Tag Archives: fight-flight-freeze


It seems most industry-folk adhere to the fight-flight-freeze triumverate of response when faced with immediate fear, danger, or serious/immediate threat. In that intense context, I’d say that’s sufficiently explainable to the average layman/women. I’m going to go a different route, if nothing but for discussion-sake. As always, I’d like to bring up different aspects of what are usually considered accepted industry-truth. For thought and reflection, not necessarily making any statements as to concreteness but to subtly expand perception and option over subjective-truth and process. Consider it a general overview and reference-point for how highly-evolved we are as human beings. A psychological breakdown of reaction-, situation-, and escalation-types….all which factor in to the diversity of options available.

Let’s break them up into soft-wired (learned, developed, cognitive, “by-design”) and hard-wired (innate, instinctive, evolutionary) first. and cognitive. We have those evolutionary instinctive responses, like the above-mentioned 3Fs, that align us with the rest of the animal kingdom.  I’d say that’s at least partially why lip-service is predominantly given to solely the 3Fs, because so many seem to have this will, romance, and danger of referring to us as or relating us to the beasts. The very fact that we have so many other viable learned responses is exactly what separates us from the them. Animals also have fight, flight, and freeze responses. They also, like we do, have some others that instinctively play themselves out in threat/fear scenarios – posturing and submission, for instance. We, though, as humans, also have a very diverse number of learned responses that play-out during everyday conflicts – at work, with spouse, on the street, for instance, as well as during threat- or fear-based situations.

Now, even the fight (physical violence or defense), flight (run, escape), or fright (freeze, hide) responses can be super-imposed over non-threatening, non-fear-based scenarios. (showing that that these responses are not limited to adrenal-inducing life-threats) In verbal or communicative conflict or confrontation, fight can be argue, offend, disagree, attack. Flight can be leave the room, shut down the argument, change the topic, disengage entirely. Freeze can be to go quiet, refuse to take bait, ignore, “shrink” your body or posture. We can inevitably transmit these reactions to a number of variables in very diverse situations, all along the scale of seriousness.

But when it comes to personal interaction, what others do we have available to us that aren’t so instinctive or immediately-reactionary? Is there overlap? Are different to the responses have to be to have their own separate category? Is it important? Maybe not, but for understanding, for instructor/informer-articulation, for clarity of strategic options, maybe it’s worth the breakdown….

  1. Posturing/projection. Elements like projecting strength, finger-pointing, raising voice, staring/glaring, non-physical aggression, swearing, verbal threats, and body-enlarging would fall here. They can be the pre-incident indicators so many pay lip-service to…but they needn’t be. Posturing itself is a means to an end. Intimidation, mitigating the will to engage by the other person, subtle/subliminal-messaging are all intended to either de-escalate and prevent the need to use force or further hostility….or to bluff when out of options. (I won’t get into the effectiveness as it’s not the scope of the outline here – they’re effective, or non-effective, entirely based on context and scale) We see this online as well in the form of challenge matches, namedropping, cred-spewing, tough talk, and exacerbated experience-sharing. (verbal or physical altercation)
  2. Submission. Giving-in. Accepting defeat. Apologizing. Acknowledging guilt in error. Surrendering. Fawning or complimenting. Explicitly expressing, either consciously or unconsciously, verbal or non-verbal, a will not to pursue the conflict in any way. (verbal or physical altercation)
  3. Avoidance/Evasion. It is not the same as flight/run/escape. It’s an active evading of the conflict altogether upon seeing it develop. Pre-conflict subtlety of nullifying or mitigating the event before it has a chance to happen. Seeing that cancerous co-worker coming your way before seen and changing trajectory. Taking a detour or alternate route than to a known hostile environment. NOT going somewhere where a tense situation would be present. Refusing to bring up a topic with an enraged family member that would engage a conflict automatically. “They” may not see you at all and yoour response is planned, conscious. (potential or pre- verbal or physical altercation)
  4. Negotiate/Mitigate. Different than submit in that you’re actively attempting to find resolution mid-conflict. A win-win alternative. (which submission often is not) A means to an end. How to benefit both parties saving face, getting at least something they both want and will be satisfied with – haggling over price. Soothe. Change body language. Change tone. This, admittedly, takes a level of control and self-control to implement. It won’t happen if you’re in panic, under immense stress, or with paralyzing fear. (Thus the scaled-level of conflict element mentioned above) (verbal or physical altercation)
  5. Deflect/Distract. Pass the buck. Blame someone else. Take the pressure off oneself by throwing someone or something else under the bus. A temporary distraction to hold-off the inevitable or to gain precious time for something more valid to make its presence known, transitional. It’s not a solution but a bridge until one is found. A neurological link from one to another while the brain catches up with the circumstances and works to not cognitively-overload. (verbal or physical altercation)
  6. Plea for Assistance. Trying to win over the crowd. Campaign for support or intervention. Strength in numbers.
  7. Attack. Going on the offensive. A sucker-punch. A pre-emptive strike. A “sentry” take-out from a hidden position. To minimize the chance of forceful response in-kind. These can occur in daily inter-communication as well. An accusation. A pre-confrontation verbal escalation. Spreading rumors. Planting seeds. Of course, it can definitely be a prelude to a fight, absolutely, and an unsuccessful attack can most certainly end up in mutual-combat or verbal-altercation. (verbal or physical altercation)

