What is the Freeze Response?
As someone who has suffered from generalized anxiety disorder my entire life, I became very familiar with the term “fight or flight.” I accepted that my brain viewed what others would call a mundane situation as something that feels life-threatening to me, hence why the fight or flight response occurs.
However, there was one response that I hadn’t heard of growing up—the freeze response—which is another form of hyper-arousal. Your nervous system goes into overdrive and the body starts to panic, just as it does with fight or flight. The difference with this response is that your body may seem to shut down.
As a woman, I have had many situations where I felt I could not move. One moment I remember in particular was being groped at a restaurant by the manager. It was a restaurant I frequented often and enjoyed going to. One day while eating there with a friend I got up to use the restroom which was past the bar. As I walked by I heard a man whistle at me. I stared in the bathroom mirror while washing my hands feeling the knots forming in my stomach. I knew I would have to pass him again and I could feel the panic building inside of me. Just as I feared he was sitting at the bar waiting for me.
“Why don’t I just keep walking? Why did I stop?” I thought to myself while he pulled me to the side, wrapping his arms around me and then grabbing me. While everyone told me I should have slapped him, yelled to make a scene, do anything to deter him, my body quite literally froze and all I could think to do was stay still. I was afraid to not stop when walking by; men haven’t always reacted well to ignoring them or telling them no. I was scared of what would happen if I yelled out, tried to back away, did anything to draw attention to the situation.
For years I felt so much guilt over this. It wasn’t until I was actually watching Law And Order: Special Victims Unit that I heard about the freeze response. It’s just as much about survival as fight or flight is, but it comes with a lot more negative stigma. “Why didn’t I fight back? Why would I just let something happen?” were the damaging questions that would linger in my head, causing me so much embarrassment and shame as well as anger with myself. People in my life didn’t understand.
Understanding the Freeze Response
There are a few reasons someone could have this response. The freeze response is a stress response that can impact those with anxiety disorders, and people dealing with prolonged stress such as a toxic family situation. But what I want to especially focus on is when it happens as a trauma response.
While the freeze response can look like shutting down during a situation your brain deems a threat, it can show itself in other ways in our daily life. The website ptsduk.org lists examples such as “procrastination and inability to make small decisions, endless social media scrolling/binge TV watching, and it is often confused/misdiagnosed with depression.”
So if you constantly feel guilty about needing to be distracted, or having trouble every night even deciding what to make for dinner, you may want to look deeper into trauma and the freeze response and realize this is not you being lazy as others may feel inclined to comment on. This is very real and it is also not your fault.
Working Through the Freeze Response
Many people, myself included, have suffered from feeling shameful for experiencing this. I have even had others blame me for my experience because I did not go into fight mode. It was freeing for me to learn that it is so much more common than we think.
In sexual assault survivors specifically, between fifty to ninety percent of survivors respond by freezing. Your body reacted the way it felt it should so that you could survive. You are a survivor, and you should feel empowered and proud of whatever way you were able to get through a terrible situation!
If you are struggling with being stuck in the freeze response, there are ways to work through it along with regulating your nervous system.
- My number one recommendation will always be to see a therapist who specializes in trauma specifically. They are the ones equipped with the tools to help you. It is always okay to shop around with therapists and find one that makes you feel comfortable.
- Mindful breathing, meditation, and exercise are all ways to self-regulate. Dialectic behavior therapy can also teach you skills to help with regulating your nervous system, along with dealing with shame. I am a big fan of using the opposite action approach in regard to shame or guilt.
- The last bit of advice I have to give, which I think is the hardest and most important, is to be gentle with yourself. You are not broken or wrong, you are a wonderful human who has to deal with something very hard and heavy. Surround yourself with people who offer you the kindness and love you deserve.
Read stories of other survivors at https://yourdream.liveyourdream.org. It is full of kind women supporting other women.
Most of all be proud of yourself, and know that I’m proud of you.
Taylor Garner is an aspiring writer based in Ohio. She is passionate about helping women find themselves again after abusive relationships and traumatic events such as sexual assault.