A lot of us describe getting “stuck” in a Freeze state following a triggering event or new trauma in our lives. I think most of us have heard plenty about Fight/Flight responses in regard to Trauma and PTSD. However, Freeze and Fawn responses are relatively new in our mental health vernacular.
What is this “Freeze” we speak of? You probably know, but possibly haven’t had the words or physiology education to really understand it before. I decided to do some research on the sensation of being frozen in time, brains, and our own bodies. Let’s talk about the cause of this survival strategy, the physiology of Freezing, the impacts on our lives, and a piece of research on the frequency and duration of learned Freeze responses using traumatized rat models.
What is “Freezing?”
In the short term, acute, sense, Freeze defenses occur when we’re presented with a threat to our health or safety, just like our other Fight and Flight responses. However, instead of creating action potential to fend off our attacker or escape from the dangerous situation, the brain and body go into a maladaptive shutdown. A temporary or pervasive inhibition of acting, mentally or physically.
I read in one piece of literature that Freeze states are known to be a more passive form of avoidance, created by threats that need not be approached. Uhh… I don’t agree with this assessment.
When I did more digging, I found detailed information that sounds far more accurate in regards to my own Freeze experiences. This shit isn’t a passive response because I’m not overly concerned about my safety and just “waiting it out.” I feel like it’s the exact opposite. I freeze when I’m in threat overload; when there’s no chance I can take down my opponent.
The better explanation I found from Dr. Leon Seltzer states that when the dangerous force is assessed as being too powerful to control or overcome, when there’s no point in fighting or fleeing, the only solution left is to freeze. The sufferer is overwhelmed – there’s no way to process or integrate the flood of information and stimulation flooding the brain - and falls into a self-paralysis as a last-ditch measure to be unseen.
Think of the scene in Jurassic park when they’re being chased by that T-Rex for the first time. “Don’t move and she can’t see you.” Freeze, motherfucker.
In more practical examples in real life, people describe freezing in major disasters and accidents; seeing a tidal wave quickly approaching, experiencing the seconds before a car wreck, watching an armed gunman take aim in a public place.
Can’t run, can’t hide, just wait it out and hope for the event to pass.
These paralyzing events are a function of your survival system, as usual. Your brain attempts to dissociate from the event to such a degree that you become physically impaired.
Physiologically speaking, as endorphins pump through your body, they serve to numb your sensations like an analgesic. It’s another mechanism of your brain protecting you from danger to your physical being and mental fortitude. Just shut off the physical discomfort, disable the instinct to run, and shut off the extraneous functions of the brain until this event is over.
Trigger happy Freeze responses
I think this Freeze response makes plenty of sense when we’re talking about natural disasters and periods of violent aggression. The problem is, as Complex Trauma sufferers, our defense responses are a bit trigger happy.
We’ve learned to be on the lookout for danger at every turn. Our survival pathways are highly trafficked, and our brain’s most primitive fear response compartments (often referred to as our “lizard brains”) have been over-developed thanks to all that extra activity.
This means, for trauma sufferers, this Freeze defense response seems to be amplified beyond the scope of imminent physical harm. Even personal relationship challenges, normal daily stresses, and triggering dreams can illicit a Freeze response. i.e. when confronted with a belligerent partner or an accusatory co-worker, experiencing a mentally “blank” sensation and temporary physical immobility.
This response can be infuriating to the other party, who neglects to understand why the traumatized individual has suddenly fallen deaf and mute. At the same time, the Freeze defense mechanism is baffling and involuntary to the trauma sufferer, themselves. I’m sure we’ve all been in these shoes before; suddenly tongue-tied, unable to form new thoughts, shocked into physical immobility, a deer in the headlights.
When you can’t thaw
This bigger problem is, sometimes our Freeze responses don’t instantaneously come and go. Even after the interpreted threat has passed, the Freeze remains. Rather than having a few seconds of waiting with bated breath, we can be left breathless for hours, days, or more. Sometimes this Freeze response seems to “latch on” and become a lasting source of personal malfunction.
