“Bad” Adrenaline Responses and the Fallacy of Useless Tools

I was talking with a friend about “freeze” adrenaline responses, and was finally able to clearly articulate something that I’ve been chewing on for a long time. There’s a half-finished blog post on this topic sitting in my drafts that I started two years ago. I could never quite get the words right, and I think this says it better:

Those of us who teach self defense tend to spend a lot of time working on getting our students past their freeze response. We talk about how dangerous it is: how it can prevent them from acting in the critical seconds that may mean the difference between life and death.

And that is absolutely true in the specific context of a physical conflict that is already underway, or that is inevitable and impossible to avoid. Our mantra under those circumstances is — and should be — to fight until there’s an opportunity to escape or disable the threat, and then get to safety. But the way we talk about freezing tends to slip from that contextual truth to universal statements about how it’s the worst thing that anyone can do, ever. I’ve been guilty of this slippage, and I see it all the time in conversations around everything from physical self defense, to social conflict, to trauma recovery, and complex mixes of the three such as relationship abuse.

And that idea that freezing is a universally bad or faulty response — a failure to act that will inevitably put you in direct, maybe mortal, danger — is both false and actively harmful.

Freezing is a very functional threat response in some contexts, and the opposite of useful in others. The same goes for a fight/flight/fawn/etc response. They’re not a roulette wheel that gets spun at random every time you get adrenalized, but a functional adaptation to your circumstances. If you tend to default to one response over others, it’s not because you’re randomly wired for it, but because it has worked to keep you alive in the past.

For instance, abuse victims often freeze or fawn by default not because they’re too weak or scared or broken to fight, but because fighting would have gotten them hurt worse in the moment, and being quiet or appeasing was protective (at least in the short-term; adrenaline brain is not a long-term planner).

Survivors of physical parental abuse have told me about watching a sibling who chose to fight back getting beaten even harder as punishment, while they were able to avoid the same harm by staying quiet. Survivors of emotional and sexual abuse often learn quickly that freezing or appeasing their abuser protects them from catastrophic physical harm, prevents the same abuse from being visited on a more vulnerable family member, or gives them continued access to housing, food, and other means of survival.

Your brain is really, really good at adapting. It’s not a hard, inflexible thing. It’s forever capable of building new habits and new tools for engaging with the world, and will do so throughout your life. When you don’t have access to new tools (whether because nobody’s shown you what they are, or because the ones you’ve been shown aren’t a good fit for your body or your situation), you’ll figure out how to use the ones that you do have. For many children, women, people with physical disabilities, and otherwise physically vulnerable people, being still and quiet or making yourself useful and meeting the emotional needs of an attacker is a much more available and reliable tool than fighting.

Humans are survivors at heart, and if something keeps you alive, you will keep doing it. The tools and habits you use to get through the worst and most stressful experiences can get burned into your mind extra hard because of how important they were to survival.

Often, this means that you’ll keep using them even when you are capable of something different, or when your old habits become counterproductive as circumstances change. But that doesn’t make them universally bad, and it definitely doesn’t make you broken. It just means that they’re no longer the best tools for the job.

You can help your brain grow by acknowledging that it’s doing its best with the tools it has, and then giving it new ones and practicing choosing the right tool under pressure. Helping you do that is the real job of a good self defense teacher.

You know what doesn’t help? Telling yourself that you’re broken, that the tools you’re using are useless garbage, or that you don’t actually have tools at all.

First of all, any human who’s survived to adulthood has some tools in their kit, and knows how to use them. Guaranteed. You have functioning survival skills already, and they have brought you this far. Pretending that you’re starting from nothing is disempowering, damaging, bullshit (I’m looking at you, mainstream women’s self defense programming).

Second of all, nothing entrenches a trauma/threat response harder than further stress of the same type that caused it. Telling yourself that you’re dumb and useless and broken is threatening, and maybe even re-traumatizing. All it’ll do is push you further into those existing survival mechanisms. Learning can’t happen under those circumstances.

You can always add to your existing toolkit, and fighting may well be the next tool that you need, but that doesn’t mean that you need to throw out all of your previously-acquired tools.

If the only tool you own is a hammer, and you buy and learn to use a saw, it dramatically increases your options for problem-solving: all of a sudden, things that you kinda sorta managed with the hammer get worlds easier when you try a saw instead, and it lets you solve a whole new class of problems that you previously couldn’t even approach.

The next step is to get really good at spotting which problems require a hammer, and which ones need a saw, and then start spotting the gaps where you might need an entirely different tool, or a combination of tools. But there’s never a point where you get rid of the hammer or castigate yourself for having bought one in the first place. You just stop using it for things it’s not actually designed for.

It works the same way with psychological tools and with threat reactions. You can always have more tools, and growth is about putting the ones you do have in their proper place, not throwing out everything you’ve learned just because it’s not enough to do everything.

So be kind to your brain. All it wants is for you to survive, and it’s doing the best it can with the tools it has available. Recognize what it’s doing. Thank it for how far it’s taken you. Then help it do its job better by giving it new tools to use the next time you’re in danger, and practice using them.