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The Fear Of Freezing In a Self-Defense Encounter

I got an email from a frustrated subscriber with a very common question, “How Do I Prevent Myself From Freezing In A Confrontation?”  What happens if I’m paralyzed and unable to act in the terror of a violent situation?  He went on to provide me with a bit of background information:

Hi Randy:

Hope things are going well for you.  I receive your emails and wanted to ask you a question. I am a 5′ 6″ male, and may have similar issues as a woman in a self-defense situation. Except I have virtually no money to take (joke).

Anyway, I got interested in your site because I believe you address real situations and possibilities.  I read your “how to drop a bad guy” post, but in addition to the strength and height disadvantage, I tend to freeze up. I know this from being approached by people selling things on the street and  from a fight I was in. I wonder if you did or could address the “intimidation factor.”

Also, I have an acquaintance that likes to joke around when he sees me, presumably to show his dominance. He is 6’4, and picks me up by the lapels, grabs me from behind and lifts me up, acts as if he’s mad and pushes my shoulder,  and other stuff.  It occurs to me that this could be a common thing to do to a shorter weaker guy (on the street).

How do people of my stature prevent being intimidated about dealing with situations like these? If you’re interested in knowing, I am 41, and the people you deal with daily, are generally people I have a hard time dealing with whenever I run into them.

Recently I had a run in with a guy at a gas station who accused me at looking at his girlfriend.  I often find guys stare me down and try to impose their dominance with eye contact and getting in your space.  I even had a guy who squeezed my hand in a hand shake with the intention of either hurting me or breaking bones.

NO, I am NOT a troublemaker; these things happened over a period of years mostly, but it seems like a “guy” thing.

I even decided to volunteer to help in a juvenile detention center. When I was leaving, one of the teenagers stepped in front of me and said “now what are you going to do.”  I was thinking I can’t believe I have to go through this shit when I am here to help this jerk-off.  The volunteer manager told me I give off a sense of fear.

Randy, I appreciate your time in responding!!!! I do intend to buy your punching program, but what good is it to a guy who freezes up?

Here is my Response:

Thanks for writing.  Your problem is not at all uncommon.  In fact, not too long ago, I asked my readers what their single most “burning question” was that they wanted answered about self-defense.

The concern about “freezing up” in a confrontation came up over and over again.  Psychologists call it “hyper vigilance.”  I call it “the deer in the head lights syndrome.” or a “Brain Fart!”  😉 Its a common self-defense concern that CAN be addressed and corrected.

You raise TWO issues however… one is in relation to the fear of hyper vigilance.  The other is a Victim Selection issue.

Freezing Up

Freezing up is caused by a lack of knowledge, a lack of training and/or a lack of self-confidence. There are two dynamics at work that can cause you to enter a hyper vigilant state:  Not knowing what to do or a lack of confidence in your ability to successfully carry it out.

First the “not knowing what to do” issue….

I’ll try not to get too complicated here but when something happens to you, your brain must detect, analyze and make sense of what’s happening.  It will then apply a solution based on your existing knowledge, experience and training. (How long that process takes is known as “Survival Reaction Time.”

In a stressful situation, such as a fight or confrontation, your stress response will kick in and your ability for creative and logical thinking is dramatically impaired.  So if you haven’t “pre-considered” your options, you could be in trouble.

If you are well-trained, you have already created a number of “self-defense solutions” and a response will be immediately available to you. The most appropriate response will be drawn from your “short term memory” (conscious thinking) and you will do it.

You see something happen, recognize it, decide what to do about it and then respond quickly and decisively.

If something happens that you are confused about, and you don’t have an obvious response, your brain must now access long term memory and scroll through all past knowledge and experience in search for an appropriate response.  This will definitely slow down your “Survival Reaction Time.”

You may  end up choosing a poor response (under reacting or over reaction) or, if your brain doesn’t find anything, it enters a  “looping process” and you freeze up. (not reacting at all)

The solution to the problem of freezing up is to do exactly what YOU are doing now… Start learning everything you can about self-defense and use “What-If” scenarios to mentally play out possible situations in your mind, decided in advance how you would like to respond to them.  (Perhaps I should qualify this a bit and tell you to learn everything you can about legitimate self-defense and the science of performance.  There is a lot of bullshit out there masquerading as legitmate fighting advice)

Lack of Confidence

The second issue that can cause people to freeze up in a critical situation is a lack of confidence.  You may be confronted and “know” what you are “supposed to do” but lack confidence in your ability to effectively pull it off.

Experience tells us that we do not attempt skills we lack confidence in while frightened and under stress.  You feel unable to control the situation or afraid that if your efforts fail it will only make matters worse… so you do nothing.

You can’t “fake” confidence.  It has to be “bought and paid for.”  Fortunately with the right training program, confidence can and will be enhanced by ongoing combative training.

I disagree with many self-defense instructors who tell their students to “pretend” to be strong, confident and capable even though they’re not. There’s a lot of advice in the personal development field about “pretending that you are already the person you’d like to be.” 

