Fight, Flight or Freeze?

Summer of 2013, Tokyo: one fine day in July, I was taking the train from Tokorozawa to meet the Wilson sisters for lunch in Kichijoji, transferring at Kokubunji station. As I was waiting on the platform, out of the corner of my eye—and also, in the blink of an eye—I saw an old lady hobbling gingerly down to the platform step by step, another middle-aged lady scrambling past and bumping her, and the old lady tumbling head first down the stairs.

In a split second, I saw blood gush from a deep cut just above her left eyebrow, felt my butthole clench and my feet dashing towards her sprawled on the ground, my hand pulling out the tissues I always carry in my bag. I quickly helped her sit up and wiped the blood away, applying pressure on the wound so as to stop the bleeding. Disorientated as she was, I checked to see she was somewhat all right before noticing people just standing around us and staring blankly, whispering and pointing. I yelled for someone to call the station attendants, frustrated at their passivity. Soon, two attendants came running down the stairs with a first-aid kit and looked at us confused, clearly unsure of what to do. I made sure the bleeding stopped completely before passing her on to them. A young lady offered me new tissues to wipe my blood-stained hands, a gesture which I greatly appreciated. And then I took the train to go meet my friends for lunch.

I’m glad that in that particular moment, I, or rather, my body chose fight instead of flight or freeze.

Yes, this is technically Nishi-Kokubunji and not Kokubunji station, but you get the idea. (source)

I haven’t been in a situation since that has called for such a response. But I often think about this: if I found myself in a crisis situation, would I fight? I’d like to think so; and I’d like to think my army instincts would kick in when I need them the most.

The other day I was watching Jurassic World where Chris Pratt plays an ex-military man who handles an utterly chaotic catastrophe involving dinosaurs on the loose. Obviously, I’m never going to find myself in a situation having to tame velociraptors or run like mad from a T-rex, but still… would I deal with it well? Could I? To what extent will I be able to fight?

from Jurassic World

Sometimes when I’m sitting in a large room with a lot of people, I run through the following mental scenario: what if someone with a gun/knife/[insert weapon] burst into the room?

I’d scour the environs and think of strategic routes to get to the assailant without being spotted; the tools in my bag (I always carry a swiss army knife) I could utilise; the way I’d throw something heavy/sharp at them; the way I’d tackle and grapple with them (how would I wrestle the weapon out of their hand? would I know how to use a pistol since I’ve only mainly handled rifles/machine guns?); who else in the room I could team up with to take them down; the best way to keep casualties to a minimum; etc.

To what extent could I fight? To what extent could I move?

(Trust me, I’m not always consumed with such morbid thoughts. I’m friendly and nice, I promise. Just don’t get on my bad side; I am a 38 out of 38 marksman. Just saying.)

Another thought: would my emotions get in the way (especially since I’ve embraced my intensely emotional side in recent years)? Actually, never mind, I’m not worried about that; I’m pretty sure in emergencies I’ll manifest a necessary emotional detachment that’ll allow me clear and objective judgement to act accordingly. I trust two years in the military wasn’t all for nothing.

But God-willing, I’ll never find myself in such a scenario, and I’ll never have to test if my army instincts are still alive and kicking. As curious as I am, it’s such a blessing that I’m not in extreme situations that call for any sort of fight/flight/freeze response.


On a slight tangent, in researching (i.e. Googling) why in said situations there’s a weird feeling in our bums, I found this wonderful, highly educational reddit thread:

Being startled stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ response. It does many things, such as release adrenaline, increase your heart rate and slow digestion. The point of all this is to make your body ready for extremely dangerous time sensitive situations. Contraction of the anal sphincters (clenching your butthole) is part of the response because, well can you imagine releasing your bowels during a lion attack? It seems slightly comical, but relaxing the sphincter could be life-threating in the situations the response is intended for, not to mention distracting.

And one of the best TL;DR (i.e. ‘too long, didn’t read’ for the tech-illiterate) I’ve seen:

Tl;dr: shitting whilst running from or fighting something dangerous is bad.

Also, apparently:

In contrast, deer when experiencing stress will do the opposite of clench. They open wide and blast out poop so they can make a fast get away.

You learn something new everyday. (Thank God I’m not a deer.)


3 thoughts on “Fight, Flight or Freeze?”

  1. Reading how you dashed forward without hesitation to help the old lady (papa would do the same!) reminds me of the day we were walking upslope on our way to the Singapore Embassy when you jumped over the railings and ran across the road to stop the delivery man’s cargo of boxes from sliding down the road. Remember the incident? It has been ingrained in my mind as I was clearly impressed (and proud!) by your quick move and initiative to help another. Enjoyed reading how you have weaved your personal experiences into the theme of fight, flight, freeze as well as imparting new information to readers on butt clenching! Mama


  2. Just curious, do you still practise your marksmanship? Are you sure you can still shoot that accurately? I’m not sure I needed to know about deers and their startle response, but I can’t unread it now!
    I have heard that Japanese can be reluctant to get involved in an incident such as you mention because that makes them vulnerable to false accusation of causing the accident. I wonder how true this is?


    1. No, I don’t, but I am pretty confident. It’s one of those things that’s just engrained, almost like muscle memory. And you’re right, I’ve heard similarly. I’m reminded of an incident in China a few years back where a baby was left lying on the road and was driven over by cars; no one tried to rescue it. Obviously that’s an extreme case, and the excuse was not wanting to be held responsible, but God forbid I ever let something like that happen on my watch.

      Liked by 1 person

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