Fight, Flight, and Freeze: What we still misunderstand about survival

Thirty-three years ago, a man attacked and raped me. I froze. I froze during the attack. I even froze as I saw the attack coming in slow motion. I invested a lot in self-blame after that attack. I completely devoted myself to becoming a fighter. I trained martial arts for twenty-five years. I was flipped, thrown, and pinned to the ground, but I fought back. I became a third-degree black belt, completing tests that left me injured and terrified, but kept fighting. I visualized myself being attacked but this time easily and gloriously vanquishing the attacker. I would leave him beaten and bloody in the dirt and walk away unscathed, like a cartoon superhero. I would never, ever, again be the person who lost all agency, who had no voice and no power.

It didn’t occur to me that freezing might have saved my life. Or that freezing is a physiological self-defense response triggered by the brain that is as involuntary as breathing. Only after years of self-punishment did I begin to understand how the brain works to increase the likelihood of surviving a life-threatening event.

When faced with a threat, almost everyone freezes for a moment. The brain’s first response is to stop all movement, take in what is happening and scan for options. At the same time, the brain instantly sets in motion physiological changes to increase the likelihood of survival. It shifts gears from the frontal cortex, which controls logic and language, to the hypothalamus, the survival command center. The hypothalamus directs the adrenal glands to release hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. It directs the nervous system to increase heart rate and blood pressure pushing blood to the muscles and extremities. If preparing to fight or flee, your heart rate remains elevated. If preparing to freeze, your heart rate rapidly decreases. These survival responses are completely involuntary and based on the brain’s instant assessment of which response offers the best chance of survival.

In a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, Jen Percy cites a number of high profile cases where rape survivors describe freezing during the assault. Lady Gaga says “I just froze” when she was raped at 19. E Jean Carroll told the court in the sex abuse case she brought against Donald Trump, that she was in so much shock, she just checked out. Jessica Mann, who was raped by Harvey Weinstein, says she “froze” and went on to ask the jury to consider what it feels like to lose control of your body, to be rendered immobile by your own physiological response.

Tonic Immobility

The experience Mann describes is what doctors call tonic immobility. Tonic immobility, sometimes referred to as ‘playing dead’, is an extreme freeze response in which muscles become completely rigid and a person is left temporarily paralyzed. Or, a person may experience a variant of tonic immobility, known as collapsed immobility, in which the sudden, drastic drop in heart rate and blood pressure reduces oxygen to the brain causing muscles to go completely limp and often resulting in the person passing out. These extreme freeze responses evolved in humans and other mammals, as well as insects, fish, reptiles, and birds, as defenses against predators. Their power lies in the hardwiring of many predators to lose interest in dead prey. Extreme freeze responses are usually triggered by the perception that fight or flight is not possible.

There are many reasons we may not perceive options to fight or flee. External circumstances account for some of these reasons. But there are internal forces at play here too. The sudden change in body chemistry can impair our ability to reason clearly. Women have said it didn’t occur to them to scream during an attack even though there were people nearby who could have helped them. Culturally conditioned habits and beliefs influence our perceptions. Women, in particular, are conditioned to be nice, compliant, and agreeable; to avoid conflict and aggression. Our socialization results in deep-rooted habits and beliefs about who we are and what we are capable of. “We usually don’t think of these habits as involuntary, but they absolutely are”, according to Jim Hopper, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical school who has studied trauma and sexual assault for over 30 years [i]

Changing Habits and Beliefs

While we can’t completely undo years of habitual behavior and thinking, we can increase our ability to perceive and act on options. We can recognize what our own socialization looks like and feels like, reevaluate our commitment to being nice at all costs, and move toward seeing niceness as a choice rather than a mandate. This shift in mindset can open the door to more assertive responses to unwanted behavior. As we become more assertive in our daily life, we begin to break the habit of compliance.  If an offender approaches us, an immediate, assertive response may provide the opportunity to flee before the approach escalates into an attack. We can practice moving from freeze to fight or flight – striking, yelling, speaking up, running away, getting help. New habits and practice build muscle memory that becomes part of the toolbox stored in the self-defense command center of the brain.

