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Many survivors have a “Freeze Response” to danger- so what exactly is it, what does it feel like, and what can we do about it?
Most of us have heard of the “fight or flight” response to danger. But did you know that there are actually more possible responses- especially in those who have suffered abuse and traumatic experiences?
In this article I will outline the various responses, before doing a deep dive into the “freeze response” including what exactly it is, how to recognise when we are freezing, and what we can do to pull ourselves out of it.
Fight/flight – the basics of survival.
Our nervous system is designed to activate in situations where we either are, or think we are in danger. In a split second, our brain analyses the situation and weighs up our chances. If the situation is one in which we think we are evenly matched, or stronger than our opponent, our natural response could be to fight them off (or argue back). If the situation is one in which we think we have a good chance of getting away we might choose the flight option, and run (or change the subject).
But what about those situations where we cannot fight, because we are completely outmatched, and we cannot run away, because we have no chance of getting away from the situation? In these situations we have a different set of responses to choose from.
Freeze / fawn responses:
Freeze/fawn are both common responses in survivors. The freeze response, which I will talk about in detail in this article, refers to a “deer in the headlights” state, where the body and mind are paralysed with terror, and unable to move. The brain, having realised there is no possible way to fight or run away- such as in cases of child abuse where the perpetrator is much older and stronger- simply dissociates and “numbs out” to avoid the reality of the situation. Natural opiates are released to decrease pain sensations and in extreme cases, the brain and body separate (dissociate) entirely.
The fawn response (sometimes called “feign“), is common amongst survivors of violent and narcissistic-type caregivers. It is “fawning” over the abuser- giving in to their demands and trying to appease them in order to stop or minimise the abuse. This occurs because, as a small child, we are entirely dependent on our care givers and if they are abusive, we still have to keep them “on our side” in order to stay alive.
To find out more about the fawn response:
I will write a separate article about the fawn response, but to find out more about it here is a comprehensive article by Pete Walker where he talks about his experiences treating and healing the fawn response in survivors.
Fright / Faint / Freak / Fry responses:
Further stress responses that have been proposed include “fright“-(the “playing dead” response commonly seen in prey animals), “faint” (seen, for example, when people faint at the sight of blood, or before an injection) and the even more extreme “freak/fry” responses to prolonged, complex trauma which indicate total psychological burnout– as if the brain’s very circuits have fried. To cover all of these responses is way beyond the scope of this article, and for the majority of survivors, fight/flight/freeze/fawn will encompass most of their responses so I will focus on these.
To find out more about the fright/faint/freak/fry responses:
If you would like to find out more about the fright/faint responses, see this review by Dr. H. Stefan Bracha.
To find out more about the “freak/fry” responses, see this blog post by reddit user “not-moses” who (I believe) is the originator of the terms and the author of many excellent blog posts on all aspects of healing and CPTSD, which are impeccably researched and full of information. He is also the creator of A CPTSD Library on reddit, a comprehensive list of reading material and valuable resource for survivors.
So, why do we freeze?
Freezing is a natural response to situations in which we are powerless. A child who is being molested by an adult, or a person who is being attacked by a stronger person is likely to come off worse if they try to fight, and often cannot run away either. The brain realises that the odds are stacked against us in these situations and initiates a freeze response.
Hyperarousal vs. Hypoarousal
The fight/flight responses are initiated by the sympathetic nervous system and known as hyperarousal– the body is “fired up”. The freeze response is initiated by the parasympathetic nervous system and known as hypoarousal– the body is instead “paralysed”. A great deal of healing from PTSD is learning how to stay in the middle of these two states of arousal, (our “window of tolerance“), as triggers can bring us quickly to either state, even years after the traumatic events.
Many survivors of abuse, rape and attacks feel a great deal of shame about freezing- they wonder “why didn’t I fight back?” or “why didn’t I try to get away?”
The truth is, you had a completely normal, natural reaction to the trauma you experienced.
Feeling ashamed is also a normal and natural response, but in reality you don’t have any reason to feel ashamed. You have been through something harrowing and soul-destroying. Your body and brain reacted in the best way they knew how, to keep you alive. And it worked- you survived. Now you can arm yourself with the knowledge to retrain your responses, and stay in that window of tolerance– the space in which we feel calm and able to deal with any situation without panicking or dissociating. You can learn to do this, and you will! It just takes time and patience. Go easy on yourself in the mean time.
What does the freeze response feel like?
