When you experience extreme trauma or inordinate fear, your natural response would be to fight, flight, or freeze.
Of these, fight and flight are more known as they are believed to be more common. This is a misconception. “Freeze” response is equally prevalent among people with or without PTSD.
Go back in your mind and examine your reactions to some of the most traumatic events in your life. Was it fight, flight, or freeze?
Even if your normal reaction is fight or flight, there are situations when you may respond by freezing to the spot. When you neither feel compelled to do something and fight back nor you feel the urge to flee from the scene. You feel as if the time is standing still and you are frozen as if someone pressed the pause button on your life’s remote.
Though freezing can gain you some time to come up with a better response, it is not desirable in all situations. Sometimes, it can put you in harm’s way. The natural survival instincts are fight or flight. This means you need to learn to keep it under control or overcome your freeze response to trauma.
This article helps you understand the reasons behind your freeze response through examples. You will also find here suggestions to overcome it.
Understanding the freeze response
As you may be aware, our ancestors faced extreme dangers in their everyday lives. To help them survive, these automatic responses were ingrained in their genes.
These are responses that helped them to evaluate potential threats and respond appropriately without thinking. These imbued responses helped them survive threats to their lives.
The same survival instinct is passed on through generations and is present in all of us. Though the world has changed drastically and threats posed to us along with it, our fight-flight-freeze response has not seen many transformations.
Let us see how our body reacts to danger.
When you are facing a threatening situation, your brain will trigger the release of hormones, cortisone, and adrenaline. These hormones set off physiological reactions like increased heart rate, tightening of muscles, sweating, rapid breathing, and enhanced peripheral vision. This is similar to a panic response or panic attack.
All these inputs help you to make instant decisions whether to fight or flee. In case you choose to freeze, you will be calm and relaxed, unlike the other two responses. The accompanying symptoms like a raised heartbeat, rapid breathing, and sweating will be absent.
Psychologically speaking, your freeze response may be connected to an actual threat or a perceived one. As long as you believe it as a threat, your reaction will be the same.
What happens when you freeze?
One of the most noticeable things is the time slowing down or even standing still. You feel as if in a scene playing in slow motion. Though you can sense fear and anxiety, you are unusually calm. Your heart rate remains normal and your breathing slows down.
Your peripheral vision gets better allowing you to get a better understanding of the situation. You feel as if you are removed from the situation and looking at it as a casual observer. This is known as the dissociation freeze response. Experts believe that this will help you gain more information and time to formulate your response.
Is freezing desirable?
When your freeze response is mild or under control, it can help you gain time to come up with the right response. However, if it is severe and overactive, it can pose more problems than it solves.
This is more pronounced if the situations are merely perceived threats and not real ones. It can even be a symptom of some underlying condition.
Acute stress in daily life, anxious personality, and traumatic experiences are the usual triggers for freeze response. The presence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a possibility in those who exhibit freeze response.
Now, to answer the question. The freeze response is acceptable or even good as long as it remains within limits. In extreme cases, it is important to search for underlying causes and take appropriate remedies. PTSD freeze response will be more intense and needs to be addressed as early as possible.
Freeze response examples
Some of the common situations when you may exhibit freeze response are:
- Loss of loved ones
- Any kind of abuse (sexual, physical, or mental)
- Diagnosis of life-threatening diseases and treatment
- Neglect, mistreatment, or abandonment
- Life-threatening accidents
- Natural calamities
Though these are extreme situations that warrant freeze response, they can also show up when milder threats are perceived to be serious. Such as slamming on the brake when you see the traffic ahead stopping suddenly or when you are in the path of an oncoming vehicle. You may freeze when you see an aggressive dog approaching or even when someone surprises you by saying “boo”.
How to overcome the freeze response?
You may freeze as a result of anxiety and stress response, whether it is mild or severe. You can take steps to alleviate them and be calmer and more relaxed.
1. Deep breathing exercises
This helps you relax in both physical and psychological senses. As you take deep breaths, your heart rate slows down. At the same time, your focus is shifted from the danger you find yourself in and diverted to concentrate on breathing.
There are many deep breathing techniques available for you to choose from. In some, you inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth. In others, you breathe in through one nose and breathe out through the other. Take care to synchronize the rise and fall of your belly and chest as you breathe in and out.
When you are anxious or stressed, your focus turns inwards. You can forcefully shift your attention to the environment around you.
As you reconnect with your surroundings and your attention turns to what is happening around you, you are creating a break in your focus. And that is all you need to “unfreeze” yourself.
3. Look for a safe place
When you come face to face with danger and you feel overwhelmed by it, having a safe place to pull yourself together and regroup your thoughts may help. As long as it is removed from the threatening situation, makes you feel safe and secure, and keeps you out of unwanted attention, this method can help you get over your freeze response.
4. Get help
If you feel the situation is getting out of control and you can no longer deal with it by yourself, you can ask someone you trust to help you out. If this is not a choice or if it is also not working, you can always approach a mental health professional. Therapy is considered a highly effective treatment option for the freeze response.
While these are good long-term solutions to the problem, it would be ideal to have easy-to-access remedies to help you get over freeze response. Here are some suggestions for you to consider. Most of them work by grounding you or turning your attention away from the danger to the present.
- Draw deep breaths
- Stroke one hand with the other
- Rub your hands together
- Splash cold water
- Snap a rubber band against your wrist
- Breathe in a strong fragrance
- Do something creative
- Listen to music
- Look at the photos of your loved ones
- Repeat a mantra
- Look around you and notice your surroundings
- Go for a walk
Overcoming anxiety freeze response is more about learning to handle your stress and anxiety problems. Finding ways to eliminate them permanently can go a long way in solving your chronic freeze response.
That said, a freeze response is not a bad choice if you can maintain it within limits. In this case, it is better than fight or flight, as they are automatic responses. Freeze response gives your mind enough time to come up with the right reaction.