Mind Over Matter

The Fight, Flight, or Freeze responses are built into you. They are in your DNA – though you can affect them.

Wing Chun is a combative system. It is designed for the street. Certainly you can play with it, tone it down. That is how we train. You can dilute it and turn it into a sport, but then it is not Wing Chun, it is MMA for the ring. These two things are not the same. In sport, fight is consensual and pre-chosen, though flee or freeze may rear its head if the opponent proves to be overwhelming. In real combat, we have to deal with the Fight, Flight, or Freeze response from the outset.

From an evolutionary point of view, you pick the one you determine will provide the best outcome. You will fight if you believe you can outfight the attacker. You will run if fighting seems useless and fleeing can be effective. You will freeze if you feel all hope is lost – though that is a contradiction. You have one final hope. You hope playing dead may cause the attacker to disengage. We have all seen videos of the lion grabbing the gazelle and slamming it to the ground, lifeless. Then the lion leaves, perhaps to fetch her cubs for a meal, and suddenly the gazelle gets up and runs. There was one hope left.

Each of these is engaged by the Autonomic Nervous System. In the case of Freeze, the ANS immediately releases to the Parasympathetic Branch of the system. It is the same system used when the danger has passed, and the same system used to prepare for sleep. The hormones that ramped you up are flushed. Natural painkillers are flooded into your system to quiet the aching muscles from the battle or the run. Your heartrate and breathing slows. In freeze, these lowering responses and hormonal releases are rapid and very deep, but it is all the same system.

Your experiences have caused you to lean one way or the other. As you grew, you may have found fighting tended to work for you. The big kids in your neighborhood will generally lean toward fight. Then again, you may have found fleeing was usually the better option. You did not alter your DNA. You reinforced one of the options evolution gave you. This becomes your tendency.

When I think of Fight, Flight, or Freeze, I often include Flinch, something between flee and freeze. A moment when the calculation is made, though flinch usually leads to flight or freeze. However, it is your moment to choose fight if you will it.

In part, this is all genetics. However, it is reinforced by practice and controlled by will. You have to want to survive. Moreover, you have to want to not be a victim. You have to exercise the want when you train. If you train passively, just learning the moves while not providing any energy or drive against your partner, you may be reinforcing the flight response. The confrontation starts, you provide little or no effort in your initial fight response because that is how you train, and your Autonomic Nervous System quickly decides, in as little as one-twentieth (1/20) of a second, “I better run or freeze because this isn’t working”.

It is not working because you did not want it to work. You trained as if training is magic, all you need to do is wave your arms in a pattern, and your attacker vanishes. That is not how it works. When you execute your initial defense, it has to be with determined will. More than wanting it to work, you have to make it work, no matter how poorly you execute the technique. This extends the fight response, and buys you the time to determine when flight or freeze are really the only options left. You have to train with enough intent that, when the time comes, you can impose your will over your attacker’s will.

Training your will is not a license to beat up your training partners. It only means you have to put some real energy into your training. You should not only train your body to understand the techniques, you must train your spirit to be ready for the battle.


About Sifu

I teach Wing Chun, both traditional and practical, at KDA Karate Academy. I have a Bachelor of Media Arts degree from USC. I have been an Audio Producer / Engineer, a Law Office Manager. In addition to being a Martial Arts Instructor, I am an author. My new book, "Astro Boy, Sensei, and Me" is available now, as is my Sci-Fi joy ride, "On a Sphere's Edge".

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