Fight, Flight or Freeze

Posted: January 16, 2018 by urbantacticskravmaga in Krav Maga Principles
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When Encountering a threat, humans typically have one of two instinctual behavioural reactions, with an occasional third.

Fight, Flight, or Freeze



For many, especially untrained individuals or for those exposed to a threat they are simply overwhelmed by, this can be a subconscious automatic decision. For more trained individuals this response can be honed and controlled at a more conscious level. Whether the decision is a conscious one or not, your brain will do a quick calculation based on your past experience, your skill level and conditioning and determine which option is best. The most important part is often not which decision is made, but the speed at which the final decision is reached and whether or not you can commit to it.

“Strike fast, but run faster” – Unknown

The below is an excerpt from a previous article found here.

“The fight or flight response refers to physiological reaction that occurs when a person is placed in a threatening situation. Fight or flight simply describes the two basic decisions that are instantaneously made to resolve the dangerous situation, which is the decision to either quickly escape or to stay and fight.

The physiological effects of this response begins with one or several of the five senses, typically vision. A person will see threatening stimili, such a person or animal. The stimili is then sent as a signal via the optic nerve to be processed by the brain, generally in the amygdala, known as the ‘fear center’ which sends signals to the hypothalamus, which activates the nervous system. A signal then stimulates the sympathetic nervous system which sends impulses down the spinal column to the adrenal gland, which releases epinephrine, also known as adrenaline. This hormone will cause the heart rate to increase and is sent throughout the body as the heart beats faster. Epinephrine will signal the liver to release glucose, which will then be converted into ATP, which is used to activate muscles. This heightened level of epinephrine in the body will also activate the lungs, causing the breathing rate to increase in order for the body take in and utilize more oxygen through dilated blood vessels. The pupils in the eyes will also dilate to facilitate better lighting and vision as blood vessels in the ears dilate for increased auditory perception. In order to efficiently escape an attack or to fight, this response also subdues bodily processes which are unnecessary during a dangerous situation, such as digestion. The elevated levels of this hormone and increased activation of these bodily processes will increase body heat, which is also useful as it allows your muscles to ‘warm up’ in seconds as the mind registers the threat.

autonomic-nervous-system.jpgPsychologically, the combination of the increased heart rate, sweating, and the explosion of energy in the muscles, create a sense of acute awareness of the current situation and the ability to act quickly. While this illustrates a case in which the entire process runs smoothly, you must also be aware of the case in which it fails, known as condition black. Condition black is also known as ‘freezing’ during a dangerous situation, preventing the individual from fleeing or fighting. Cognitively, a sense of increased aggression will be associated with the ‘fight’ response and a combination of fear and anxiety for ‘flight’, while freezing is associated with fear and anxiety, but also a feeling of physical stiffness. During this freeze response, the parasympathetic nervous system dumps large amounts of hormones into the body, the same hormones that return the body to its relaxed state after a fight. The sudden increase of these hormones during a dangerous situation have the opposite effect of the fight or flight response, mixing panic with an inability to act quickly. Although freezing can be useful in situations in which a person must remain still in order to hide from an attacker, it can be detrimental when faced with an attacker head on.”

In Krav Maga, we accept these natural reactions and work with them. Generally, we have a decision to make. If we are following the proper stages of Self defense, then we will choose Flight, as (A) Avoidance is the first choice when we have it and it is appropriate (For civilians it usually is, for those whose jobs required them to stay then it will not be appropriate). Of if we cannot run and avoid the fight, and we cannot (D) diffuse the situation, then we fight. Depending on the scenario and how quickly you realized the fight is unavoidable you will either Strike first (PE) or react to their attack defensively (RE).

The Freeze reaction is a double edge sword. It is either a correct tactical response to stop moving.

Example 1: you are walking in the plains of Africa, you spot something. That something you think is a pair of eyes peering at you from the tall grass. You FREEZE! This is both to ensure that you identify the threat correctly, before making a decision. And not to activate the predator’s response to running.


The ability to recognize eyes and a face is so ingrained in our biology our brains have a part of the brain dedicated to this task. This is a very primal predator response. I see Face, I decided, Fight, flight or freeze. Remember, these responses are engrained into our biology as part of our survival instinct. So dont, fight them but instead train them.

Example 2: You are a special operations group moving silently through the night. You are still 1km from your designated target. a group of teens is up late night passed the local curfew, you freeze so as not to be identified by remaining motionless and silent. The threat of detection passes and you continue.

OR the freeze response can become code black and turn into a catastrophic mental failure preventing you from acting at all in a Non-Functional Freeze. This is the kind of freeze we hope to avoid. Some individuals are fortunate enough not to have a code black or NFF trigger. Others will only know when it happens. If it happens for the first time hopefully you have made correct life decisions and avoid dangerous or life-threatening situations. If not, you may be in for a world of hurt.

One of the most effective ways to avoid a code black situation especially under the threat of violence is to train. Training is a form of exposure therapy, especially Krav Maga. Krav Maga cannot be called Krav Maga if the training never forces you to push your physical and mental limits through stress testing. This regular and relatively safe training exposes you to higher levels of mental and physical stress in slow doses which allows your body to adapt and get used to it. The more you are used to it the easier you can turn a freeze response from an NFF to a tactical freeze to action thus making the correct decisions and avoiding being overwhelmed by a real-world threat.

So under threat of life and death, do you know which response you are most likely to have? The right one, could save your life, but the wrong one…

**Topics under any principle category (EX. Krav Maga Principles) may be updated from time to time so always check in every few months to see if the posts have been updated.


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