The Biology of Ambush! Fight, Flee, AND FREEZE!

     "This fight or flight reaction is not an 'all or nothing'; it operates on a continuum. A mildly, moderately, or profoundly emotional experience elicits a mild, moderate, or profound autonomic reaction, respectively." – Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, world-renown neuroscientist



     "Fight or flight. Fight or flight. Fight or flight." Heard that tune before? Chances are you have. Chances are every instructor you've ever had has regurgitated that mantra before you. It is quick and catchy, almost like a song really, and so easy to remember. A snappy alliteration. You probably have locked the three-word, two-prong, catch phrase deep into your “these truths we hold to be self-evident” inner sanctum. The special place things go that never get questioned. The doctors we quote here later call it “ingrained assumptions.”

     Since the early wars with stones, clubs, spears, and swords, the militaries of the world have grappled with issues of bravery and fear on the battlefield, but the whole "fight or flight" catch phrase really seemed to begin as a psychological category in the very early 20th Century. The issue was rubber-stamped into posterity in 1929 by one Dr. Walter Cannon with his original formulation of human threat response – "the fight or flight.” I repeat – 1929. Cannon stated that "when frightened, we flee or fight."

     Fright – defined as fear excited by sudden danger, from something strange, sudden, or shocking. Sudden ambush. Some of the greatest armies of the world were defeated by ambush, as well as some of the best solo fighters. The University of Washington uses a popular “angry bear” example to explain this, an example dating back to the 1930s and copied by so many "downliners" to describe the shock/surprise event.



     “It is a nice, sunny day. You are taking a nice walk in the park. Suddenly, an angry bear appears in your path. Do you stay and fight OR do you turn and run away?”




Simple enough as one, two. But somewhere lurking free in our understanding is yet another vital “F-word,” freeze. From the cavemen confronted by the saber-tooth tiger on the prehistoric veldt to the soldier in Afghanistan, they, and we gathered here, all see and understand the … big freeze. We all intuitively know that we must include “Fight, Freeze, or Flight,” in the first milliseconds of an ambush of any type. These three Fs are utterly and intrinsically connected to this. Okay, we know this, so what does the latest research show? Modern experts agree and can also now define and refine that not all freezing comes from fear or fright! You may freeze when shocked for several biological reasons that have nothing to do with bravery, courage or lack thereof.

       I began reading about these other two Fs – Fright and Freeze in the 1990s. I grew impatient with the constant repetition of Cannon's lonely two words, Flight or Fight. Also impatient and tired with the over-simplistic, two-prong Fs, in 2004 on the issue of psychosomatics in the American Journal of Psychiatry, five doctors specializing in psychiatry (see list below) petitioned peers to change the fight or flight mantra. In an article entitled, "Does Flight or Fight Need Updating," they began a challenging, yet common sense dissertation on the subject:

     “Walter Cannon's original formulation of the term for the human response to a threat, "fight or flight," was coined exactly 75 years ago in 1929. It is an easily remembered catch phrase that seems to capture the essence of the phenomena it describes. It accurately evokes two key behaviors that we see occurring in response to a threat. This phrase has led to certain ingrained assumptions about what to expect in our patients and, because of its broad usage, what they expect of themselves. It is a testament to the foundational significance of Cannon's work that the term he used continues to shape clinical understanding and to influence popular culture's understanding of stress as well. But the phrase has not been updated to incorporate important advances in the understanding of the acute response to extreme stress. Specifically, the term ignores major advances in stress research made since it was coined. Both human and animal research on the pan-mammalian response to stress has advanced considerably since 1929, and it may be time to formulate a new form of this catch phrase that presents a more complete and nuanced picture of how we respond to danger."



They go on: “The phrase 'fight or flight' has influenced the understanding and expectations of both clinicians and patients; however, both the order and the completeness of Cannon's famous phrase are suspect. 'Fight or flight' mischaracterizes the ordered sequence of responses that mammals exhibit as a threat escalates or approaches. In recent years, ethnologists working with nonhuman primates have clearly established four distinct fear responses that proceed sequentially in response to increasing threat. The order of these responses may have important implications for understanding and treating acute stress in humans."

     The article reminds their peers that people freeze in place for reasons other than fear/fright. One might freeze from a hyper-vigilance and/or by just being overwhelmed by surrounding stimuli, not fear. Therefore, the act of freezing can be clinically different than fright. You can freeze from fright, and you can freeze from being overwhelmed in a sensory overload – which has nothing to do with fear. Many specialists such as Dr. Jeffrey Allen Gray state we all freeze FIRST to some degree! Then react.

     So the experts summarize: “We propose the adoption of the expanded and reordered phrase "freeze, flight, fight, or fright" as a more complete and nuanced alternative to "fight or flight." While we cannot hope to compete with the legacy of Cannon's phrase in the culture at large, adoption of this alternative term within the clinical community may help keep clinicians aware of the relevant advances in understanding of the human stress response made since the original term "fight or flight" was coined three-quarters of a century ago.”

