Updated: Jun 30, 2022
Fight, flight, and… Freeze! Most people have heard of the fight/flight response. Namely, that when faced with danger, our body will respond by activating a fight response to engage and overcome the threat, or a flight response to try and escape the threat. What many people haven’t heard about is that there is a third safety seeking response: the freeze response.
Freeze is what our system does when it senses that the fight/flight response won’t work. If I can’t fight back or run away, I’ll play dead. That way, at the very least, my enemy will most likely loosen up because he’ll perceive that the struggle is already over. Alternatively, when I freeze, I dissociate from the pain I may be entering. Freeze is an amazing safety seeking adaptation that’s programmed into our bodies to provide us as much safety as possible when there is very little of it available.
But freeze can also cause us a variety of challenges. People often freeze when they’re faced with challenging information or emotions. In particular, shame. And people often freeze in important relational moments. Stonewalling, which is when a person disengages relationally and shrinks into themselves, is sometimes a form of freezing and a common struggle in many relationships.
The freeze state can occur in extreme situations, like near death incidents, and it can occur in more subtle ways in smaller-scale situations like an argument. Here are some of the common characteristics of the freeze state:
· The body might become rigid or limp (as a way to ensure a lack of movement)
· Ruminating thoughts (as physical sensations decrease, mental activity may increase)
· Decreased heart rate
· Feeling heavy, cold, or numb
· Pale skin
· In more extreme freeze states, people have the experience of feeling as though they are watching their own bodies and experiences from the outside.
How can we help ourselves and others move through the freeze state back into regulation? There are a number of elements to this but first and foremost is awareness and knowledge. This itself is half the battle. If you know the signs and symptoms that indicate that you might be experiencing a freeze response, noticing and naming it to yourself can already thaw a large chunk of the ice.
So, to start, I’ll give you two things to explore:
1) What situations, comments, feelings, people, or places, trigger your freeze response? Most of us have patterns and recurring triggers. Can you identify yours?
2) Can you identify the features of your freeze state? What are the signs and symptoms that tell you you’ve entered a freeze response?
In future posts, we’ll explore this further. For now, knowledge is power. I hope this helps you find yours.