Going Full Throttle: Shortcomings of Our Freeze Response To Danger

When in doubt, throttle it out.

I learned this phrase over the weekend while visiting with friends at their lake house. It was my first time on a jet ski, and I was just learning the ropes. 

“You need the throttle to move forward. You need the throttle to turn. You need it for pretty much everything.” 

This was the abbreviated course in jet ski piloting I received early in the morning, our water-rocket drifting in the calm lake water, the morning mist having just begun to lift above the surface of the water. The moment we hit deep water, Chris, my buddy, squeezed the throttle like he was trying to get every ounce of juice from a fresh orange. We zipped across the lake at a adrenaline inducing speed.

In what felt like an instant we were in the middle of the lake, the shore stretching far to either side of us, nowhere near where we began. It was but a small taste of what it must feel like to teleport, I’m sure of it. Then, it was my turn, he said.  My buddy jumped in the water and I slid forward to the captain’s helm. He helped himself onto the back. I gently squeezed the throttle, and we were off. It was touchier than I anticipated—it didn’t take much pressure to elicit a powerful response. Kind of like resting a heavy foot on a touchy gas pedal—a little goes a long way. 

The steering was more sensitive than I imagined too. A quick turn of the handlebar and your jet ski is nearly horizontal in the water. You risk tipping. You have to treat it like highway driving: small, subtle changes in direction to maintain control. Too much, too soon, and you lose control. 

I was beginning to get the hang of it. I was learning to flow with the jet ski, feeling the power at my fingertips, anticipating and moving with the waves. I was following the other jet ski in our party, riding their waves with increasing intensity. With each subsequent wave we launched higher and higher into the air. Then, after the fourth or fifth one, we hit a length of airtime I was not prepared for. I immediately let off the gas. 

In response to high-adrenaline situations you’ve likely heard about the “fight or flight” reaction. your body shifts into a primal state; we either stand our ground or flee the danger. A third, much less talked about response is our freeze response. It’s one of the most common reactions to highly stressful, dangerous situations.

You hear about gun violence victims who freeze in place instead of running for cover, or car accident victims who might see an accident coming but don’t make any attempt to maneuver to safety. 

This freeze response is a completely natural reaction. We hear a rustle in the bushes and we freeze, hoping if a predator lurks that they haven’t spotted us and the silence protects our concealment in the brush. This freeze response is a normal reaction, but it’s not always the most advantageous.

In the midst of flying through the air on this jet ski, at a speed and height I suddenly felt unprepared for, I let off the gas. It was my freeze response—to stop whatever I was doing. To try and slow down. The part of the abbreviated course in jet skiing that was likely cut for brevity, was the fact that taking your hand off the gas does not lead to a gradual stop. It results in an abrupt, near-immediate stop.

Our jet ski touched back down into the water and immediately came to a halt. The momentum of our bodies flung forward. The unlucky friend, Anthony, who was riding with me was viciously thrown into the water. I was able to miraculously stay on the jet ski, half my body underwater and the jet ski nearly capsized, only because of my vice-like grip on the handlebars. 

Fortunately, nobody was seriously injured except for some minor muscle pain and a bruised ego. Later that evening, I really learned the meaning of the phrase, “When in doubt, throttle it out.” As long as I kept my hand on the gas I would have had a much better chance at avoiding the crash. 

As with all highly stimulating incidents in my life, I like to explore how the lesson I learned could possibly apply to other areas of my life. I’ve found that a lot of our experiences can teach us about areas of our life beyond the scope of the activity itself. I began to think about how this freeze response might prove itself counterproductive in other areas. 

I thought about how many car accidents I’m likely to have avoided by speeding up, not slowing down.

I thought about my many winter runs, and running over ice, and how fully committing to the next step is what prevents me from slipping and falling—not the apprehensive, fearful balancing act of moving slowly. 

How, when I’m giving a seminar and lose my train of thought, I continually push the presentation forward until I’m back on track, instead of freezing in embarrassment.

It brought to memory all the various scenarios where I avoid potential catastrophe precisely because I decide to push harder into the throttle, instead of instinctively reaching for the brakes. 

I’ve begun to realize that not all failures require a hard stop. Sometimes, they require you to, “throttle it out.” I can’t tell you exactly what response is called for in any particular scenario. All I can do is cue your awareness toward your propensity for the freeze response, and open your mind to the potential of a new sort of reaction.

You just might find yourself getting out of a sticky situation by pressing harder on the gas. 

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