These prolonged freeze states include a multi-dysfunctional breakdown ranging from physical to mental symptoms – with many people describing feeling “blank,” “disconnected,” and “trapped” in their brains and bodies. Some may describe an experience of staring off at a wall or ceiling, void of thought or physical presence. Unable to formulate new thoughts or integrate the information they’ve already been presented. Some may even experience physical catatonia, the pro-longed inability to voluntarily move (catatonic states).
These lasting Freeze responses are closely related to clinical depression, and often will go hand in hand with agoraphobic behaviors, along with other maladaptive avoidant behaviors.
For trauma sufferers, perceived threats can present as panic attacks, obsessive behaviors, and phobias, which fall into the category of paralyzing responses. Obviously, these significant Freeze responses aren’t rapidly transient; they can become lifelong disorders for the individual.
All of this is to say, Motherfuckers talk a lot about being triggered and falling into a relatively long-term Freeze state. Rather than having a momentary response to the stimulus, they are catapulted into days, weeks, or months of Freeze behaviors. This generally includes long periods of isolating or “falling off the grid,” cancelling social plans, neglecting life obligations, feeling chronically exhausted, having a sensation of being dizzy/off-balance, falling ill, finding normal tasks impossible, and dissociating entirely from their surroundings.
Over extremely extended periods of time – lasting months or years – this is something I often have described as “life stagnancy.” In general, I’m referring to the deeply depressed states we experience during which we suffer from mental overwhelm, physical dissociation, and an inability to see things with realistic “big picture” thinking. Rather, we are trapped in anxious spirals when we’re able to form any thoughts at all. During this experience, we often let our aspirations, personal living standards, and relationships fall by the wayside as all aspects of life deteriorate. Our brains are effectively “out fishing” on the Anxiety Coasts.
In my life, I’ve experienced this Deep Freeze in response to domestic conflict, employment drama, and relationship dissolutions more times than I could begin to estimate. These triggering events essentially seem to blow a fuse in my brain’s electrical box, creating a defensive and shut-down response. My mind is a void of white space. My body is aflutter with anxiety, but unable to send electrical currents to appropriate muscles. The connection between my brain and my mouth are severed.
Immediately, I only crave one thing; alone time in silence. In the longer term, I desire isolation void of any obligation, and comforting coping mechanisms, such as piles of snacks. Let me lay here until I die, I can’t handle another thing without exploding. These are the times when I’ve given up on my career and educational aspirations, when I’ve neglected all my important relationships without explanation, and when my body has slipped several notches towards muscle wasting and stress-characterized weight gain around my gut.
Sound familiar? Sorry, Fucker.
Just when you thought Fight/Flight were disturbing enough, now you’re finding out that it’s also possible to effectively fall into a tar pit and wait for the sweet relief of death as your brain tells you escape is futile. Fucking great.
Research; Journal club
What does science have to say about this Freeze behavior? Is it “real” or are we just depressive snowflakes trying to make excuses for our broken bootstraps?
To get to the research… I read an article this morning about testing the relationship between Complex Trauma and Conditioned Fear in later Freeze responses in rats.
Briefly, researchers attempted to recreate the conditions of Complex Trauma by exposing infantile rats to 3 different relational and environmental stresses at various points during their development. As we know, Complex Trauma necessitates a variety of traumatic events throughout development – so these folks recreated rat ACEs through removing them from their mothers, isolating them from their litter mates, and subjecting them to foot electroshock at several points in their young lives.
Conversely, they exposed another group of rats to only one form of stress at a single point in development – the foot electroshock experiment during their adolescent phase of life.
Lastly, there was a control group of rodents who escaped all forms of laboratory stress. Lucky little turds.
After creating these “traumatic” brain patterns in rats, they tested the rodents for maladaptive Freeze responses and distress cries, known as Ultrasonic Vocalizations, when placed in a dangerous environment – the electroshock chamber. This served to assess the rat’s potential for fear responses as a function of prior traumatic experiences.
