Online Health Articles

Danger Response: Fight, Flight or FREEZE?

Danger Response: Fight or Flight?

Real Response: FREEZE, then fight or flight.


We live in in age of terror. So far, we in Canada have been very fortunate. But how would we have reacted to the shooters in Paris, or the two Jihadists in San Bernardino, California?

Just recently the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Department of Homeland Security have stated a new defense for American citizens under attack, “run, hide, fight” if you are in immediate danger. The idea is, running away is your first option and should  be your primary option in any life-threatening situation; hide if you can’t run and fight if all else fails.. This three step program makes a lot of common sense, but whether it makes scientific sense is the big question.

Underlying the idea of “run, hide, fight” is the presumption that you can actually make these choices in a dangerous situation. But the fact is, when you are in danger, whether it is an automobile speeding at you or a shooter with a loaded gun aimed at your face, you may find yourself frozen, unable to act and think clearly.

Freezing is not a choice. It is a built-in impulse controlled by ancient circuits in the brain involving the amygdala and its neural partners, and is automatically set into motion by external threats. By contrast, the kinds of intentional actions implied by “run, hide, fight” require newer circuits in the neocortex of your brain.

Modern-day science has changed the old “flight or fight” concept, the idea that these are two hard-wired options when in mortal danger, to the updated “freeze, flee or fight”. This of course is fundamentally different from the suggested FBI response of “run, hide, fight” which your brain is not actually wired to do.

Why do we freeze? It’s part of a predatory defense system that is wired to keep an organism alive. Not only do we do it, but so do other mammals and vertebrates. Even invertebrates, like flies, freeze. If you are freezing you are less likely to be detected if the predator is far away, and if the predator is close by, you can postpone the attack (movement by the prey is a trigger for the attack)

The freezing reaction is accompanied by a hormonal surge that helps mobilize your energy and focus your attention. While the hormonal and other physiological responses that accompany freezing are there for good reason, in highly stressful situations the hormonal secretions can be excessive and create impediments to making informed choices. (FBI personnel, police officers and soldiers are trained for the proper responses to danger; not us).

A vivid example of freezing was captured in a video of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. After the bomb went off, many people froze. Then some began to escape (run) while others were slower and basically wandered around confused.

This variation in response is very typical. Sometimes freezing is brief and sometimes it persists. This can reflect the particular situation you are in, but also your individual response to fear. Some people naturally have the ability to think through a stressful situation, or to even be motivated by it, and will more readily run, hide or fight as required. But for others, they may even fall victim because of their natural “freeze” response.

Dr. Joseph LeDoux, a professor of science at New York University did an experiment in which he created a version of this predicament using rats. The animals were trained, through trial and error, to know how to escape in a dangerous situation. But when they were actually placed in a dangerous situation, some rats simply could not execute the response; they froze. However, when they artificially shut down a key sub region of the amygdala in the rat’s brains, they overcame the built-in response to freeze and used their knowledge to escape the danger.

There is a lot to learn from this experiment, but people are not rats. We have additional cognitive resources, such as the ability to understand the concept of our situation and re-evaluate it and make decisions.

Studies by the psychologist James Gros at Stanford, Kevin Ochsner at Columbia and Elizabeth Phelps at New York University have shown if people cognitively reappraise a situation, it can dampen their amygdala activity. In other words, the more you concentrate and evaluate your danger situation, the better decision you will make. This decision-making process may open up your mind to “run, hide, fight” to replace freezing and other hard-wired fear impulses.

So how do you encourage people who are in mortal danger, to reappraise their situation and think their way out of it? Not very easily because we all are so different. Some researchers have suggested the power of social media to give us all some sort of collective cultural training in these situations. I don’t think that would work at all. No matter how much you are trained, panic can set in and most people would freeze.

If we could consciously be aware that we have frozen because of the mortal danger, we then may be able to reassess the situation and dampen our brain’s amygdala response. This would allow us to shift into the action mode of “run, hide, fight” and this may be the difference between life and death.