Years ago I was called as a Bishop in our Ward. At the time of the calling I was in the Bishopric so I was on the stand. My wife says when they called my name I went white as a sheet. This shock to the system is called the “fight, flight, or freeze” response to a highly stressful situation. I may have been in the “freeze” state even though I actually stood up and was sustained.
How do you know you will not freeze when confronted by a threat? You don’t really. There are a wide range of possible responses and experiences during extreme high stress events. Sharper focus, visual clarity, slow-motion time, temporary paralysis, dissociation, and intrusive thoughts can all occur. When dissociation (a detachment from physical and emotional reality) occurs, it may be a red flag for the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Loss of bladder and bowel control during moments of intensity is a common occurrence that is rarely discussed.
Dave Grossman in his book “On Combat” he discusses responses that soldiers experienced in combat.
“Studies of World War II show that there were more psychiatric causalities than physical ones. Among individuals participating in combat for longer than 60 consecutive days, 98 percent of them would begin to breakdown emotionally. This can have long term effects. Evidence from the Russian-German battle of Stalingrad suggests that participants died nearly thirty years younger than same aged males who had not endured the fight.
The range in responses to high stress result from changes in the autonomic nervous system, the part of human physiology responsible for automatic response to stimulus (the sympathetic nervous system) and basic bodily maintenance (the parasympathetic nervous system). When one's "fight or flight" response is triggered, the sympathetic nervous system begins shutting down things like salivation and digestion while increasing the production of epinephrine (adrenaline). Once the action is over it is followed by a parasympathetic backlash, the body attempting to calm down. Responses to this can vary depending on how prolonged the violence or stress has lasted. Soldiers fighting for hours find themselves exhausted and falling asleep because they have burned all their adrenaline. People who have experienced only a brief violent instance may find themselves unable to sleep for some time.
Heart rate increase in response to fear is correlated with a deterioration of motor skills and senses like vision and hearing. Eventually cognitive abilities degrade to a point Grossman calls condition black (based off of work done by Bruce Siddle and Jeff Cooper). He gives conditions white, yellow, red, gray, and black, with white being unconcerned and black being overwhelmed. He believes high pressure situations call for condition yellow in which motor and cognitive skills are functioning at peak performance. Condition black is said to be when the heart rate gets above 175 beats per minute because of the influx of adrenaline from stress. At this point vasoconstriction, the tightening of the blood vessels, allows less oxygen to the brain. The mid-brain, the part we share with animals like dogs and bears, takes over. Rational thought goes out the window.
During combat situations there are a variety of perceptual distortions caused by biomechanical changes in the body. "Auditory exclusion" is when sounds like gunfire stop being heard or are muted. "Tunnel vision" is when the field of view is narrowed down, cutting out the periphery. Depending on the environment the body may focus its attention almost entirely on either audio or visual stimulus, as is the case when hearing becomes sharper in low light situations. Sensory exclusion also occurs when adrenaline masks the pain of an injury until after the stress has passed.
Other experiences can present themselves, such as loss of memory and "tactical fixation", during which a person may attempt the same thing over and over expecting a different result each time. There are also memory distortions. People who have participated in extreme high stress situations may remember events incorrectly, believing them to be more negative than they actually were. There can also be an "autopilot effect" during which a person may do things without thought. Distance and depth perception can also distort.”
How do you control these responses as you prepare for a threat response in self-defense?
Tactical breathing is a technique to control your self-regulated sympathetic (Fight, Flight, Freeze) response. Two of the autonomic nervous system that you can control is your breathing rate and blinking of the eye. Special Ops personnel have to demonstrate tactical breathing in their training by intentionally slowing their heart rate from a stress-induced high to a normal resting rate within a few minutes.
If you begin to tremble and find that although you are mentally vigilant and responsive, you are losing your fine motor control, you need to get your heat rate down. If you suffer such a close call that you are literally incapacitated by fear, you will need to bring your heart rate down so that you can get back to a safe condition. Use tactical breathing to reassert control of the overwhelming sympathetic response.
Although the actual ideal frequency and duration of the breaths require further research, Grossman teaches a 4x4x4 technique.
1. Breath in through nose for a slow 4-count.
2. Hold breath for a slow 4-count.
3. Breath out through the mouth for a slow 4-count.
4. Hold breath for a slow 4-count.
5. Repeat cycle 4 times.
Practice this technique until it becomes habit. There is a youtube video for additional explanation and a demonstration of this technique.
Having better control when the “fight, flight or freeze” response comes into play may be achieved through some preparation. Being able to control breathing and heart rate may make a big difference.
In all my research I found only breathing to try to minimize the 3 F response. I think, and this is just my thinking, mentally preparing for a fight and running through scenarios would help too. I realize that only experience can prepare you for a fight and the way you will respond, but I feel the better prepared you are, the better you can respond. You may still freeze, but after you are over that your response will be better if you have prepared.
This article is just a small idea of mental preparation for an attack or other self-defense situation. There is much to research on this but I would recommend Dave Grossman’s book “On Combat” to start.
Being able to fight is why we train. Self-defense is hinged on whether you can fight and how you are prepared to fight if the need arises.