Fight, Flight or Freeze: Can you overcome the tendency to freeze?

Across the country this year, according to media reports, at least eight shootings have taken place on high school or college campuses. They have occurred inside gyms and classrooms, in parking lots and school hallways. Together, four people have been killed and another 17 wounded so far in 2019, according to law enforcement authorities and news media reports.

This week two heroes are celebrated for their bravery, although they died in their attempt to thwart open gunmen. Riley Howell was fatally shot when he hurled himself at a gunman in a classroom at University of North Carolina at Charlotte on April 30. A week later Kendrick Castillo charged a shooter near Denver, Colorado, giving his classmates time to take cover or run.

The new mantra for surviving an active shooter situation is “run, hide, fight.” You’re either going to run, hide and shield, or going to take the fight to the assailant. If you perceive that you have the power to defeat the threat, you go into fight mode. If you perceive the threat as too powerful to overcome, your impulse is to outrun it. But if you’ve concluded, in a matter of milliseconds, that you cannot defeat the threat or safely run from it, freezing may be just as adaptive as fighting or fleeing.

When it comes to fight, flight, or freeze, I freeze. I’ve been in enough threatening incidents to know this about myself. I’m reading that freezing is a primal attempt to stop the predator from spotting you. Ellen Hoggard wrote, in happiful.com, “People who freeze in trauma do not choose to, and often beat themselves up afterwards for being passive when in reality they have no more control than a deer caught in headlights. It’s the same with our fight-or-flight reactions. People very rarely have control and are therefore not to blame for their instinctive responses.”

Perhaps you are defenseless because you don’t have the strength or speed to avert the threat and there’s no one else to rescue you. Imagine being attacked by an animal who may lose interest in you if you play dead. Or, imagine that you are the abused child of a narcissistic parent. Your only hope of survival might be to become fawning, compliant and helpful.

Learned helplessness is a psychological concept in which people have learned that they have no control over what happens, and they tend to simply give up and accept their fate. Martin Seligman and Steven Maier observed this behavior in dogs that were conditioned to expect an electrical shock after hearing a tone. It was also found that learned helplessness does not always generalize across all settings and situations. You may feel helpless in some situations but not all.

So, can you overcome the tendency to freeze? Most people don’t have a choice about their immediate reaction in a crisis situation. It happens in an instant. But if you are chronically fearful when there is no immediate threat, or if you feel helpless more often than not, the following may help:

• Recognize the difference between real and imagined threats.
• Calm yourself. To help the stress response pass, breathe deeply, meditate, sing, write, or talk.
• Seek help. Therapists can help you deal with past traumas that trigger ongoing fear and learned helplessness.

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