Do not freeze in fear if attacked! Many of us have experienced this situation; you’re driving down a quiet country road, next thing you know, a deer is in the middle of the road, and rather than run to safety, it simply stands there, watching-as the car gets closer to it, and possibly injured or killed-totally paralyzed in fear.
Fear is an evolutionary survival mechanism, though it causes us to do some weird things, including freezing during violence. Chances are, it will probably happen, which makes sense because most people’s last response is to fight. Do not freeze in fear if attacked! This is the last thing you want to do in this situation.
There are many reasons people freeze
Too many stimuli – Your brain is taking in so much information at a rapid rate that it is unable to process what it is seeing effectively. Because most people have never been in anything even approaching a self-defense situation before, your brain has no reference experience, and because of that, it takes your brain time to find its bearings. Unfortunately, in the time that it takes your brain to do that, you can sustain some serious damage, again, do not freeze in fear if attacked!
Disconnect between 9-5 brain and combat brain – Unless you are in the military or in law enforcement, very few people train themselves to be able to shift from their 9-5 brain into combat-mode at the drop of a hat. It sometimes takes some time to shift between your day-to-day mindset into combat mode. Unfortunately, the longer this takes, the longer your freeze will be, and the higher the likelihood that you could sustain injuries from your attacker.
Ethical struggle – This is especially common in martial artists/military/law enforcement people. You may have trained for years, but, just because you’ve gone through the motion of how to break someone’s knee over and over doesn’t mean that when it comes down to actually doing it that you can go through with it.
This ethical struggle often causes trained people to pause before defending themselves. An assault is not the time to work out your ethics; spend time well beforehand thinking about what you could or couldn’t do in any given situation. Have a few go-to techniques that you feel comfortable relying on, and that you know that you could perform in the heat of the moment without the slightest hesitation.
Look at it this way, your attacker certainly isn’t worrying about hurting you! So, do what you need to do to survive. Do not freeze in fear if attacked!
Evolution – Running away from a predator can often trigger the chase-reflex in them. Part of the reason that you freeze is that this survival method helped our cave-dwelling grandparents survive some pretty terrifying predators, and this trait has been passed down to us.
Your brain is on autopilot during a high-adrenaline state, and the only thing it tells itself during a freeze is, “this hasn’t gotten you killed yet, so keep doing it.” This type of behavioral looping pattern can also be seen during other phases of an attack, particularly when you continuously punch an attacker in the arm, for example, even though it’s not doing anything to them. Again, your brain is simply saying, “this hasn’t gotten you hurt yet, so just keep doing it.” Unfortunately, behavioral looping can also get you killed if you fail to break out of the loop and do something different.
Ways to break a freeze
Talk yourself through it out loud – Paramedics often do this in the early stages of their career, and talking yourself through what you are trying to do can be the trigger to ground you back into the reality of the situation: “Strike to the face hard, strike to the sternum”, etc.
Yell, move – Loudly vocalizing or moving parts of your body (like in kicking) can sometimes bring you back to the present moment and out of the freeze. You’d be surprised how conscious you can feel during a freeze, so tell yourself to do SOMETHING! Yelling, of course, has the added benefit of hopefully drawing attention to what’s going on, and having people either come over to help, or at least call the police.
Three Types of Freezing
Do not freeze in fear if attacked! Scientists broadly define freezing as a response to threat characterized not only by immobility but also inhibition of behavior. In the laboratory, researchers evoke freezing in different ways, some involving the ability to escape and others inescapable.
By reading the scientific literature closely, and listening carefully to people describing responses they’ve had to sexual assault, severe harassment, and other attacks, it’s possible to differentiate three types of freezing: detection, shocked, and no-good-choices.
As we’ll see, someone who says “I froze” may have experienced one, two, or all three forms. And for neurobiological reasons, if more than one happens, they typically unfold in a set order.
Do not freeze in fear if attacked! In sexual assaults and severe harassment, there’s often a critical moment when the attack is detected, and brain and body instantly and automatically enter a completely different state.
Up to that point, the person may have experienced what was happening (even if it was unpleasant, unwanted, and somewhat stressful) as basically normal and consistent with their expectations of how things go in such situations: how people tend to kiss and touch each other in (awkward) romantic situations, how pushy dates can act, and how boorish bosses can be inappropriate.