But when I guy’s preparing to kick your ass… that advice will only take you so far.  You can’t fake “athletic qualities” that you gain from combative training (which is what a predator picks up on) any more than you can fake a 300 pound bench press or 100 push-ups.

The key here is to undertake ongoing combative training to change yourself: you ability to perform (fight), the signals you project to others and the way you feel about yourself.  There is no better way to bolster your self-confidence than to get into great, functional shape.

Victim Selection

The other issue is the dynamics of “Victim Selection.”  The “rough housing,” challenges and bullying behavior you describe leads me to believe that you are being targeted as victim.  You are projecting “signals” of a victim mentality.

Predators (criminals, bullies etc.) select their victims on the basis of their perception of your ability or willingness to fight back or stand up for yourself.  They will often “test or interview” you prior to a predatory act to select or rule you out as a suitable target.

This assessment usually happens at a subconscious level and most often the “dirt bag” doesn’t know he’s doing it.

People who are constantly picked on and targeted are selected because of the signals and body language that they give off.

The way you move, walk, carry yourself and interact with others affects whether you project a victim profile or not.  Essentially, people who walk with confidence and ease, move with coordination and balance and basically project “athletic qualities” are seldom selected.  People who are attentive to their environment and aware of their surroundings are also unlikely to be targeted. (I wrote about this in a previous victim selection post)

That’s why people undertake the study of self-defense to deal with incidents of bullying and victimization but they usually never get the chance.  Their effort to prepare themselves for the “next time” an incident occurs… changes the profile that they project to the outside world. They no longer project the profile of a victim but instead send signals of someone ready, willing and able to defend him or herself.

The incidents of confrontaiton stop for a couple of reason.  First of all, regular training builds athletic qualities that cause you to move and carry yourself differently.  As your fitness, muslce tone and fighting skills improve… so does your self-confidence. This projects a “hardened target” or a “don’t-mess-with-me” profile to a potential assailant.

Secondly, through studying self-defense and getting clear in your head EXACTLY what your options are to deal with a variety of scenarios you project a degree of confidence and assertiveness when “tested” by a potential assailant.  You FAIL the test and send the predator on his way to search for a more suitable target.

The solution to the “rough housing” that you describe is not a matter of slick tricks and physical fighting tactics.  You’re not going to grab someone by a secret nerve point on the wrist and pin him to the floor.  You’re not going to blast a bone-crushing punch into the nose of your buddy because he’s trying to be funny.

The solution is assertiveness and mental preparation.  Its informing the person right then and there that you don’t appreciate the behavior and to knock it off.  You don’t have to be rude or aggressive but you should be assertive and get your point across:  “Leave me alone!”

The EASY answer?  Start training on a regular basis and the changes in your fitness, athletic qualities and self-confidence will quickly improve.  You’ll project a very different profile to a potential assailant and terminate the vast majority of confrontations before they happen.

Secondly, keep reading, learning and thinking about self defense. Give your brain a “road map” of what to do and how to handle volatile situations.  Have a plan A, a plan B and a plan C in mind that you can draw on in a volatile situation.

I’ll be laying out more details of my “Self-Defense Response Options” component in the blog. It will explain exactly what you need to know to make street smart decisions in dicey situations.

My advice to you is to get my Toughen Up Training Guides (or another high-quality self-defense “training” resource) and use them to set up a regular self-defense workout program.  Secondly keep reading and studying everything you can get your hands on about on self-defense (blogs, articles, books, seminars) and educate yourself about the dynamics and response options to volatile situations.

I hope this is helpful to you… If you have any other questions please feel free to email me.

Take care, train smart and stay safe…


About Randy LaHaie

I’m the founder of “Protective Strategies,” a training and consulting company providing self-defense and combative fitness solutions to law enforcement, high-risk professionals and private citizens since 1994. I am a retired police officer, court-declared expert in use-of-force and critical incident performance, and a life-long student of self-defense and combative fitness. “My Thing” is to help people incorporate functional and minimalist workout strategies to improve their health, fitness and personal safety.

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  • Hi Randy,

    I love your website, and it’s very helpful, and insightful. I’m turning 47 years old and like you I have been training in various combative arts for years. I read the article of the gentleman of 41 years who is only 5′ 6″ in stature. I’m only 5′ 7.5″ and I have found to develope a style for my size that is very effective because, I’ve always weight trained and worked out on the heavy bag. I try to go for areas of the body that do not require to much force to subdue the opponent. Ears, throat, and fingers bent are a great submission technique on bigger guys because they least expect it. I once had a big guy of 6′ 4″ grab me from behind in a choke hold position. Like a mongoose I focused all my strength on his wrist with both hands which allowed me to get a excellent grab on his index finger. I wrenched on that little finger holding his wrist until he was ready to let go of my neck. He did’nt know it was coming and what I have found is you can’t wrestle Stone Cold Steve Austin but, I guarantee you he will run from a racoon if it’s angry. Because, they are quick, unafraid, and they use different tactics based on their size. Thanks for everything and your website. I will continue to train and enjoy your wisdom in the area of self defense.

    Respectfully always,


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