To further this, even from these, what is overlapped, what is not? All above are designed for different purposes than their forebears. Deflect could be a flight byproduct, as threatening could for posturing, but if a threat is a committed will to cut off the conflict knowing the next step in the process, is the design different? Sometimes threats are not accompanied by posturing. Something to contemplate.

As we have broken them up into both innate and learned response and applied them to both verbal and physical response, we can also broaden this further, based on time. Verbal altercations can be solely unto-themselves (argument, intense discussion, disagreement) or a slow-burn lead-up to an actual physical altercation. What about delving into the sliding scale of physical-altercation types? Are there others that show themselves if we’re ambushed? Given no downtime to prep or ready ourselves? No signs of impending danger, at least that we caught prior?

  1. Turtling. I’ve been in a stick-fighting sport-match where the other gentleman went down one knee and instinctively put an arm up to cover as the pressure overwhelmed his senses. He said post-fight it was completely unintentional but he was helpless to prevent it as his system overrode his conscious will to respond. Unconsciously covering-up. Fetal or prone position. It’s somewhat of a mid-fight freeze but the physiological responses and event-point are different. (innate, instinctive)
  2. Flinching. An unconscious projection, usually outward. Blinking of the eyes. Putting up of the hands. Turning of the head. Turning away. Pulling a limb back. Jumping back. A recoil. All done to instinctively avoid incoming threat or pain. (innate, instinctive)
  3. Covering. We see many trainers now implementing intentional head-covers to counter incoming attacks. Head covers. Arm/forearm shields. Framing. All designed to withstand the initial surprise and connect or access either conditioned or innate fight or survival-skill response. (learned, conditioned)

How about ongoing stress? A looming threat or upcoming unavoidable confrontation? Enemies who pressure you over time? We can add a couple more to the above, as well.

  1. Hyper-vigilance. (panic, confusion, ultra-aggression and overkill regarding daily reactions, constantly tuned-in and jacked-up) It’s worth mentioning that hyper-vigilance and freezing are often coupled together in the industry but medically they are 2 VERY different sides of human trauma and PTSD, as most professionals will attest to.
  2. Informing. Educating oneself on fear, adrenaline, the enemy, the coming event. Planning tactics, re-evaluating options, reconnaissance. Studying the opponent and/or self. Anticipation of outcomes. Psychological warfare.
  3. Activate. Breathing, meditating, and the like to calm oneself, change state, frame the stress in a different way, and come to terms with the process-stress.

Note too that these aren’t the singular sole response to a conflict or given situation. A number of these can happen within the same conflict, whether physical or non-physical in nature. It’s not a finite one-dimensional response; these are dynamic scenarios, after all, with 3-dimensional reactions and plenty of room even in the seconds or minutes that transpire for multiple to reveal themselves. When another response’s desired-outcome fails, confidence or self-control is restored or increasing, adrenal-effects are lessened, different angles present themselves, the situation changes with outside influence/3rd-party intervention, the type of threat/conflict changes, and so on. So, is there likely some (or much?) overlap? Likely, granted. But it does pay to be intricate in the understanding of why they’re different even in micro ways, what each of their intended purposes are and outcomes desired, and when and what type of conflict they show themselves in. Often only then can we better compartmentalize them into categories for better and more streamlined understanding.

Regarding the desperate need to categorize or compartmentalize all these, I’ll leave that to you and your personal needs. Regardless of semantics, studying human responses to fear, anxiety, stress, and conflict certainly shows the vast array of resources we’ve picked up through “survival-learning” over the generations and how we have evolved past the animal-kingdom. I bet scientists are already doing studies on a new one and its positive results when implemented…don’t be surprised to see “blocking” or “unfriending” coming to a neuroscience conference near you.