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michael rosenbaum
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Fight, Flight or Freeze

Fight, Flight or Freeze: Trained and Untrained Responses

School is out for the summer and it is a normal day, like any other. The sun is shinning, birds are singing in the trees and you’re working part time at the local grocery store, bagging groceries to pay tuition. As you carefully place a carton of eggs into the bottom of a brown paper bag your mind drifts back to last night’s karate class.  “Kata, kata, kata and more kata, but at least I passed my black-belt test,” you think.

 A loud crash brings your attention back to the present moment and in the adjacent checkout line you watch a small-framed man deliberately turn over a shopping cart and at the top of his lungs yell, “I ain’t paying that amount. Its too much I tell you, too much.”  People begin whispering and you feel the need to do something like take him to the ground, throw a roundhouse kick to his head or at least restrain him in a wrist lock, but you can’t. Your body has turned to stone, there’s a slight trembling in your legs and your mouth has become dry as cotton. Thoughts flood your mind and the urge to run grows stronger, yet simultaneously you feel an overwhelming sensation to act. “What should I do? What should I do?” You wonder.

The man turns over another shopping cart, time moves in slow motion and your slight tremble has become an uncontrollable shake and just when chaos reigns you see the bagger everyone calls Pops walk over and address the man in a calm, leisurely voice. “What’s Pops doing?” You think. “He’s a retired cop and at least 60, he’ll get killed.” Pops, however, continues addressing the man in a reassuring tone and when two sheriff’s deputies enter the store, Pops nonchalantly motions with his eyes and they walk up behind the man and handcuff him.  

After the man has been taken to jail you try understanding what took place, but haven’t the faintest idea why you reacted the way you did. Nor can you explain the sudden fatigue that has overcome you and why the desire to go home and fall asleep is so strong. You continue bagging groceries and from the corner of your eye you notice Pops who is smiling and carrying on without a care in the world. “How can he be so cool?” You wonder.

When humans perceive danger a physiological response triggered by the sympathetic nervous system occurs that tells us whether we should fight the threat, run from it or else play dead. Commonly known as fight, flight or freeze this syndrome is experienced by soldiers in Afghanistan today just as it was the Ancient Greeks 2000 years ago.  Dating back to the Paleolithic era fight, flight or freeze is a survival mechanism passed from generation to generation and is one of the most common, yet least understood behaviors of the human race.

When danger is perceived via the senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, hear, taste) a three step process occurs. First there is the sign of danger, the point in time when something indicates there is a clear and present threat to your safety.  For instance you’re hiking in the woods and a grizzly bear suddenly appears out of nowhere. That is a danger sign.

Next is the signifier stage, the instance when your brain recognizes the danger. Or in layman’s terms you see the bear (sign) then instantly realize it is a bear and that you are in danger. This is when adrenaline floods your body, endorphins- which serve as natural pain killers- are released, blood pressure increases, muscles tense and your breathing grows faster and more shallow.

Once you’re fully aware of imminent danger the response stage occurs, that point in time when the human survival mechanism kicks in and the decision to fight, flight or freeze is made. Hopefully since it is a grizzly bear you will freeze, instead of trying to fight or run from it.

Drawn out the process would look as follows:

 Sign +Signifier +Response = Fight- Flight- or Freeze.

Symptoms associated with the Fight, Flight or Freeze syndrome include:

  1. A dramatic rise in adrenaline and endorphin levels. This enables us to fight harder, run faster, and endure high levels of pain. There is also a dramatic rise in cortisol, a hormone that converts glycogen into blood sugar thereby providing the brain and body with energy.
  2. Loss of fine motor skills. This happens because of the rise in adrenaline, endorphin and cortisol and is one reason why mortal combat techniques are based upon simple, yet effective actions such as chopping or thrusting.
  3. Blood circulation moves from the outer extremities to more centrally located arteries and organs to reduce the effects of being wounded. Hence the reason why people experience cold chills when facing danger.
  4. Heightened awareness, the perception of time slowing and tunnel vision. This is our body’s way of eliminating peripheral distractions so that we can focus on the danger at hand.
  5. Dry mouth, loss of bowel and bladder control, uncontrollable laughter, heavy sweating and a high pulse rate. One or more of these may occur and are generated by the adrenaline rush and high stress levels.
  6. A sudden fatigue or drowsiness after the threat has diminished which is known as an adrenaline dump and is your body’s way of recuperating.                                                 

As stated earlier the sign-signifier-fight, flight or freeze syndrome dates back to the Paleolithic era, yet even then there were trained and untrained individuals who responded differently. For instance the seasoned hunter who stalked game day in and day out was very accustomed too fight, flight or freeze and even grew to enjoy the sensation, whereas his village dwelling counterpart experienced sensory overload when facing danger.  Today, this same rule of thumb applies to those who experience fight, flight or freeze regularly and those who don’t.

For someone trained in violence, such as a bouncer, law enforcement officer, or soldier, the danger signs are easily recognizable: a hidden hand, bulging pocket, hunter’s glare, empty-street or new footprints in a jungle trail all have meaning, hence the transition from sign to signifier to response is a smooth one.

