Freeze, Fight, Flight and Martial Arts Training

This is the first of two posts that describe the wonders of the human response to stress. Many people in martial arts refer to the stress response (or freeze, fight or flight) in a pretty negative manner. ‘Adrenaline dump’ is a term used to highlight a detrimental natural phenomenon that needs to be overcome during a self-defence situation. In fact, the stress response involves a complex integration of the body’s systems involving a powerful mix of neural and hormonal factors, preparing the system for survival.

Originally coined by Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon “fight-or-flight” response, later extended to include freeze, describes the body’s automatic response to perceived threat or danger. A product of evolution this in-built safety mechanism is designed to protect not harm us. For the caveman, threats were best dealt with by freezing, when movement could alert the threat to his presence, by fighting if the odds were in his favour, but if not by fleeing.

For instance, when a caveman’s BBQ bison was on the go and a nearby monolithic bear smelt it, wanted it and came charging into the party uninvited, it’s a fair assumption that running away was the best option. If your survival mechanism wasn’t up to scratch you were bear food. Survival of the fittest ensured the stress response evolved to the marvel that it is. Unfortunately, in today’s society where bear threat is low, social stress and the freeze, fight or flight response are not compatible. Chronic social stress is a killer but acute stress in the form of danger from a potential attacker or impending disaster is not only valid but also highly valuable.

The stress response gives us the strength, power and speed to avoid physical harm to ourselves or significant others when we perceive danger. The sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system (the part responsible for subconscious body maintenance) initiates the fight-or-flight response, while the parasympathetic branch returns the body to homeostasis, calming us down and bringing everything back to normal in both emotional and physiological terms.

We perceive threat or danger, real or imagined and the sympathetic nervous system sets off a flood of emotional and physiological activity which enables us to increase power, speed and strength as required. The amygdala ,sounds the alarm’ and the hypothalamus notifies all the other systems in the body via the nervous system, while instructing the endocrine system to begin the secretion of powerful hormones, mainly adrenaline and cortisol. These flood into the bloodstream and activate cells to aid the preparation to freeze, fight or flight.

This internal activity results in many complex changes with the purpose to divert resources from unnecessary functions to systems vital in the process of increasing speed, power and strength. These changes include increased heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, brain activity and blood flow being redirected to the muscles (vascular shunt) while digestion, the immune system and the reproductive system for example are switched off. We are hardwired to resist threat and be able to protect ourselves from danger. This system is poetry in motion, the stress response is a powerful, useful process which kicks in as reliably as flicking a switch once danger is perceived.


7 thoughts on “Freeze, Fight, Flight and Martial Arts Training

  1. Hi Jon,

    I really enjoyed the article. It is well written, clear and concise. It makes me dwell on the fact that I haven’t looked at the emotional reactions within my teaching, and probably not recognised them enough within my own karate as well. Facing a physical threat, if I was honest, would I freeze, fight or flight? On the few occasions when I’ve felt threatened, I’ve used charm to disarm. Is charisma/rapport a valid fourth response?

    I do enjoy you blogs.

    Best wishes,


  2. Charm to disarm, like that one Ash and thanks for the encouragement and comment. If you read any of the Self-protection experts they talk about the pre-fight routine and this is when you can do that.

    The trouble is if you go into full on stress response you are set up for the primitive actions of freeze, fight or flight rather than the higher level negotiating skills.

    This is when experience or trainging comes into play. The doorman or policeman are set up better to cope than the librarian, unless it’s a pretty unruly library!

    The stress response system works well but we need to be used to its foibles if we are to benefit. This not necessarily true, there are stories of superhuman efforts from mothers saving their kids and the like, when the stress response kicks in and works perfectly off the cuff. Better to be prepared though, eh?

    The trouble with modern day altercations is that there can be a lenghty preamble before the ‘kick-off’, this is when unused hormonal effects can be detrimental. Shaky legs, feeling sick, loose bowels…….

    The threat doesn’t have to be dangerous, we can experience the stress response when watching a scary film or before speaking in public. It just needs to be percieved as a threat.

  3. A timely reminder Jon.

    Personally, I think there’s too much ‘lip-service’ on the subject – but then I would eh… 🙂

    I find it fascinating that thousands of conscripts managed to ‘cope’ with this phenomena during the modern wars. Was it training, fear of letting one’s comrades down, the will to survive, a sense of righteousness or a melange de tout? Interesting subject.

  4. Pingback: Martial Arts Self Defense : Self-Defense Against a Club Attack | Gedanate

  5. You really aren’t as thick as you look Mr Law ;o)

    My question is, can you really train to help cope with the ‘fight or flight’ syndrome ? I don’t think you can overcome it but is there a way of training to better help deal with the feelings and emotions you experience and feel should you find yourself in that position?

    Great subject

  6. As Paul said many many people cope with severe FFF episodes during wars and have done so throughout history as humans have done so throughout evolution. That has to have happened for the FFF response to have survived.

    Admittedly, many in modern wars suffer from PTSD, shell shock, and most likely many did not survive due to freezing when they needed to fight, for example. There’s a follow up post scheduled, look out for it.

    It just kinda irritates me when people seem to think that it’s something to be overcome when it’s a hugely effective defence system. The whole point is that it’s a huge part of the reason as to why humans and other species have been successful.

  7. Pingback: Freeze, Fight, Flight and Martial Arts Training #2 « EPIC martial arts Blog

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