You might already be familiar with how our nervous systems respond to threats – with the fight, flight and freeze automatic responses. This post delves a bit more into the freeze response and how we can spot it, and how we can work through it.
When might we freeze?
The main responses that we have to threats are:
Fight – this works well if the threat is bearable and we think we can beat it
Flight – this works when you’re faster than the threat and you’re at an advantage to escape
Freeze – this is an automatic response when the threat is too large or overwhelming
Firstly, notice that the freeze response is automatic. It’s what our bodies do, and it is not in your control to do otherwise in the moment of threat.
How does the freeze response show up?
Our anciently evolved brain doesn’t do very well with dealing with modern threats as they are quite different to ‘fighting a tiger’ or the kind of primal threats that our brain evolved to defend.
So, where in the past freeze might have more commonly looked like being ‘scared stiff’ and staying still with fear in a battle situation, in the more modern world it can be a bit more subtle. For example:
- Dreading an exam so avoiding doing homework
- Feeling numb or detached to separate us from the intensity of our feelings
- People-pleasing behaviours to appease those who threaten us
- Unable to feel joy
- A sense of stiffness or heaviness, muscles feeling locked up
- Not speaking up when you feel strongly about something
When we remember traumatic events the feeling of being paralysed can return. A person might be saying they are angry at an event that took place, yet they might be very still and frozen when they are saying it. As if the body is saying ‘I’m still powerless’.
Here are some ways that we can work through the freeze response and find ways to prevent it:
Re-engage the body
Memories are stored in our bodies as much as in our minds. In fact, our body can’t tell the difference between real danger and imagined danger (thoughts of danger). So it turns on the same freeze response. However, whilst the body is in freeze, it can’t process information and our thinking brain is turned off.
You can’t think your way out of a freeze response – you need to go in via the body.
Moving the body convinces the body that you are safe. This is why a counsellor might suggest in a session to stamp your feet, cross your arms and tap your shoulders rhythmically, invite you to shake off a feeling, get up and have a dance or anything that gets your body moving. The brain then comes back online and you can talk about how to combat the overwhelming feelings and find practical steps to help manage behaviours.
Indeed, exercise in general takes the body through the natural cycle of activation. It practices how the nervous system responds in a healthy way, and acts as a natural anti-depressant.
Identify your triggers and your body’s response
Pay attention to your body’s cues. Don’t run from them, sit with them and move through them. Get good at noticing what’s going on in your body when you are freezing. Then you can take some proactive grounding steps.
Practice how you’d like to respond
For example, if you have a tendency to freeze in a work meeting situation and don’t speak up for yourself, practice beforehand what you want to say. Or if you find yourself saying yes to all sorts of things that you don’t want to do (people-pleasing) practice saying ‘no’.
Martial arts of self defense training works by repetition, so that if you are suddenly attacked you have a new automated response that you have trained and practiced for.
Using training and practice, it will then be much easier to draw upon the ways you’d like to respond when you need it in the moment.
Mindful exercises can be used throughout the day to keep the nervous system in a balanced state. This makes us less prone to going into freeze responses in the first place. Here is a link to some easy grounding exercises.
Remember that if we can imagine danger and have a. freeze response to that, we can also imagine calm and it will turn on a calming response within us. You might want to develop an internal safe place and then bring this to mind when you are feeling nervous. Or keep in mind a time when things went well.
Change your rules around anxiety
If you have the rule, that says ‘its not OK to feel anxious’ then when you start to feel anxious you will be more prone to locking up and freezing. However, if you develop a rule that says ‘I can feel anxiety and still be OK’ then you’ll have a more flexible mindset and you’re not going to make yourself feel worse when you feel anxious.
Freezing up is a natural and automatic response to a perceived threat. However, there are ways to work through our freeze responses using a ‘body up’ approach and there are ways to try to prevent an overactive freeze response such as practicing responses, grounding techniques and developing more flexible thoughts around anxiety.