My previous blog looked at how the nervous system states of fight, flight and freeze are involved in how we feel from moment to moment – including strong emotions like anxiety, fear, panic and anger, OCD and phobias, even trauma and PTSD. This blog will focus especially on the freeze response – the one that people generally know little about.
Freeze in the nervous system happens when the sympathetic “flight” energy has nowhere to go, and at the same time, the parasympathetic system activates with the instinct to immobilise. “Freeze” looks a lot like “shut down” mode — but with the fast heart rate and muscle tension of the sympathetic state. It puts a massive strain on our systems – and is a bit like someone driving a car and slamming their feet on the brake and accelerator pedals at the same time.
Freeze in the animal kingdom
Animals also have the three states of fight, flight and freeze and indeed it is from the animal kingdom originally that we have so much knowledge about this subject today. Peter Levine in his excellent book Waking the Tiger talks about the impala and the lion. One of the ways that the impala copes if it gets caught by a lion is by playing dead and disconnecting from its body. This is a coping strategy so that if it starts to be attacked by the lion, it doesn’t have to physically feel the pain.
We might see the same response in a mouse cornered by a predatory cat – the mouse is too small to fight, running is a risky option, but freezing can cause the cat to lose interest and turn away giving the mouse a window of opportunity to make a run for it.
The freeze response in babies and children
A baby responds to the safe feelings of closeness with their parent or caregiver. Likewise, a baby will respond to cues that are perceived as scary or dangerous, like a stranger, a scary noise, or a lack of response from their caregiver.
A small child’s ability to protect him or herself against threats is extremely limited. And the range of situations that the child might perceive as a threat is wide. Just an angry look from a caregiver, for example, can make him or her feel uncared for, unloved, and abandoned, and can trigger the freeze response. The child cannot run away or stand up and fight when he or she feels threatened – that would be too dangerous. This is why the freeze response occurs far more commonly in children than in adults. It’s been suggested that freezing or dissociating in the midst of a traumatic experience is the foremost predictor for developing PTSD symptoms later on. Young children are particularly disposed to dissociate during episodes of trauma. So, for instance, a child who “froze” during incidents of frightening family abuse is, as an adult, especially susceptible to experience the freezing reaction again.
The freeze response in adults
As adults, even though we may well have much more control over external threats, especially threats coming from other people, but we may still go back into that same freeze response we did as a child – the freeze response that never had the chance to “let go” or “thaw out” once the original experience was over.
The freeze response and anxiety
There is a strong link between anxiety behaviours in adults, such as phobias, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive behaviours with the freeze response from a trauma suffered years beforehand. Never fully “discharged,” the original fear or panic linked to that memory compels us to react to the current-day trigger as though what happened in the past is happening all over again. And so our original reaction of self-paralysis or freeze can’t help but repeat itself. Our mind goes completely blank, we simply zone out.
What was once a survival mechanism, can be at the very least, annoying and embarrassing as an adult, but can even be life-threatening. The intense fear we feel while in that freeze response, shuts off our rational brain. And it may take very little to trigger the response – it may simply emanate from being in a state of highly exacerbated stress, which itself serves as an unconscious reminder of the acute stress linked to the initial trauma.
My next blog looks at dissociation in more depth.
Need some advice and support?
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