But then something happens that flips the script or massively escalates the stress, and the brain’s defense circuitry not only detects an unexpected attack, but automatically and involuntarily triggers strong brain and body responses.
This is detection freezing, and to describe it people often say, “I froze for a second.”
People can have this detection freeze response at different times—some when they first sense something’s wrong, before clear aggression, and others not until the fourth or fifth time their resistance is ignored or overpowered. It can happen when an arm is grabbed, a shirt forcibly unbuttoned, or a rapist flashes a look that says, “You can’t stop me.” Or when someone getting a massage is inappropriately touched the first or second (definitely-no-accident) time.
The potential triggers are limitless, but the detection freeze response is basically the same: Instantly and involuntarily, sometimes with a jolt, everything stops and everything changes.
This response can be fleeting and may not be recalled later—at least not initially, especially if more disturbing experiences happened right before and afterward, or the person is generally avoiding bad memories. Often investigators don’t ask the right questions, or even know it’s a common response and a key moment in many sexual assaults. (It’s a key moment because—from then on—brain, body, attention, thinking, behavior, and memory processes are all dramatically altered in particular ways.)
The detection freeze response doesn’t happen in every sexual assault or incident of severe harassment, especially if escalation and recognition unfold gradually. But when it does, a variety of other brain-based processes tend to follow.
Obviously, the detection freeze response involves stopping all movement (aside from breathing and visual scanning). That’s why it’s called freezing.
Immobility helps prey avoid the attention of predators. Just as importantly, stopping whatever behaviors were happening just before attack was detected also makes room—literally, in terms of brain network functioning—for new and unplanned behavior options that could prevent injury or death.
Over millions of years, evolution sculpted a specific defense circuitry pathway which carries out that stop-movement or “behavioral inhibition” component of freezing.
Simultaneously, the defense circuitry also instantly stops any thought processes. Research suggests this happens via rapid chemical and electrical changes in regions underlying verbal and visual thinking.
Those sudden cessations of behavior and thought can be understood as a “network reset” (which is initiated by a brainstem area, the locus coeruleus). That reset prepares the brain to receive new and potentially life-saving information—and generate options for responding to it.
Do not freeze in fear if attacked! The sudden stopping of all movement and thinking may last a fraction of a second, a couple of seconds, or even longer. When it lasts a couple of seconds or less, that’s the detection freezing response.
But when it lasts longer than a couple of seconds, additional brain processes are involved, and it’s a big deal. People tend to remember it.
That’s why many people who’ve been sexually assaulted or severely harassed say that, at some point, “I was in shock” or “My mind went blank,” and of course, “I froze.” Again, some military personnel and police officers say the same things about having frozen in this way (although understandably they seldom admit such things).
I’ve named this remarkable, disturbing, and memorable state the shocked freeze response.
It usually comes right after the detection freeze response, as a continuation of that “network reset”—and a massive amplification of it. For several seconds a person may feel shocked, dumbfounded, their mind utterly blank, at a loss for words and actions. Trying to describe it later, people say things like, “It made no sense,” “It just didn’t compute,” “I couldn’t even think,” or “I had no idea what to do.”
Basically, in this form or phase of freezing, no options for responding even arise in the brain or awareness. It’s not that people experience themselves as having options but can’t decide among them, Instead, their brains, at least for a time, are literally not generating any behavior options to choose from, let alone execute.
Research suggests that the strength and length of this shocked freeze state depend on how much norepinephrine the defense circuitry has just released into brain regions that generate thoughts and behaviors.
Whatever the exact brain causes, it’s a helpless and horrifying state of being, especially when unwanted and disturbing things are being done to one’s body.
It’s a state that people commonly describe later as having been “frozen.” And like the other two freeze responses, it’s a state that can be listened for, explored with non-leading questions, and put together with other information and evidence—whether to conduct a more effective investigation or simply to validate the experience of someone who feels safe enough to share it with us.
Do not freeze in fear if attacked! Many sexual assault survivors recall how, just seconds after registering the perpetrator’s behavior as an attack or upon emerging from a brief state of shock, their thinking was severely limited.
They remember having few thoughts of any kind. They recall, “All I could think was…,” and complete that sentence with a thought or two that—later, from the perspective of a relatively functional prefrontal cortex—seem remarkably simple, even useless or ridiculous.
