the freeze response
Dr. Susan LaCombe, June 12, 2015.
Ever catch yourself holding your breath, or spontaneously heaving a deep, long sigh? Read on as I propose an intriguing possibility for why this happens. (The answer is found in our mammalian wiring!)
Many people are aware that as mammals we're wired for fight or flight. This automatic reaction propells us into action during times of danger. However, few are aware that the freeze response is an equally important and related survival mechanism.
If you enjoy nature shows (no, not March of the Penguins!) you've probably already seen the freeze response. You've also seen that a predator will ordinarily ignore prey that is not moving, for fear of contracting disease.
In the last moments of the chase, when there is literally no possibility of "fight or flight", the victim will experience the freeze response. It will feign death by "playing possum".
The freeze response is hard-wired in our reptilian brain. When "fight or flight" is not an option, our autonomic nervous system goes into a freeze response and we become immobilized.
The phrases "scared stiff" or "frozen with fear" reflect this mammalian characteristic. A deer that's "frozen in the headlights" is responding likewise.
What's important to understand.
The freeze response is an automatic, non-conscious reaction that occurs when mammals face an overwhelming threat. This response is a last ditch effort to save itself. In some instances it is the optimal survival tactic.
Where's the 'ol fight - flight' when you need it!
Many who seek counseling for relief from the symptoms of trauma are puzzled when they recall how they froze in the face of inescapable danger. Indeed, they are frequently filled with shame about their reaction to what happened.
Our survival instinct is extremely strong. It is not easily overridden by the neocortex (i.e. our intentional self). In the same way that you cannot tell yourself to have a good night sleep, you cannot tell yourself not to freeze. The body chooses. It's the optimal response at the time.
The Freeze Response
There is a growing awareness by neuroscientists that our evolutionary heritage has a greater impact on the nervous system than was previously thought. These new theories promise exciting new possiblitlies for improved human health and well-being.
This new perspective suggests that "freezing" doesn't refer just to being motionless. It also refers to how the nervous system manages arousal during moments of traumatic stress. It is this type of freezing that causes many of us to develop trauma symptoms long after the danger has passed. In other words we may go into freeze yet not be aware of it.
Let me explain.
During an traumatic event an enormous amount of energy is released by our neuroendocrine system. This enables us to fight or flee. However, fight or flight is not always an optimal strategy in modern life.
For example, if my boss infuriates me I don't really want to punch his lights out (i.e. fight). If my car is about to collide with another there is usually little advantage to jumping out of the car (ie. flight)--even if I had time to do so.
However, if there is sufficient resiliency in your nervous system you will be able to discharge this energy without being traumatized. For many people however this life-threatening experience sets the stage for dysregulation. The energy mobilized by the perceived threat gets "locked" into the nervous system when we go into freeze.
In these situations you may not even realize that you went into freeze, yet several months later you can still be reeling from the effects of an accident. One theory is that the nervous system has not yet discharged the energy that was mobilized for fight or flight.
This freeze response sometimes reveals itself when you breathe. Holding your breath and shallow breathing are both forms of freeze. The occasional deep sigh is the nervous system catching up on it's oxygen intake.
What's even more intriguing is the theoretical possibility of preventing post-traumatic symptoms. It appears that the more the nervous system is dysregulated, the greater is the tendency to move into freeze. (See Runnin Scared below)
I find this exciting because I look forward to a time when keeping our nervous system regulated is as common as dental hygiene.
Equally exciting are the implications for somatic therapy. As our clinical practices1 show, integrating the body into psychotherapy tends to restore resiliency to the nervous system, a key factor in its efficient regulation.
You may find the discussion in the Counseling Psych Cafe helpful as a couple members describe the process of coming out of freeze.
1. I understand that this outcome is more easily identified in body-oriented psychotherapy. Since few clinical trials have been conducted so far, this observation remains outside mainstream psychological practice.
Resiliency may well be a common outcome in other psychotherapies however as I understand it, resiliency is not often tracked. That is, it isn't noticed because therapists aren't looking for it. Body psychotherapists are trained to look for it.
Levine, Peter, A. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.
Porges, Stephen, (1995). Orienting in a defensive world: Mammalian modification of our eveolutionary heritage. A polyvagal theory. Psychophysiology, 32, 301-318.
Stephen Porges' identified two, not one, branch of the parasympathetic nervous system. His discovery of the dorsal vagal (and its relationship to the ventral vagal) has helped us to understand the relationship of the freeze response in the development of PTSD. The polyvagal theory has also been useful in understanding the mind body connection. You can access his classic 1995 article here (you will be taken off site:
Rothschild, Babette, (2000) The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment, London: W. W. Norton & Company.
Scaer, Robert C., "Precarious Present" in Psychotherapy Networker, Nov/Dec 2006.
Scaer, Robert, C., (2005). The Trauma Spectrum, New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Scaer, Robert C., (2001) The Body Bears the Burden, Haworth Press.
Here's a more comprehensive look at the freeze response. These researchers differentiate the initial "stop, look, listen" type of freeze that happens when mammals first encounter danger from the "tonic immobility" or "fright" response that happens when there is no option for fight or flight.
Therapy Lingo Article?
Moving into freeze skydiving
Hi! I am a skydiver who has been away from the sport for over 20 years, and have recently started jumping again. I am experiencing the freeze response right as I'm landing my parachute, and basically hit the ground limply.
I am waiting to jump again until I figure out how to bypass or overcome this response. Any ideas for me?