More importantly is those schooled in violence understand there are proper levels of force for each threat encountered. For instance police officers draw their weapons only as a last resort; bouncers rarely strike customers unless the situation warrants it and soldiers avoid firing on unarmed civilians at all costs.

However for the inexperienced person the danger signs often go unrecognized, hence they are surprised by the intensity of a confrontation, or else ambushed by an attacker. Such mental dullness leads to panic, confusion, chaos and sensory overload, along with an inappropriate response that can have fatal consequences for both victim and attacker alike. Case in point whereas the bouncer might simply toss an unruly drunk out of the bar while experiencing the fight response, the inexperienced person would pull their pistol and shoot the drunk because they’re too frightened to consider the use of non-lethal force.   

In regards to the flight response the same applies. Whereas the soldier during the heat of battle would drag his wounded comrade to safety, the untrained person would run and leave their injured friend to the mercy of a marauding gang. Or when faced with overwhelming odds the soldier would freeze and avoid detection while the untrained person would run thereby announcing their presence. Below is a graph illustrating trained and untrained responses.

                           Trained Verses Untrained Responses


Trained                                              Untrained

Stalking/predatory actions                Actions motivated by ego

Precise actions                                  Uncoordinated movements

Calm mindset                                    Hyper, unfocused, overreacts


Trained                                                  Untrained

Orderly Retreat                                       Unrestrained running

Situational awareness                             Unaware of surroundings

Mental alertness                                      Panicked state          



Trained                                                      Untrained      

Hunter’s Crouch                                         Paralyzation

Heightened Awareness                               Denial

Weapon at the ready                                  Submissive, Empathetic      

Trained and conditioned responses, sometimes take months even years to develop. Special Forces operatives usually undergo a year of extensive training before ever seeing combat. The same applies for LEO officers, firefighters, paramedics and even bouncers. Furthermore time spent patrolling the streets, or on the battlefield, heightens their sense of awareness which in turn allows them to experience the fight, flight or freeze syndrome in a calm and detached state, unlike the ordinary civilian and herein lies the problem with recreational martial arts practice and self-defense programs.

Recreational martial artists are often led to believe they are learning how to fight, but sadly the dojo bears little resemblance to the mean streets of most metropolitan cities. And even in schools devoted exclusively to self-defense students may never experience the fight, flight or freeze syndrome because while physically practicing realistic techniques on a subconscious level, they feel safe because of the familiarity of their surroundings.

Worse yet is those who teach one day seminars to unsuspecting persons all the while guaranteeing complete protection from any and all threats.  This can and does happen frequently in large corporations, government agencies and private companies when a well intentioned person desires to improve work safety, yet knows little about realistic self-protection. Hence a martial arts instructor is paid to lead a self-defense seminar and the corporate staff comes away with a false sense of security and a handful of knowledge that may prove more dangerous than useful. For instance on several occasions I have personally witnessed self-defense instructors advocate striking the thorax as a first response in addition to the advice “just keep moving forward, you’ll work through the fight or flight as you go.” Or, when valid information is provided by a legit instructor it is often forgotten by those attending the seminar because it isn't included in their daily work patterns.

How you react to danger on the street, battlefield or at home will begin first and foremost with the sign, signifier, fight, flight or freeze syndrome.  The battle will be won or lost inside of your mind and body long before the first shot, or punch, is fired or thrown. Past experiences, training and conditioning, mental alertness, physical conditioning, personal phobias, time and place will all determine your response. More importantly though, there is no quick and easy answer for dealing with fight, flight or freeze. Either you condition yourself to work through it, or you don’t. It is always present because of our genetics and those who understand its effects have a far better chance of survival, than those who don’t.

About the Author:  Michael Rosenbaum is a former paratrooper and the author Kata and The Transmission of Knowledge in Traditional Martial Arts. This article originally appeared on his blog: Michael Rosenbaum’s Martial Moments

Copyright 2012 by Michael Rosenbaum

Gary Chamberlain
Gary Chamberlain's picture

Cracking summary there.  Well put.

I'm glad 'Orderly Retreat' is on the approved list as I've used that a few times.



Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Thanks for sharing this Michael!

nielmag's picture

So how can you train this if your not part of the military or police?

michael rosenbaum
michael rosenbaum's picture

nielmag wrote:

So how can you train this if your not part of the military or police?


Realistic drilling helps.  Not two step sparring, but role playing with one, two, or three people playing the parts of attackers. This should include using pads, but more importantly attacks that are based upon sheer aggression instead of proper body mechanics, style or system.  Other items to include are broken bottles, sticks, bats, knifes, razors etc, etc. Behaviors to include are shouting, cussing, screaming, and unpredictable behaviors.

 Talking with LEOs, military personel, bouncers and others who have experienced violence firsthand also helps. Full contact fighting can help too.  However, no matter how much drilling you do the fight, flight, or freeze response with still be an obstacle/hurdle to overcome initally. This proves true for military units that have never been under fire, police officers who have never been underfire, or made an arrest and bouncers who have fought in the ring but never worked the busy door of a crowed night club. Likewise for those experienced individuals who haven't experienced fight, flight or freeze for a number of months or years becoming reaquainted with the sensation can take time.  It's not impossible to overcome, or deal with, its just those who experience violence regularly can handle the sensations more effectively than those who don't.