A friend asked me my thoughts on whether the freeze response can be broken. It’s an interesting question that caused me to do a lot of self-reflection and deep-thought over the course of the day.

Break it mid-stream? Mitigation/prevention? Post-event? If mid-stream I’d say it’s pretty difficult. Pre- or post-event, sure…with gradual lead-up, emotional-management time, and allowed self-awareness. Mid-event? I dunno. Acknowledgement or awareness (high-level consciousness) coupled with a massive knee-jerk state-shift could be feasible. Panic/hyperventilation breathing if momentary/sudden & a passing threat to get back “online.” Forcing the head to turn (peripheral-vision activation), feet to move (to break the freeze when you can feel it coming) if able. Maybe an anchor or mantra if powerful and practiced/trained. Lots of very realistic and replicable scenario-training prior. That’s a lotta’ ifs, buts, and ands. (for the vast majority of us, at least, who aren’t professionals with regular exposure to high-stress and ongoing experience-building)

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That being said, human adaptation is truly quite a remarkable thing, and knowledge of how to maximize and understand evolutionary systems has never been greater than it is right now. So it’s always possible as there’s always a way to do a thing. I, personally, haven’t experienced it “in the middle of”, to be clear, and if being 100% honest. At least not that I can remember….so it likely didn’t happen as that’d be no small thing…a thing I’d likely recall. Prevented or mitigated it, yes, using many of the elements listed above. Quick recomposing post-event, also yes.

So, let’s say that it’s possible, for shits –and-giggles. There are times where it might be beneficial. If violence is inevitable, performance necessary, goal dashed, for instance. First, I guess, we should break down the different causes of freezing and the types that follow that causality. After my friend updated me on what many scientific and psychological studies are dictating, I’d have to agree on there being 3 different types of causality that trigger a freeze response, with the possibility of a 4th as well. I’d also say there’s validity in the 3 types of freeze having different physiological elements.

 (Note that my descriptions are not on a scientific basis but trying best to articulate my own personal experience with them)

1.  The assessment/evaluation variety: Waiting for further important information to come in before making best-outcome decision(s). Pausing unconsciously before walking in a poorly-lit backstreet until further threat-analysis and risk-assessment is done, for instance.

2.  The strategic/tactical: an unconscious but intentional freeze to avoid/evade/hide from/diminish/be de-selected by a threat, risk, danger, or stress. I used to lower myself and minimize movement during speech-time so as to blend-in, go unseen, and avoid selection due to an early fear of public-speaking. Or, have you ever done, or not done as it were, something under immense stress that turned out to be the absolutely-correct thing, but you had no control or reasoning as to why you did it? Me too…

3.  The possum/deer-in-headlights: freezing from deep-fear and no alternative. Panic-driven and immediate and present threat, risk, danger, or stress. During a sudden and aggressive confrontation from a volatile stranger as a panic of pain, punishment, violence, or repercussion hits explosively. (I admit to not liking the term “possum” as the metaphor “playing possum” so often now refers to an intentional misleading to gain advantage – which is not what we’re referring to here) This is the one most referred to when talking about the freeze response and often misunderstood to be the only type…

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*Note that, as the examples given, not all of these are of the physical-threat variety even within their own category. For instance, the deer-in-headlights can be shut-down in front of a room of people that you’re facing when the attention is on you, like the public-speaking example above. Like everything, it is ALWAYS contextual and never binary.

Let’s get back to the deer-in-the-headlights freeze, as this is the one that self-defense instructors refer to the most, as the post-event trauma is the greatest, generally. It can be a jolting, humbling, overwhelming aftermath that can leave you with pride, ego, and your invincibility-factor severely shaken. I’ve had immense second-guessing, shame, embarrassment, helplessness from past freeze-responses….but the response often turned out to be the absolute correct one, in hindsight. It saved me a ton of far worse outcomes – death, injury, killing, court, money-loss. “Best solution.” Every time I can recall freezing in the face of violence or real danger, it was (in hindsight, and with the knowledge I have now) for a very particular reason that aided in my being here today. Against a far superior or more dangerous opponent where fighting would’ve been a mistake and ended badly for me. When action would not have been the best option (including escape or negotiation – sometimes it’s better to just fucking listen or stand still, no…)  In circumstances where not enough info was present to yet make an informed choice or “best outcome.” (Is it a real threat? Am I putting myself  unnecessarily in harm’s way? Are there intangibles and potential collateral-damage present that would make escalation an error?) Unforeseen and sudden danger where freezing made me unseen, innocuous, unthreatening.

