Fight! Part I: What Freeze/Fight/Flight Feels Like

In Marie Brennan’s ongoing series on writing fight scenes, she mentions that her experience comes from martial arts and fight choreography. I thought that it might make a nice companion piece if I wrote a bit about how I approach fight scenes, since my experience comes from getting in actual fights. And from avoiding fights. And being in life-threatening situations that aren’t violent (car crashes, fires, etc.) I’m also going to pull from my experience talking to other people who have been in violent situations, but since there are confidentiality issues, I’ll either use generalities or change any identifying details.

A fight doesn’t begin with an exchange of blows, or even with the realization that violence is imminent. It begins with the past experience that the characters have with violence and the mindset that gave them.

Some people who’ve experienced a lot of violence decide that they’re going to die regardless, and get a “fuck it” attitude, take crazy and self-destructive risks, and, often enough, die young. Others decide that they’re going to survive. I’m going to focus on the latter mindset, since that’s my own and so I know much more about it. The ones who identify as survivors may also take what seem to be crazy and self-destructive risks, but they see it differently. They’re always calculating the odds, but the odds seem different to them than they do to people who have led comparatively safe lives.

A couple times I’ve gotten away from people who were trying to harm me by fleeing to an area too dangerous for them to follow me into – a thorn grove, a busy street, a field with unmarked wells. Which seems the more abstract and unlikely danger, another person who hasn’t actually done anything to you yet, or a well you can’t see from the ground, where someone your age recently fell in and drowned? A person who hasn’t ever had their life threatened would probably be more afraid of the well. An abused child would probably be more afraid of the other people. I had already gone into that field, found the well, and memorized its location specifically so I’d have a place to run to where no one would follow.

People who often don’t feel safe will seek out places, people, and situations which may also be dangerous, but in a way which seems more manageable. They may not actually be manageable – a gang, a parched wilderness full of dangerous wildlife, the abuser you know - but they’re familiar dangers which they’ve successfully faced before, and so feel comfortable. Survivor-types may not seek out objectively safe environments because, emotionally or intellectually, they don’t believe that there is any such thing. Better the devil you know than the supposed haven that you’re quite certain holds its own and unfamiliar perils. This is where the fight begins, with the baggage the characters bring to it.

The next step is the realization of danger. This is where the fight/flight/freeze reflex kicks in. These aren’t mutually exclusive, and you can cycle through all three. (My opinion is that everyone starts with “freeze,” but may stay in it only briefly.) Fight doesn’t necessarily literally mean “fight” – it really means “take action/go toward the danger.” Flight is “run/escape the danger.”

Depending on what sort of background they have, violence may seem comfortably familiar or a total shock. A character who is familiar with violence can still be caught off-guard (PTSD is a mental illness, not a super-power), but even if the moment of attack itself comes as a total shock, the concept of being attacked won’t. Those characters are likely to spend less time freezing in disbelief – though they may still freeze briefly.

Characters who are inexperienced and untrained may freeze indefinitely, caught in a loop of thought like, “He’s pointing a gun at me. He’s pointing a gun at me. He’s pointing a gun at me…” They may go into a dissociative state in which they feel as if the event isn’t really happening. I used to think that people chanting, “This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening. This isn’t real,” was a movie thing, but no, people actually sometimes do that. They may still be stuck in that state for literally hours after the event. They may fixate on a single detail of the scene, such as the barrel of the gun (which may seem huge) and may literally be unable to see anything else, or to recall much else afterward.

Fixating on details can happen to anyone, but, again, more experienced people will tend to have a broader sense of what’s going on. They may still lose track of large portions of the scene. I have had my hearing shut off completely – I can see people’s lips moving, but I don’t hear what they’re saying. What that feels like is that the thoughts inside my head are so loud that they’re drowning everything else out.

I have found that my inner experience of danger is essentially the same regardless of the incident – whether three men have just stepped out of a dark alley and surrounded me, or whether the engine of my car has just burst into flames.

Step one is realization: the car is on fire. I’m being mugged. That’s a freeze reaction in the sense that I don’t move, but I’ve never had it last long enough to feel a physical sensation of being unable to move. That can happen, though, and when it does, it’s completely out of the person’s control. I think the purpose of freezing, though it doesn’t always work that way, is to give you a moment to take in what’s going on and decide what to do about it, and prevent you from leaping into stupid, counterproductive action.

Step two is the decision to take action. This can be very nearly simultaneous with the action itself, and feel like a reflex. Or it can take a moment. It can take a very, very long-seeming moment. For my sample walk-through of what this feels like, I’m going to use a dangerous incident that wasn’t a fight, because it’s my sharpest memory of the moment of decision. But it was very similar to what I’ve felt when people were threatening me, right before they struck or I did. Also, everyone has experienced some level of freeze/fight/flight, so hopefully this will demonstrate that you can extrapolate your own experience into quite different fictional situations.

I was in a car whose fuel pump exploded, causing the engine to burst into flames. The driver pulled over, and he and I leaped out and ran in opposite directions. Then I remembered that a friend was asleep in the back seat. I stopped, turned back, and saw that she hadn’t gotten out and that the car was on fire. Burning liquid was dripping down and forming a pool under the car. (That was the detail I fixated on.)

