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ARTICLE | BREAKING THE FREEZE | by Orjan Pettersen

Updated: Jul 11, 2022


Freezing in the face of danger is an evolutionary trait. Built into our biology, it’s not necessarily a bad thing - otherwise it would have been selected out. Indeed, developed on the premise that the (predator’s) eyes notice and track motion (as we all do), it’s designed to keep us safe by not being observed.


The problem with freezing occurs when the predator, whatever biology it has, has already locked on to us as a target and is closing the distance to literally or metaphorically feed on us.


This is where freezing becomes our worst enemy.


Freezing comes in several categories. Some freezing is involuntary. That is, the adrenaline surge kicks in a hard-wired stop, sometimes momentarily, at other times for a much longer time. Other freezes are social, meaning that the mind has been manipulated and wired - maybe through abusive relationships - to be submissive to certain aggressive or bullying behaviours. Freezing can also be tactical, where you choose not to move as a strategy not to be seen. In many cases, it’s hard to even tell which one is which as the freeze is happening.


The biological impact is severe. When freezing, our perception of events, movement and time diminishes or disappears. Our ability to think does the same. We often cannot move.


This generally makes freezing a poor companion in self defence, where the subsequent actions (either flight or fight) will always come after any freeze unlocking, although some level of freezing will always occur - to whatever trained level we’re at - in the face on a sudden, unsuspected threat, even just for a fraction of a second.


There are multiple keys to unlocking freezes. Some people train in a ‘go to’ word, most effectively stated aloud, to break out of a freeze. It’s a mental trigger to act and reengage the brain into action, then change gears. Others may find starting to talk themselves through the problem statement they’re facing switches on the mind to the required action.


Others, especially in practical self defence training, will build in as-close-to-reality exercises to practice freeze-breaking. This will be through the manufacture and repeated randomness of unknown attacks and attackers, unfamiliar training environments, actual hard impacts on the body to acclimatise the brain to these and to the enactment of criminal behaviours, both violent and otherwise. This includes nasty physical and verbal behaviours up close and personal and attackers who never give up.


Also important is the repetition and training of the principles of flight and fight; practicing when to run and when to fight (a lot to do with distance, evasion opportunities and self versus third party protection), how to run (fast gear changes) and the knowledge of always acting, not planning, in fast moving violent threat encounters.


The trigger to unblocking a freeze and getting into action is to recognise you’re frozen. Everyone, even trained professionals and self defence experts will have an element of freezing. The key is training and learning to break the freeze - and quickly.


There’s a way to practice life habits to aid breaking freezes: Do uncomfortable things immediately. Act on the unpleasant priorities first. Stop thinking about if you should do something, procrastinating and delaying what you know is unavoidable. Do it now. It’s all good practice.

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