Most recreational martial arts won’t teach you how to avoid freezing up because they’re not technically teaching you how to fight outside of a controlled environment. This is why coupling recreational martial arts with self-defense training is important because it’s not so much about training your body as it is training your brain. “Professional” martial training i.e. someone who performs a dangerous job for a living where they have to be watchful will receive training in what to look for and practice being ambushed as it’s a problem they’re much more likely to have to deal with.
Even a trained warrior can get stuck between flight or fight mode if they get caught off guard. So, the trick becomes not getting caught off guard. It’s a matter of mental preparation and practice while being out in the real world.
There’s really no way to beat the fight or flight response, or even really retrain it. There is a way to avoid it. We do this by being mentally ready or when faced with a dangerous situation that hasn’t erupted yet (say you’re being threatened by a very large guy, large guy already wants to hurt you but hasn’t acted yet) you have to leapfrog past their mental point on the attack ladder and be willing to go first, even take the initiative.
It’s hard to surprise someone who is expecting to be surprised.
However, you can’t just do this in a safe environment like on the training floor. It has to be out in the real world, learning to look at the world differently, learning to assess threats from people around you. So much so that it becomes habit to simply scan the room or check the dark alleys, to see the guy who is following you, to keep a heavy improvised weapon like a flashlight in the side door of your car just in case.
The most important aspect of training isn’t what it conditions your body to do. In my martial arts training for third degree, we’d circle up and perform “surprise attacks” on a member in the middle. It was only with a set of techniques but you never knew if it was going to come from the front, behind, anywhere. It was merely a test of our body’s ability to react and perform under pressure. (And the sort of test you only give to black belts because they have the physical control to do it.) Would I say it prepared me for “defending myself on the street”? Not really.
Again, it was a test of my ability to physically react to threats within a controlled environment. Did it build my confidence? Sure, but it was with people I knew and trusted. Learning the mindset and tactics used by people who want to hurt me in a self-defense seminar and strategies for dealing with that? Just as valuable, if not infinitely more so on a practical level.
TLDR: the goal is to get into the mental “ready” state before the fight even begins, this is how you beat out “fight or flight” because there’s no reason for it to trigger. If you expect trouble, you won’t be surprised when it happens.
Alternately, also read this post we did On Psychological Shock