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Main blog page » Archives » May 2013 » Brain freeze

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05/12/2013: "Brain freeze"


Yow! That splitting headache you sometimes get for a bit when you eat something cold? It's because the blood vessels in the roof of your mouth constricted suddenly and referred the pain there via the nerves in your head. Warm it back up, and eat more slowly!

But that's not the kind of brain freeze we want to address today - unless you happen to have an ice cream cone or cold drink handy to give to the bad guy and hope he gets one...

We addressed this from a different angle back in the "Keep cool? Yeah, right!" post back in November 2012.

There are at least a couple different kinds of freezes that can occur under stress. One is (for lack of a better term) the "loop" freeze - continuing to repeat an action even though it isn't working. The reason seems to be that your hindbrain, the most primitive part, has kicked in and said "well, I'm not dead yet, so it must be working!". Your rational brain, which knows it isn't, isn't in control at the time. That loop can get you killed, unfortunately.

Another kind is similar, but stems from the fear of potential injury. Two true stories...

A co-worker of one of our students was robbed at his front door a few months ago. He was confronted by the gunman, who demanded his wallet. The man froze. The gunman put the gun down, frisked him, took his wallet, picked the gun back up, and left.

A woman who attended one of our self-defense seminars ended up on the ground on her side, in a full nelson and with her legs wrapped by the man's (double grapevine). She implied that something happened after this; we didn't ask for details.


There are reports of home invaders, carjackers etc. doing similar things to the first story above - threatening with a knife or gun, and when the victim is physically unable to comply, the assailant puts down the weapon to do something. Or the assailant walks up, grabs the victim, shows the weapon, then puts it away or off to the side - out of sight of potential witnesses - and the victim complies out of fear of injury.

If the weapon is not immediately present, it is not an immediate threat. It is a potential threat. The attacker will have to react to the potential victim's actions - hitting him in the face or groin, running away etc. - and remember that he has the weapon and get it back to where he can use it. He's behind in the OODA loop - and you want him to stay there. Keep resetting the loop until you have an opening to leave.

In the latter case, she was put in a submission hold, and would not have been able to do anything until or unless he released her. She was physically unable to defend herself - but the attacker was also so tangled up that he could do little until he released her. Both his hands and both his legs were occupied, and he was behind her. He would have had to release at least one hand to do something, which would have given her an opening to begin to defend herself.

Sometimes, strange as it seems - and terrifying though it is - the victim has to wait for an opening, for the assailant to disengage, physically or mentally. We'll link again to the video of the bank robbery hostage who was being pulled backward down the street with a gun at her head, and who escaped when the robber slipped on the snow at a curb.


Easy to say, much harder to do: try and maintain some presence of mind, even in the midst of the adrenaline dump, racing heart, and fear for your life. Trying to imagine your reaction in a potential situation - before the fact - is one way to deal with some of that; another is to get used to dealing with stress by being in stressful situations. Most of us (fortunately) don't have to deal with that; first responders and law enforcement do. For us civilians, the closest we get is something like our martial arts training, where we are pressured and stressed. It can't approach the pressure and stress of an actual encounter, but even in safe, friendly training conditions, people do still experience many of the same physiological reactions.

Try to train yourself as much as you can - whether you train in martial arts or not, at least mentally if not physically - to deal with sudden stress. Try to push the envelope, try to push the point at which you will fail. Eventually you will, but hopefully you will have escaped and made your way to safety well before hitting that point of failure.

Much better to have to deal with the ice cream brain freeze than the one from an assailant...


In case it shows up in a game of Trivial Pursuit or on Jeopardy - the scientific term for the cold-food brain freeze is "sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia". There's a reason we just call it an "ice cream headache"!

Comments: 1 comment

On Sunday, 08 December 2013, john riehl said:

This is a wonderful post. As Cathleen says, it's easy for us to hear about someone being robbed when the assailant puts the gun down, but, as she also says, being in an actual stress situation is much harder than even our most rigorous training. Our brains are such wonderful, tricky things!


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