Tag Archives: fight or flight

I’ve been curious about this for a while: how do you train to not freeze up when you’re attacked? It seems like a lot of novels conveniently gloss over the “I got stuck between flight and fight mode” thing, but how do you really overcome that? Does preparing for “surprise attacks” in a dojo or something similar really work, or not really, since you’re already kind of expecting it?

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


Thank you for having such an awesome blog. I always appreciate the knowledge and realism you guys answer questions with (like that people’s inexperienced characters would really lose in a fight against someone trained or their biological reactions to being injured, etc, which many books ignore completely). I was wondering if you would expand on a person’s natural fight-or-flight response to being in danger, especially if they are untrained or the situation is out of their normal life. Thank you!

There’s a bunch of different possible responses to fight or flight, there are lots of ways that it can go horribly wrong for the person who is experiencing it. Fight or flight is a natural instinctive response that is there to save your life, the problem is that instinct is a killer. Relying on your natural instincts will get your killed, I don’t really care if you’re a supernaturally endowed Vampire Slayer or an average person on the street. There’s a reason why martial combat involves retraining the instincts and, in most cases, outright replaces them with an entirely different set of responses is because the natural ones stink.

A lot of books try to cheat their way out of that with characters just “instinctively knowing” what to do because that’s easier for the author to use as opposed to crafting a character that can deal with the situation. Unfortunately, a character who is relying on their instincts is one that’s no longer rationally processing information and is running on their emotions, their fear and their terror. These emotions can be powerful tools, assuming the person is still in charge of their higher brain functions. If they’ve given in, then it can become deadly for them.

This rule is true even for trained martial artists. If you’ve been trained specifically to subvert an instinct, then you can take advantage of anyone who hasn’t been conditioned against that specific instinctual reaction. Starke did this to me when he showed me bursting (which is a technique common to Krav Maga where two strikes happen simultaneously instead of as a one and two in a combination), I’ve been trained to deal with one strike not two at the same time. So, I instinctively moved to block the one that came high, instead of the important one which was coming into my stomach. I’m trained to respond to any form of movement entering into my peripheral vision, but not to look for two strikes at the same time. So, I’ll respond to the one I see first. This won’t actually work against someone who is untrained, because the attack is betting on a very specific kind of response from a trained combatant.

Combat works by being one step ahead of where someone else’s training already is and it takes work to stay ahead of the curve. Not to bash on Joss Whedon and Buffy too hard, but the sad truth is, if the show played out under real world rules, that Buffy could be taken down by any decent martial artist. She has an over reliance on her own instincts and acts with the expectation that she’ll naturally know what to do instead of working under the assumption that she has to train to stay one step ahead of the competition. Forget about other characters with superpowers, Buffy could be taken out by Mulder from the X-files and he routinely gets his ass handed to him by characters with more combat training throughout the show’s run.

Some common reactions to fight or flight:

Freezing up. It’s common for someone to go with neither fight or flight, instead they get stuck between the two. Their brain is pulling them in two different directions and the end result is that they do nothing at all.

Running away. This is the flight response. However, the problem with the flight response is that the person in question is not necessarily in control of which way that they are running away. They’re just trying to flee. Instead of taking inventory of their surroundings and choosing the best route that will lead them away from danger, the individual in question has about a 50/50 chance of ending up in a situation that’s worse than the one they were in before. This could involve fleeing into a dead end alley, not running far enough away, not taking cover if the person who is chasing them has a gun, or turning around and fleeing into the arms of a secondary captor. They’re just running, that’s it. Running without purpose or thought. This will also not stop the person who initially triggered this response from chasing them. At that point, it’s a question of who has the better athletic ability and who is running with their brain turned on. It’s hard to get away if you’re not thinking about where you’re going.

Fighting back. Then, there’s the fight response. It’s worth noting that just because someone responds by fighting that doesn’t mean that they’re actually going to be any good at it. They could be powered by a lot of things, anger, rage, adrenaline. But, here’s the issue: fighting on anger alone is fighting stupid. People who fight on anger forget that they can be hurt and they become reckless. If the initial aggressor has kept their cool then they are the ones that are actually in control of the fight. Sometimes, pain is enough to knock someone back into reality and that’s when fear takes over again. Then, the fight stops, the person who acted on instinct loses their steam, and they lose.

The Fugue State. We make a big deal about fugue states and berserkers, but the problem with a fugue state is that the person in it is still only acting on anger and rage. The fugue state does not endow them with any more skill then they previously had and they are in even less control of their body than the person who just acted on the anger response. If the person in the fugue state has blacked out, then all they are doing is acting on instinct alone and while they may not notice the fact that they’ve been hurt they’re even more vulnerable to an aggressor who can manipulate someone’s instinctive reactions to their benefit. If the fugue state fails to scare the aggressors into backing off or unsettle them so that their technique suffers, then there’s very little else it can do. It works against the average schoolyard bullies, but that’s about it.

There’s variations within all of these, but nothing else we’d categorize as unique. It’s worth looking into more though if you’re interested. People can react in a variety of ways, but whether or not those ways are going to be helpful to their specific circumstance is questionable.

I hope that helps!