I don’t think I stopped for very long, but it felt as if I had all the time in the world to contemplate my options. I could literally feel calm flowing through my body, a sensation of a wash of cooling water from head to toe. Everything was laid out before me with an absolute clarity that I have only ever experienced when I’ve thought my life was in danger. I saw how tiresomely complicated and muddy life normally is, and how exquisitely and marvelously simple this moment was, with only two options: keep running, and leave her. Or go back, and risk a really horrible death.

I have always been afraid of being burned. I knew that fear was there – I remember picturing the scarred faces of burn victims - but I didn’t actually feel afraid. The moment while I stood there thinking, with its beautiful clarity, was one of the best moments of my life.

When I’ve said that to people, they say, “Oh, adrenaline dump, yeah, that’s why people bungee jump.” That may be so, but I’ve never felt that way riding roller coasters or free-sparring or doing anything voluntary or that felt scary but wasn’t actually going to hurt me. (Free-sparring doesn’t feel dangerous. Falling feels scary in an unpleasant way.) Still, if that’s what adrenaline junkies feel when they dive off cliffs, I completely see why they do it.

And, of course, some people seek out that real-life high - maybe, like me, they can only get it if it's real. They may become bouncers or soldiers or emergency room doctors. Or, in the past or in fiction, duellists. Or gangsters. Or hit men. People in the more socially acceptable jobs do not like to talk to outsiders about this particular aspect of enjoying their work, since it sounds creepy if you don't feel the same way. My feeling is that it's fine as long as, you know, you're not a hit man or an arsonist or otherwise doing something destructive, and you take care not to look like you're enjoying yourself while traumatized civilians are around. (Okay, that does sound totally creepy.)

Back to me and the burning car, the instant I made my decision and turned, I snapped back into real time. It felt as if I’d been in a freeze-frame, and then hit play. I threw open the car door and found my friend just starting to sit up. (This is why I think the actual elapsed time was extremely short – she probably woke up when the car screeched to a sudden stop.)

I shouted, “Get out! The car’s on fire!”

“Huh? What?” She didn’t move.

“Open your seatbelt! Get out the car!”

She stayed where she was, half-reclining, staring up at me.

This is where our perceptions diverged. She later said I’d been screaming hysterically and incoherently, and that she was going for her seatbelt but I interfered before she could open it. That’s entirely possible. It didn’t feel that way to me, but at that point I was fight mode, and she hadn’t even perceived that she was in danger yet. We were in two entirely different worlds.

I reached over to unsnap her seatbelt, since she wasn’t doing it. It jammed. Or maybe it didn’t. What I later realized is that you lose a lot of fine motor control in fight mode. (This is why I’ve always been dubious about the practicality of fancy strikes requiring precision, like blows to tiny pressure points.) In retrospect, I probably couldn’t open it because I couldn’t move my fingers precisely enough. But since that wasn’t in my frame of reference, I thought there was something wrong with the seatbelt.

This sort of thing is why even highly trained people tend to miss much more than they hit in a firefight. On the flip side, one nice thing about many martial arts styles is that a lot of techniques are driven by the entire body and don’t require precise placement of your fingers or excellent hand-eye coordination. So even if you can’t undo a seatbelt or fire a gun accurately, you can still hit or kick someone in an effective manner.

Back in the burning car, I glanced through the windshield and saw flames rising up from the hood. I grabbed my friend and yanked her out of the car without undoing her seatbelt. She screamed, and when I set her down on the ground, she said she’d sprained her ankle and couldn’t walk. By that time, I felt like we’d been in the car forever, though it was probably only a minute or so. I was still somewhat in slowed-time mode. I grabbed her under the arms and ran like hell, partly supporting and partly dragging her, for what turned out to be about a city block.

Later, it turned out that she had never believed that the danger was serious at all – she had never thought that she might not be able to get out in time, that the fire might spread rapidly, or that she might die. She’d had a nicer life than I’d had at that point, which may have had something to do with it. Or maybe she wasn’t completely awake until the fire was already out. (An off-duty fire truck pulled over moments later.) But a pre-existing belief in your own mortality, and the knowledge that situations can go from safe to lethal in the blink of an eye, probably makes the transition from no danger sensed to “fight” go a lot faster. Or happen at all.

I earlier mentioned escaping danger by going toward a more safe-seeming danger. I think that’s part of why I can get to “fight” (go toward danger) at all – I grew up seeing everything as variably dangerous, rather than as a safe/dangerous binary. So while freezing is automatic, flight versus fight feels more like a rational, conscious choice to me. If I’m the only person at risk, I’ll go for flight over fight if it’s possible, because that’s generally safer. But I tend not to get stuck in “OMG I’m going to die” because at a gut level, that’s already always a possibility.

Finally, this was not a traumatic experience. It was actually quite positive. That was partly because the outcome was good, partly because I wasn't injured or psychologically harmed, but also partly because I was able to take action. My experiences with violence and danger which have been traumatic were almost all ones in which I wasn't able to take any action at all, or in which I spent a significant part of it feeling helpless. Statistically speaking, people are less likely to get PTSD if they feel that they had some control over whatever was going on, even if what they actually did was comparatively minor. Helplessness is horrible. Being hurt or abused is horrible. But I suspect that being unable to act on a fight or flight response - which is overwhelmingly powerful - is traumatic all by itself.

To sum up: adrenaline dumps can be terrifying. They can also feel really good. What it's like varies according to the person, but also according to the circumstance.

That is what freeze-fight-flight feels like to me. Please share any of your own experiences that you’re comfortable sharing in comments.

Part II: Actual fighting!
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