked like the odds were stacked in favour of the intruders, but the dogs continued attacking relentlessly even though they were terribly injured until the three men were eventually overcome and killed. The dogs were apparently put down after the incident due to the extent of their injuries. These dogs were certainly chosen based on their breed, but without the training they had received, they would not have been able to overcome the trespassers. This is the difference between a standard pet dog and a trained security dog. It’s the training.
Without proper preparation both mentally and physically for actual combat, the average person is like a domestic pet dog. They may be strong and fast and physically capable, but they are not prepared for combat. Combat training yields a very specific skill-set. You can’t develop that in the gym on the rowing machine or even on the punching bag without the right guidance and mind-set.
Modern Weapons. The types of weapons that we can potentially face today in a real self-defence situation, such as firearms for example, have a very high degree of lethality associated with them. In addition, the skill and level of training associated with their use is relatively small compared with historic weapons. Historically, both fighting skill and weapon availability limited the effective use of weapons. In our modern age, the only real factor that limits the effective use of firearms is availability. As can be seen from a brief glance at some crime statistics, the control of firearm availability is fundamentally flawed since illegally-obtained firearms are still employed in acts of criminal violence. The destructive potential of modern firearms, combined with the shock and awe tactics used by violent offenders becomes a psychological as well as a physical onslaught. This can shock people into a Freeze response by overwhelming them psychologically.
How do we reduce our odds of Freezing in a survival situation?
We can address the list of factors above, of course. We can do this by ensuring that we are trained to respond effectively to violence through controlled exposure as part of our training program. We can develop quick situational evaluation skills to ascertain whether compliance is a viable option for the situations we are exposed to. We can reprogram ourselves mentally with a more balanced perspective on violence and retreat as viable tools to deal with a significant threat to our safety and security. We can ensure that we know ourselves and are familiar with our natural response to a threat. We can ensure that we are training Fight and Flight responses regularly to meet potential threats. We can ensure that we get the right kind of training to deal with weapons-based threats.
It’s all about self-awareness and preparation. To assist with this process, I have experimented with multiple-choice questionnaires in the past which are designed to help you ascertain whether you are wired to favour the Flight or the Fight response. I may make one of these available if there is enough interest. Let me know if this would be of some assistance to you and I will work on updating one for issue as a follow-up article.
Written by Lester Walters, Head of the Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre Australia
The cover photo, IMG_4415.JPG by Fabrice Florin is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
© Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre Australia 2018. ABN 12 792 347 015