It was an evolutionary protective mechanism (the 3 above) OR an internal resistance to utilizing violence in a situation where I was culpable and the aggressor, which I have had more than once before. (I provoked, exacerbated, or unnecessarily created and had an internal “blockage” that caused internal resistance to engage or engage further – whether  due to elements of nature/nurture, spirituality, ethics/morals, conditioning – something few acknowledge as having the capability to trigger the freeze response. (Now, whether science has a different explanation for this, I don’t know, but these for me were different experiences than the 3 examples given above) Getting back to my above point, the bottom line is it kept me safe regardless of how bloody hurt my macho ego/pride/immortality were after….or how uncontrollable my post-event adrenal dump. (I was there to have that dump and lick my wounds, to the point)

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Like all evolutionary protective mechanisms, they’re usually there for an important damn reason – to keep you alive or give best chance for safety or survival. I’d say all things considered, the best ways then to manage this are STILL prevention, mitigation, management, or avoidance – pre-occurrence or at the very outset of its manifestation. Experience (whether real or trained or conditioned) gives a ton of comfort to manage situations with more clarity, confidence, and comfort – meaning you likely dodge the freeze-response from happening, at least more often…or minimizing its effects to a manageable level.

So, regarding breaking the mid-stream freeze-response in the face of violence or hostility, remember this. Many modern, leading names in the self-defense industry are now claiming they can or trying to re-engineer evolution. They have the answers. The secrets. There are many instances it is there for a very important and particular reason, as mentioned above. Remember, too, that these people are also not neuro-scientists or psychologists and there can be a real moral conundrum when screwing with the hard-wiring of someone else’s brain chemistry – especially one you don’t know the history of, don’t know the trauma of, and don’t know the repercussions of doing so in other areas of their daily life that are far more regular than against the extremely-rare vicious hardcore predator.

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There is the potential – the real potential – of greater damage being created. Of over-writing something of great importance. Of augmenting already-present fear, stress, anxiety, and paranoia. I bet there are many (m-a-n-y) more instances where the freeze response – when facing real danger and not self-created or manufactured – saved a lot more trauma than it caused. It’s a thing that is so often neglected to be discussed in the this industry as alllll self-defense instructors have your best interest at-heart and are trying to help you, don’tcha know. We are your one-stop Kwik-E-Mart for all things trauma, fear, and threat-based. I, for one, am very wary of those instructors who claim they can alter evolution, brain chemistry, play with your memories, and re-wire innate survival skill mechanism. Our job is to inform, guide, coach, talk….and refer when needed…and we can be a greatly positive influence and aid in this, make no mistake. But we are not therapists and we are not qualified to deal with all things brain- and trauma-based, contrary to what many will tell you.

There are many times where this can be dangerous or counter-productive – that’s what professionals are for. Doctors, neuroscientists, psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists. Granted, not nearly all of these are ethical or stay in their lane either, but they do have specific training with how to deal with issues of the brain and mind. However, I guess all things considered, with many SD students never in any danger of facing real life-threatening violence and living comfortably in the burbs anyway, I guess it’s a moot point, right. (likely not lost on your local SD coach, either but digressing…)

Moral of the story? Be extremely cautious of who you let into your head and mind, and how deep. It’s your last line of defense and sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the real predators from the fantasy ones…

*As a final aside, have you ever wondered if maybe the “fight-back” element is so empowering NOT ONLY because you’ve defeated an enemy and saved yourself….but because you on some level know you’ve momentarily conquered yourself in the process? Something to ponder…


  1. Good post, and as a neurologist myself I am not aware of any legit methods of flat out breaking the freeze. Phobias, yes. Seizures, yes. Stroke, yes. Flat out deer in headlights freeze, No.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Igor! I would generally tend to agree with that assessment. Pre- or post-event, minimized or managed, sure. Consciously-aware of building freeze as well. And, though I never doubt human ingenuity and creativity, mid-stream I’d question. I haven’t personally experienced it and don’t see why many in the field even deem it necessary or wise to attempt to alter genetics with their kurotty credentials in the first place.

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