FIGHT OR FLIGHT are the responses you might commonly link to a stressful or traumatic experience. But they’re not the only ones. Some people react with a freeze response, when they’re paralyzed with fear or their coping mechanisms get overwhelmed.
“When we go into a freeze state, we are in a dorsal vagal (shut down) mode,” she says. “This can look like: playing dead, or what we call the deer in headlights.”
The response usually only lasts about a minute or so.
The freeze response (as well as fight or flight) is the body’s natural response to a threat or potential harm, explains Matthew Tull, Ph.D., a psychology professor and clinical psychologist at The University of Toledo.
“These responses are designed to protect someone when they’re in danger,” he says. “It is the body’s defense mechanism.”
You’re more likely to freeze in instances where escaping or aggressive behavior isn’t possible or the best course of action, Tull adds. “The goal is to keep us safe and to prevent such an event from happening again.”
People experience the freeze response in different ways, and some don’t experience it at all. It depends on the individual and the specific situation. Here’s a look at what the freeze response is, why you might freeze, signs you’re experiencing the response, and what to do in these situations.
What Exactly Is the Freeze Response?
Your body's nervous system includes the somatic nervous system, where your nerves deliver information from your brain to your muscles. “It’s all voluntary,” says Myles McClelland, M.D., an emergency room physician at Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital. “You tell your legs to walk, and they start walking.”
You also have the autonomic nervous system, which is involuntary and subconsciously activated. That’s what keeps your breathing and your heart beating, and performs other functions that keep you alive. Within that is the sympathetic nervous system, which controls your body’s response to stress.
The body has four responses to perceived threats:
Fight, where you take action, believing you can overpower the threat
Flight, where you run away to get away from the threat
Freeze, where you feel stuck and think you can't overpower or get away from the threat
Fawn, where you become appeasing or overly helpful (this one is most common for people in abusive situations)
“This is all involuntary stuff, and it’s really a survival mechanism,” Dr. McClelland says. “If you come in contact with a tiger in the forest, you've got three options. You're not going to win if you fight him, probably not going to outrun him, but if you freeze—if you get small, if you get still, if you blend in with your surroundings—he may walk past you.”
You might be conscious of entering a freeze response (as in the tiger encounter mentioned above), but it can happen unconsciously, too, such as when you’re dealing with an abusive relationship or a boss with no boundaries, Tull says. “In some extreme cases, individuals enter a state of dissociation.”
Why You Might Freeze
A freeze response is a state of hypoarousal, or shutting down. When you have a traumatic or scary encounter, your body releases stress hormones that are designed to protect you and help you adapt to the situation, Tull says.
You’re more likely to freeze in “situations of entrapment,” where you can’t escape and trying to fight off the threat is more dangerous, he adds. There are several reasons you might freeze, research shows:
To hide and stay still to avoid the threat
To take a second to decide how to respond to the threat
To take in your surroundings and get a better sense of the situation
To lessen the blow of the event, often by dissociation
People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often see their freeze response go into overdrive, Tull says. Their alarm system might be more easily activated, which might cause them to detect threats that aren’t really there and display avoidance behaviors.
You can also get stuck in a freeze response, according to LePera. This might happen when you’re in an abusive or dysfunctional relationship, have chronic stress, struggle with poverty, work a demanding job, or have unresolved trauma.
Signs You’re Experiencing the Freeze Response
People often experience a freeze response on a spectrum, Dr. McClelland says. “It happens to different people for different reasons and at different levels of intensity.”
Some common signs of a freeze response include:
Heart rate fluctuations
Feeling on edge or on guard
Deer in the headlights feeling
If you’re in an extended freeze state, you might be more prone to procrastination, lack focus, have brain fog, and feel disconnected. “Long-term hypoarousal can feel almost like a dream state, where you're not actually living, you're just existing,” LePera wrote.
You might also have trouble sleeping or be irritable, Tull says.
Does Everyone Experience the Freeze Response?
Not everyone experiences the freeze response. Fight or flight are more common responses to threatening or dangerous situations, Tull says. A freeze response might be more likely in certain types of situations.
“For example, events characterized by a loss of control may be more likely to lead to a freeze response,” he explains. “Situations where individuals cannot escape or take action to end the event—entrapment—may lead to freezing, as this may be the best that our body can do in that moment to keep us safe.”
How to Cope With the Freeze Response
The freeze response is a natural defense mechanism, McClelland emphasizes. Some ways to cope in the moment are:
Moving to a different location
Getting up and moving
Slowing down your breathing
Avoiding the stressors
Practicing mindfulness can counteract the tunnel vision that’s common in the response, Tull adds. It helps expand your awareness of non-threatening information and of safety cues in your environment.
Beyond these moves, it's worth seeking counseling if you are troubled by the freeze response. “People will freeze up in ways that are unhealthy, and it’s important to unpack and understand why you’re freezing up and ways to work through it,” McClelland says.
Prolonged exposure and cognitive processing therapies, common PTSD treatments, can help “turn down the body’s alarm response and reduce the likelihood of freezing behavior,” Tull says.
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