When we freeze, we dissociate from reality. This helps us to mentally escape what is happening to us during traumatic experiences, but can become a problem later on, when we enter hypoarousal at inappropriate times (such as reacting to everyday stressors), or become “stuck” in this state due to triggers that remind us of the trauma.
Freezing feels a lot like depression, in that we feel numb and apathetic, with little energy or motivation. We do not find pleasure in anything and tend to get “brain fog“- our higher cognitive processes shut down and we are unable to plan or focus, and our memory becomes patchy or even non-existent. We might watch a whole film just staring at the screen with no idea what is happening and no memory of it afterwards. We can experience derealisation and depersonalisation– states of being so disconnected from our body and the world around us that we feel like we do not exist and that nothing is real. This can be frightening to experience.
Remember to breathe.
When we freeze we find it hard to reach out to others for help, and tend to isolate ourselves- it feels safer to be in our home environment where we feel we will not be triggered. We also feel small and helpless. During traumatic events, freezing leads to paralysis- the inability to move or shout for help, the inability to defend ourselves. It is also common to stop breathing or have to fight to breathe, as the body shuts down more and more. Very often when I have been triggered in the past I find myself barely breathing at all, holding my breath until I almost burst. I also find myself staring at something like a tiny stitch in my clothing or a spot on the wall for a long time.
Healing is about remembering how to relax, take off the armour, and breathe again. It is about repeating to ourselves, over and over: “I am safe”- until we believe it with all of our hearts.
3 ways to get out of the freeze response when you feel stuck:
In my Survivor’s Guide to Self Soothing, I discuss breathing techniques and methods we can use to remind and retrain ourselves to breathe deeply, as it is the foundation of healing. Anytime you are feeling triggered, anxious or numb, the first thing you should do is take a few deep, slow breaths- this tells the brain it is safe to relax and can even stop a panic attack if you catch it early.
The 4-7-8 technique is a good place to start- breathe in through your nose for four seconds, hold the breath for seven seconds, then breathe out through your mouth for eight seconds. The longer out-breath is a signal to the body to relax. Try to breathe deeply into your diaphragm and not just into your chest- really fill your lungs. Imagine you are breathing beautiful white or golden light into your whole body, light that is healing and soothing. The act of consciously breathing and counting the seconds in your mind will have an instant calming effect.
There are many wonderful YouTube videos and apps out there to help with breathing techniques- see my self-soothing article for more information, including where to find them.
It is vital to ground ourselves in reality to prevent dissociation from taking hold. If you feel yourself spacing out or becoming triggered, it can be really helpful to state who you are, where you are, what you are doing and that you are safe. For example, you might say to yourself (aloud or in your head): “My name is John, I am at work in Manchester city centre, I am stacking shelves at a supermarket and I am safe now”. It might sound silly but it really works. You could even print something onto a card and carry it in your wallet to prompt you in times of need.
Another way to ground is using the senses- this brings us back into our body. Ask yourself- “what can I see right now?” and name one or two things. Or ask “what can I see in this room that is blue?” and answer it. You can do this with any of the senses of course. I talk more about sensual self soothing here.
Some people find it grounding and comforting to hold a familiar object- perhaps a small teddy bear, stress toy, or even just house keys- when they feel triggered. Focus on the object, feel its weight and texture. This will help calm racing thoughts and use up some of the nervous energy. I really love these fidget cubes, but there are a plethora of anxiety relief products out there so you are sure to find one you love.
When our nervous system is triggered, stress hormones are released (such as adrenaline and cortisol) which prepare our bodies for action. When that stress response is converted into a freeze response, that energy remains stuck in our bodies.
If you have ever seen an animal after a shock, say a dog that has been attacked by another dog, you will notice them shaking quite a bit. This is a natural response, and has the effect of releasing this pent up energy so it does not get stored in the muscles. Humans are no different- if you “shake off” your stress, you will feel much calmer and lighter.
Where to find out more about TRE.
There are some wonderful exercises called TRE (trauma release exercises) to help you do just that. I talk about TRE in this article, so head there for more detail- including a helpful video, and subscribe to artoftrauma below to get notified about my future posts, because I will be publishing a deep dive into TRE very soon, as it has helped me tremendously in my own journey. You can also find a lot of useful information on the TRE website.
That’s all for now! I hope you have found this interesting and helpful to you in your journey. You can check out my other healing articles here, or have a look at some of my creative writing or poetry. I appreciate you! I am so proud of you for fighting every day like you do.