Some remember being fixated on a single thought. All they could think was, “This can’t be happening, this can’t be happening…” or “It’s almost over, it’s almost over…” or “God please help me…” They had no other thoughts in their minds. Indeed, they had no ability to rationally generate and then choose from other thoughts (about how to respond effectively).
Others find themselves thinking only of two completely opposite responses—both extreme and horrifying: Scream and bring people running to a humiliating scene in my dorm room vs. lie still and quiet. Jump off the massage table and run naked out the door vs. wait for the violations to end. Fight back and risk even worse violence vs. offer no resistance at all.
In short, an impaired prefrontal cortex leaves many people—whether within seconds of the initial detection freeze response, or upon emerging from the shocked freeze response, or otherwise being extremely stressed or terrified—with thinking that’s been reduced to extreme lose-lose options, to “choices” that are no real choices at all.
This is the third form and often the final phase of freezing during sexual assault, severe sexual harassment, and other experiences of violence and trauma. For the reasons explained above, I call it no-good-choices freezing.
Unlike well-trained soldiers, who learn effective habits from extensive combat training, most people being sexually assaulted have no effective habits for responding, because they’ve had no good self-defense or “resistance” training specifically for resisting sexual assault, especially by someone they know. With brains that have no effective habit behaviors to automatically call up and choose from, it’s no wonder they do nothing.
Later, others may ask or think, “Why didn’t you _______?” The answer: Because it never even occurred to them. Again, in response to that “why didn’t you” question, sexual assault survivors commonly say, “I froze. All I could think was…,” and complete that sentence with a simple thought or two about potential behaviors that were not even good options.
(Sometimes in no-good-choices freezing, the parasympathetic braking influence on the heart is outgunned by the sympathetic nerve and a late-arriving surge of adrenaline. People say things like, “my heart was pounding out of my chest!” or “I was in a total panic!” But even then, even if the parasympathetic brake came off, in no-good-choices freezing those cued-up extreme behavior options were still inhibited from release. The body was still “frozen.”)
For these biological reasons, we should never expect people to behave rationally and strategically in such states. We shouldn’t be surprised if they froze because they were stuck on simple thoughts about extreme behaviors that were either wildly over-reactive or totally passive.
Freezing Responses: Keys to Understanding Many Incidents of Sexual Assault and Harassment
Freezing happens in many sexual assaults and incidents of severe harassment.
In all three freeze responses, the brain’s defense circuitry orchestrates massive shifts in brain functioning that have huge effects on experience and behavior. Later, attempting to understand and explain what happened, survivors say things like, “I froze,” “I was in shock,” and “All I could think was…”
In detection freezing, all movement and thinking suddenly stop. In shocked freezing, there’s a blank mind and no behaviors to choose from. In no-good-choices freezing, the brain has cued up only extreme behavior options and there’s little or no prefrontal cortex capacity for rationally choosing among them or coming up with potentially more effective ones.
Sure, some people immediately fight or flee when sexually assaulted or otherwise attacked. But many don’t.
Many victims are suspended for critical seconds in frozen shock, with no thoughts at all—but plenty of terrible sensations bombarding them. Others are stuck with simple thoughts and useless “choices” of extreme behaviors—as the parasympathetic brake stays on, no decision is made, and no action is taken. In many cases, only after one or more of these freeze responses does fight or flight happen, if either happens at all.
Like the brain of every survivor, every incident of sexual assault or severe harassment is unique, and people’s responses can unfold in unique and complex ways. In the aftermath, it can be hard to figure out what happened, especially when memories are incomplete due to the effects of stress, trauma, alcohol or other drugs.
Confronted with that complexity, understanding the three different freeze responses can be very helpful—whether we’re supporting someone who’s been sexually assaulted or harassed, trying to make sense of our own experiences, or investigating or prosecuting such violations of others.
While it may take some time and effort to absorb and apply this knowledge, including through study, training, and practice, it’s definitely worth it. This knowledge can help all of us to listen with less confusion and more understanding, with less judgement and more empathy. And those are keys to supporting survivors, conducting effective and fair investigations, and holding perpetrators accountable.
Do not freeze in fear if attacked! If you are attacked, you must do something, anything other than freezing. Many people will be so shocked to be attacked that they simple cannot move, just like the deer in the headlights.
The big difference here is that the attacker won’t feel sorry for you and let you go, instead you just made his job so much easier by being frozen in fear.
Take up self-defense training, something that can help you or save your life in these situations. always remember, do not freeze in fear if attacked!