     Medical professionals do use the full four Fs now in so many fields from speech therapy for stuttering to post-traumatic stress treatment for combat vets. But that common “culture at large” that the doctors mentioned remains ignorant and still does love to sing the simple two-note song of Flight or Fight. They sing on and on about the two Fs and the sympathetic nervous system and two-F shooting and two-F fighting and two-F thinking and two-F training on and on. And like so many blindly accepted principles spouted in martial, police, and the military training dogma, ideas like the disproved Hick's Law and the mis-quoted Startle Reflex, the “fight or flight” catch phrase has not been updated for most of us in eight decades of steadily advancing research.

     In your humble correspondent's opinion here, a martial training doctrine might well function with just the three Fs of "Fight, Flight, or Freeze. After all, a freeze is a freeze whether it be from a sudden fright or a sudden sensory overload. Just please explain it to your folks. The "Fourth F of Fright" may only be mandatory in the psychiatric world in their post-event treatment world where they grapple with traumatic stress syndromes.

     There are also many small hairs to be split in this subject. Is just backing up a few steps also officially called a "flight"? What about underreacting? Naive TV news viewers complain when they see films of citizens ignoring a vicious assault occurring on the street, or say, on a pizza line before them. They seem to freeze or ignore the crime! Dr. John Leach, author of Survival Psychology, teaches an advanced course in survival psychology in Lancaster University in England. Leach has a name for some freezing (and for people who seem to ignore crimes happening before them). It's called the "incredulity response." People simply don't believe what they're seeing. So they go about their business, engaging in what's known as "normalcy bias." Underreactors act as if everything is OK and underestimate the seriousness of danger. Some experts call this "analysis paralysis." People lose their ability to make decisions. Leach says that of the vast majority of us … (80 percent) in a crisis, most will quite simply be stunned and bewildered. 

     We'll find that our reasoning is significantly impaired and that thinking is difficult. It's OK, and it doesn't last forever. The key is to recover quickly from brain lock or analysis paralysis, shake off the shock, and figure out what to do.

     What is hypervigilance? Is the natural "stop-look-listen" considered a freeze? What is Tonic Immobility? Is there a natural progression to the Fs when you are confronted, and does "freeze" come first? Yes, according to attached links from experts below for more info.

Some solutions to the shocking, surprise ambush very briefly are:

    1) Train sudden-fight responses for ambush and surprise. Many militaries use the term "immediate action drills" to prepare for ambushes. Using the who, what, where, when, how, and why questions as best they can to predict ambush, they try to drill good responses. Over and over again until they become like a reflex.

     2) Train responding from freezes and if needed … maintaining a freeze to remain undetected if that is the smart thing to do.

     3) Train orderly "smart" retreats.

     4) Work on fear management concepts.


     Three Fs or four Fs, there is certainly more than just the two Fs. In today's mental health industry, stress management is a major challenge as well as profitable business. In terms of everyday, sudden, short-term, and long-term stress, mental health experts can easily refer to simple "fight or flight" in their articles and treatment programs, even despite the above protests of their peers. For them, the majority of problems are marital, jobs, rush hour traffic, raising children, and the like. 

      This has all been psychological and biological talk. When fighters/self-defense people talk they like to add several more Fs. They like to add words like "fainting," "falling," "folding," "fronting." "Fake." Sharpen your pencil and make an "F" list. But, some of these things occur after the initial ambush reaction.

     But a training and treatment doctrine that includes routine violence and combat cannot function without this Freeze category in its equation. The first group deals with stress, the second group deals with stress AND proper response to sudden and planned combat.

     Fight or flight. We have memorized the two words, but never understand the music. Just before teaching, just before you take the podium, remember to request that sadly unique song called: "What Does the Very Latest Research Show?"

I think that it is important for readers new to this Freeze Warning and fighting to know:
1: This declared biological, mandatory ambush-freeze might only be one or more milliseconds (there are 1,000 milliseconds in a second. You will probably not freeze like an ice statue for "about a minute" when attacked. 

2: Your reaction time depends upon how alert you were just before the surprise. Think about a UFC fight. Is any one "freezing?" No. they are alert to the fight.



     Read the full essay/article by clicking hereThe following doctors are mentioned in this article: 
     * H. Stefan Bracha, M.D., Tyler C. Ralston, M.A.
     * Jennifer M. Matsukawa, M.A., National Center for PTSD, Department of 
 Veteran's Affairs, Pacific Islands             Health Care System
     * Spark M. Matsunaga Medical Center, Honolulu, Hawaii
     * Andrew E. Williams, M.A., Department of Psychology, University of Hawaii at 
Manoa, Honolulu, Hawaii,

     * Adam S. Bracha, B.A., Biomedical-Research Consultant, Honolulu, Hawaii


More on this subject

– Freeze (Hypervigilance), Flight, Fight, Fright, (Tonic Immobility) Click here

– Run, Hide, Fight! Does it mix with Freeze?  Click here

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