But there are no guarantees as to how we will respond to a life-threatening situation. People who have had years of martial arts training, or years of military training; people who are athletic, strong, and competitive; people who see themselves as fighters have frozen when their life was on the line. The only guarantee is that the survival part of the brain will take over and do the very best it can to keep us alive.

The tendency to present fight or flight as the only ‘normal’ response to danger creates a false picture of human behavior. People have experienced extreme freeze responses in the context of war, torture, natural disasters, and accidents. When it comes to sexual assault, freezing happens more often than is generally acknowledged. In the early 1970’s two researchers at Boston City Hospital found that, over the course of a year, more than a third of patients diagnosed with rape trauma experienced freezing, or what they termed “rape-induced paralysis.”[ii]  A 2017 study published by the National Library of Medicine found that 70 percent of women experienced some degree of tonic immobility and 48 percent experienced extreme tonic mobility during sexual assault.

Justice and Healing

But the legal system hasn’t caught up with the research. Police don’t always understand survival responses to trauma. When they misinterpret the clouded thinking, confusion about facts and timelines, and paralysis as indications the survivor is lying, cases are dropped before they are investigated. If a case does make it to trial, prosecutors in many states must show that the survivor responded to the assault with some kind of physical and/or verbal resistance to prove the act was not consensual. Defense attorneys grill survivors about why they didn’t kick, scream, bite, or in some way fight back. Jurors can have a hard time recognizing an assault as rape if the survivor didn’t physically resist. In the end, for every 1000 rapes that are committed, only 25 perpetrators spend a day in jail. [iii] Anne Munch, an attorney for 30 years, facilitates trainings for prosecutors and police officers in the neurobiology of trauma because she saw firsthand the double standards we hold for victims and the excuses we make for offenders. Because a police officer is sometimes the first person a victim talks to, Munch tells police: “Your response might make or break the case, and you might make or break the person.” [iv]

I spent a lot of years trying to undo the way I responded when I was raped. Not only did I fight regularly on the mat, I took self-defense classes with padded attackers where I could re-enact the attack and respond by fighting instead of freezing. A kind of ‘trauma redo’ that was meant to promote healing. While the intention may be good, it is still rooted in the belief that freezing is failing.

This belief is one of many attitudes of victim blaming that is still overlooked. It has real and sometimes long-term implications for a survivor’s recovery. Jen Percy gives the example of a man who heard gunshots in the middle of the night and thought someone had broken into his home. He was unable to immediately go to his children sleeping in the other room because he said he was temporarily paralyzed. When he was finally able to move, he went to them and found them scared but safe. The shots had been fired outside the house. He was not physically injured, or even attacked, but experienced ongoing mental health problems from the guilt and shame he felt because he froze. [v]

Survival

As long as we see freezing as a shameful sign of weakness, justice and healing are compromised. Today when I teach self-defense it is with the awareness that there are three hardwired responses to threat: fight, flight AND freeze. Learning to fight has tremendous value when dealing with human predators. It can save your life. But to penalize and shame people for a response that is adaptive, involuntary, and firmly embedded in our biology creates a false picture of the unpredictable, messy reality of violence. It denies survivors a vision of our actual strength. A strength that was always there. A deep inner strength that pulled us through that dark, dangerous time. There is no need to redo the trauma, to rewrite the end of the story. There is no need to punish ourselves or try to remake ourselves into someone who might or might not have done things differently. We did what we had to do, and we survived because of, not in spite of, who we are.

Self-defense is about expanding your options to be safe and strong. We provide the training, you choose how to bring it into your life.


[i] Percy Jan. What People Misunderstand About Rape. New York Times Magazine, Aug. 22, 2023.

[ii] Percy Jan. What People Misunderstand About Rape. New York Times Magazine, Aug. 22, 2023.

[iii] RAINN Criminal Justice Statistics.

[iv] Percy Jan. What People Misunderstand About Rape. New York Times Magazine, Aug. 22, 2023.

1 comment

  1. I really like this examination of the freeze reflex. The fact that it is involuntary and biologically adaptive really takes the shame component out of our recovery from the attack. I appreciate that you also included an example of a man freezing under the perception of danger. It’s all humans, not only women, who deal with the fear of danger. However, in our society, it’s mostly women who are targeted and suffer the consequences. But, that’s a different issue.
    Thanks for sharing your insight.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *