That could never happen.
What is happening?
This isn’t happening.
This can’t be happening.

Yes… it’s happening.

Fear is a challenging beast. It manifests itself in different ways to different people. One person’s paralysis over a spider in the kitchen is another person’s call to action for the broom and a wad of paper towels. How we address and confront our fears is the most important factor for survival, but how to recognize them is the first step.

You’ve surely heard the phrase “fight, flight or freeze.” This simple alliteration concisely explains the human condition in times of extreme stress. For any given disaster situation, all people react in one of three ways: they fight, they run away, or they freeze and do absolutely nothing.

It’s the third reaction that I’m going to talk about today. The freeze; otherwise known as “normalcy bias.”

Normalcy Bias

In layman’s terms, normalcy bias is the condition where a person’s fear manifests itself so acutely that they cannot process a traumatic event and, essentially, blocks it out of their mind. This block renders them incapable of processing what is going on, which causes them to do nothing or “pretend” that what is happening is, in fact, not happening at all. The elderly woman who refuses to leave her home while a major hurricane barrels towards her. The person standing still, watching a mentally disturbed maniac throw an innocent stranger in front of a train. A spouse convincing herself that her abusive husband didn’t really mean to hit her. Millions of Jews being slaughtered while refusing to believe that this horror was actually taking place. You get the idea…

Cause

So what causes normalcy bias? In essence, it is one of our body’s natural defense mechanisms, albeit a strange ally. The situations mentioned above, while extreme examples in some cases, perfectly illustrate the mind’s ability to fool us into thinking everything is okay. No one wants to deal with violence or the threat of an impending natural disaster, let alone try to confront it head on. Most often, it is external stressors that causes normalcy bias. Things we have no control over making a B-line to attack our comfort and perceived safety; we become the deer in the headlights.

Prolonged stress also causes normalcy bias. Your emotions start to shut down as you become more incapable of handling enormous strain being placed upon you. The constant build up and dump of adrenaline is a big one, too; PTSD that occurs, unfortunately, in many of our soldiers today. It’s a downward-spiraling cycle that is hard to break away from once it starts.

Effect

When a traumatic event puts us in harm’s way, our body literally tries to shut itself down to protect us from harm. Sometimes, the bias may be so ingrained as to cause a person to not even prepare for a potential emergency situation; the mere thought that something could possibly go bad prevents them from keeping extra water, food and a generator around the house, putting a can of pepper spray in their purse or having a seat belt cutter in their glove box.

(While we try to maintain a non-political stance, there is an extreme amount of normalcy bias going on in the world today, especially in the US. Regardless of which side of the coin you favor, the bias is real and very dangerous.)

Nothing good ever comes from normalcy bias and the freeze effect. Have you ever seen the video of the gazelle that stood still in the middle of the Serengeti when confronted by a female lion and her hungry cubs?

Neither have I.

Cure

Yes, there is a cure for overcoming normalcy bias. For those of us in the personal protection industry, the answer is training. There is no better way to break through than practice, practice, practice. Training builds confidence. Confidence, even more so than physical skills or having enough water in the house, gives us the ability to rationalize in our minds that something bad is happening but we can handle it.

The training may vary, but it doesn’t take much to at least get some of the fundamentals down:

  • Be aware of your personal space, tactical distance and positioning. Learn to identify when a person is getting too close, and be able to put up an obstacle between the two of you.
  • Verbal skills. A quick “Stop!” or “Get Away!” can often be enough to break yourself out of the feedback loop and even scare an attacker into thinking twice.
  • Learn how to punch, kick, gouge and run. Don’t fight; escape.
  • Be prepared. (A no-brainer, right?) Don’t be one of the knuckleheads who runs out for bread, milk and cereal every time a snowflake hits the windshield. Have some preparations already in hand. You can survive without milk for two days.