Ever been frozen with fear? Things happening so fast you don’t know which way to run? Felt like a rabbit caught in the headlights? It might be part of your evolutionary survival strategy.
The fight or flight response is something which everyone has experienced sometime in their lives, but fight or flight isn’t always a choice.
Presented with a threatening or perilous situation, the bloodstream immediately floods with adrenalin – Our heart rate increases, pumping blood to our muscles, making us ready for a sprint to safety. Our mind is suddenly focussed on a single goal – survival.
However, not everyone reacts in the same way. Extroverts and risk-takers are more likely to be able to see an advantage or reward in such situations. Rather than fleeing, they might see it as an opportunity to score some ‘battle-scars’ to show off to their friends. These individuals are going to be more likely to respond to threatening situations with fight, rather than flight (depending of course on the degree of the threat and the quickly calculated odds of survival.) On the other hand, those who prefer to avoid confrontation tend to perceive the potential negative outcomes of the situation. These are the sort of people who don’t want to turn up at work the next day with a black eye.
No threatening situation is absolutely safe – there is always an element of risk, calculated or not, and despite of the unconscious trigger mechanism of fight or flight, an element of conscious judgement is involved in the decision-making process.
Extroverts and risk-takers are more likely to fight if they believe they have the wherewithal to come out on top, or at least manage the threat. If an individual has been in plenty of similar scrapes, the decision to fight will come easier. If not… well then the rapid exit strategy will be the sensible option.
But there’s a third possibility – the freeze response. It’s a question of playing dead really – look, I’m dead and therefore no threat to you so leave me alone! With a bit of luck, you might not notice me. This sometimes works if confronted by dangerous animals, because their killer instincts are geared toward motion recognition. Given our human evolution, this probably occurred often during hunting, almost certainly when a dangerous prey had the advantage – there being no escape, we do what a number of other animals do – we play dead. When overpowered, overwhelmed or trapped, a paralysing freeze response is the only option if the opportunity of fight or flight is unavailable.
Freezing might even be the appropriate and best response to complete surprise, which in turn is the response to a sudden and unexpected occurrence. Freezing may give us the time to choose between fight or flight.
Surprise also serves a purpose. Our eyes widen which increases our peripheral vision – useful if we’re looking for an escape route or other threats. Maybe there’s something nearby that could be used as a weapon. Our mouth may fall open ready for us to shout a warning to others, scream or call for help.
We also come to a standstill when surprised, just like the rabbit in the headlights, as we devote all our energy to deciding if what is unfolding is a threat, a joke or a harmless incident.
Bystanders who are not involved in the incident are often unfairly criticized for not immediately intervening – during assaults for example – but in the main, it’s because most people are so shocked they become rooted to the spot.
Freezing is not a conscious decision – our primitive or unconscious brain takes over and immobilises us. We hope that the predator will lose interest and go looking for another victim.
It’s also thought that freezing might have some psychological benefits. A lot of people who ‘freeze’ report little or no memory of the event. This may well be another survival strategy that might preserve our sanity or protect us from future psychological trauma.
If we have been completely overpowered in an assault scenario, freezing might shut down our attentional systems, so that we are unable to process what is happening to us. In other words, the event is so shocking, so overwhelming, so awful, it’s thought that the individual will experience a ‘red-out’, where intense emotions prevent us from storing information about the trauma being experienced. This however, is a dangerous idea because it could lend credence to the myth of repressed memory.
Nonetheless, even though people may be taken aback after experiencing a freeze response or be surprised at their own inability to deal with a situation decisively, as with all our emotions, it likely serves a functional and adaptive purpose. Or it may be that our unconscious mind is merely reminding us of the old adage, ‘he who turns and runs away, lives to turn and run away another day!’