As you can imagine, the two groups of rats who underwent both “Complex Trauma Treatment” and Fear Conditioning responded with strongly heightened Freeze responses and fearful vocalizations, in comparison to the control group of rats who had never experienced the electroshock. The number of Freeze responses wasn’t significant between the two groups of Fear Conditioned rats. However, the duration of the Freeze response was statistically significant. The rats who received Complex Trauma Treatment exhibited a prolonged Freeze response to the perceived threat.
What does this rat model mean for human beings? This study demonstrates that the rats who experienced an early life consistent with Complex Trauma were NOT more likely to demonstrate a Freeze response than the Acutely Traumatized group under the same conditions. However, they were more likely to experience an EXTENDED Freeze response.
Researchers note that this heightened Learned Fear response, characterized by Freezing behaviors, is an inappropriate coping strategy that subjects the individual to inherent risk of physical harm. It increases the chance for additional harm to befall the victim. i.e. If you Freeze at an inappropriate time due to your trigger-happy Fear Response, you are more likely to be impacted by an avoidable danger.
Further research is definitely required to make heads and tails of the implications of this research – admittedly, the researchers state several shortcomings of the research, including using a strictly-male participant pool and the necessity for hormonal assays to detect cortisol.
Conclusions; Long-term Freeze responses, Shame, and Learned Helplessness
Shortcomings aside, for me this study helps paint a functional picture for Complex Trauma versus PTSD sufferers. For those of us who have felt impaired or handicapped by our brain and body responses during overwhelming or fearful times, I believe this paper lends a hand in explaining the dissociative, catatonic, and depressive states that overturn our regular lives.
Feeling incapable of creating rational thoughts, making behavioral changes, or changing our circumstances spirals into one of the key components of Complex Trauma – Learned Helplessness. When life is interpreted as being too overwhelming and powerful to make any changes – or, when there is no point in Fighting or Fleeing - we fall headfirst into forfeit.
In practical terms, if you Freeze in an acute domestic abuse scenario, you are more likely to be physically harmed by the threat. Long-term, if the Freeze response is implemented over years, rather than escaping from the domestic danger, the victim will not remove themselves from the situation. They will embody what we call Learned Helplessness; feeling incapable of helping themselves.
Furthermore, these perceived personal shortcomings which are a function of Deep Freeze states can also become a major source of Shame, another hallmark of Complex Trauma.
With the addition of Shame to our fearful Freeze responses, we are all the more likely to isolate ourselves and cut off our personal relationships. We’re unlikely to reach out for help, as admission of Shame is seen as an even greater source of Shame, since it potentially invites the opportunity for interpersonal rejection.
In this way, Freeze states deeply complicate the potential for Trauma Disclosure or Recovery efforts. It’s hard to see a therapist when you’re too mentally overwhelmed to open a phonebook, too terrified to physically leave the house, and too ashamed to tell anyone what you’re going through.
You already know, Complex Trauma is a multi-dimensional disorder that requires a great deal of additional research. Fully elucidating the long-lasting effects of Childhood Trauma in strongly correlational mental and physical responses is challenging for researchers, psychology professionals, and Motherfuckers, alike.
Reading scientific articles about animal behaviorism doesn’t always form a complete picture when the effects of pervasive Trauma have such breadth and depth in a human lifetime, but for what it’s worth, I believe it helps to see statistical laboratory results that confirm what we’ve already lived through. At least it removes a tiny portion of the Shame we experience as we endure our own acute and chronic Freezes.
A big thank you to the researchers and the rats behind this paper. Poor little buddies and their electrocuted feet deserve a shoutout.
The paper: “Maladaptive Alterations of Defensive Response Following Developmental Complex Stress in Rats.” (No, I’m still not messing with proper citations. Google it and deal.) If you’d like a copy of the paper for yourself, I got it. Hit me up.
What are your tips for escaping Freeze states? What are your common Freeze Triggers? How does it present in your life, short and long term? Get ahold of me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear more from you… if you’re not too frigid.