Oh, I’m glad to hear that you’re waiting until things have sorted themselves out Susan. That’s a wise move. It sounds like parachuting could be quite dangerous for you otherwise.
You’ve already guessed that your body is going limp just before you hit ground because it’s moved into freeze.
As I see it, although mentally you’ve successfully worked through the fear of jumping out of a plane, your body's not convinced it's a good idea.
Freeze is the last survival strategy the nervous system can use when the other two - fight or flight – aren’t available. So the reptilian lizard brain takes it cue and hijacks your conscious control.
In other words, if fight or flight are out of the question…there’s no place to run to and no one to fight, you’ll automatically move into freeze.
What’s important to understand is that you have absolutely no choice in the matter. And until your nervous system is self-regulating again, there’s no guarantee it won’t do the same thing next time.
But there’s more…
…a freeze response can happen whenever you’re maxed and your survival is at stake. Notice that I didn’t say ‘when you’re afraid’. So if you jumped again now you risk going into freeze before you pull your chute open.
You mentioned you used to jump 20 years ago. A lot can happen in the intervening years since you last jumped regularly. It’s possible that back then the excitement of a jump was well within your Zone. (Your ‘Zone’ or capacity to handle stress and excitement is determined by the health of your nervous system.)
One thing that struck me as interesting Susan was the fact that you’ve taken up parachuting again, and much later in life.
This is just conjecture…but when we’re in freeze mode, life seems pretty flat. The senses are muted.
Some folks who are drawn to extreme sports might be attempting to re-experience a feeling of aliveness. Is it possible that’s what you’re searching for?
As a way of explanation, did you know that the nervous system handles excitement and anxiety in much the same way?
The brain is incredibly resourceful. What’s exciting to one person would trigger high anxiety or sheer terror in another. It’s a matter of perspective, which depends on what’s happening in your nervous system much more than you would think.
My instructor used to say that she believes that folks who entertain such dangerous sports are flirting with the edge of their zone in an effort to feel alive.
She says these folks feel "normal" as long as they’re planning the next activity, or on a new adventure. Stop them and they’ll feel the charge bubbling to the surface. That’s when they feel “off” or not themselves.
I was like that, going from high excitement to freeze all the time. I never knew that the need to keep moving, to be doing stuff all the time was just my way of avoiding feeling the constant revving inside me. Looking back I can see that I unconsciously did things that matched what was going on inside me.
Yeah, I think it made me feel normal.
If I’d been immobilized and couldn’t keep moving, I’d have really felt the angst.
I’ve met a few folks in my private practice who come to see me for the very same reason. Owing to an injury, they can no longer neutralize the charge in their body through sports or vigorous activities. Now the energy is backing up and they’re feeling anxious, maybe for the first time in their lives.
The effects of negative experiences can accumulate in the nervous system. If these experiences are outside your Zone (or window of tolerance) and have yet to be processed, they’ll “fill your bucket” (ie nervous system). A “full” bucket always puts you at risk of moving into freeze, or of being traumatized.
You asked what you can do?
I imagine Susan you were looking for a quick and easy solution and I'm afraid I don't have one. I think your best defense against freeze is a healthy self regulating nervous system. And for this I suggest you find a good SRT therapist* and give your nervous system a thorough check up.
If you embark on a therapeutic journey and are eager to progress quickly you might add in activities such as yoga, tai chi, aikido or anything that strengthens your core muscles. These are known to help re-set the nervous system.
Thank-you again for your question.
Best wishes on your journey,
PS. * An SRT therapist is body-based and uses self-regulating techniques.
PPS. I assume you know that I have body based tools. These will help immeasurably whether you go to therapy or take up any of the activities I mentioned.
Moving into freeze after Shamanic Ceremony (Belarus)
Dear Dr. LaCombe, Thank you so much for this insightful article. About 6 months ago I had some shamanic ceremonies in Peru. During the ceremonies I experienced extreme terror, paranoia, anxiety, despair, and isolation due to a perceived threat.
I went into a freeze mode for an extended period of time (probably a couple of hours). I literally tried to flee from my body. I believe that freeze energy is now stuck in my nervous system - I am having difficulty functioning in everyday life.
Could you please suggest some way of discharging it? Thank you in anticipation. Kind regards, Paul
Yes, I would agree Paul...it sounds as if your nervous system is still dealing with the aftermath of that event and remains stuck in freeze mode. Given the description of your experience it sounds as if you were traumatized.
Just so you know Paul, trauma re-sets the brain at a higher level of activation - it means you'll likely be more reactive, less tolerant of stress and emotions, more guarded in your interactions with others and a host of other emotional and physiological symptoms.
It is possible to move out of freeze and I'm glad you're reaching out for some answers. While freeze has several psychological symptoms, it's actually more effective to work through the body to relieve them.
The easist way is to get some touch therapy with a massage therapist who specializes in trauma. Unfortunately, these types of practitioners are quite hard to find although the field is rapidly changing and you could search the TraumaHealing.org site for someone in your area.
I'd also recommend a body-based therapist and I'd choose someone who has a lot of experience working. (You can also find therapists listed at the site above.)
If you were hoping to do this on your own Paul, I think it might be possible however it may take longer and there are no guarantees. It would take several practice sessions gently working with your body, tracking sensations and allowing for instances of discharge.
You could begin by getting the 12-Second Chill eBook that I offer free on the site.
Generally speaking, you'd want to work with your body - not push it hard. For instance, keep your exercise routine in the moderate zone. Don't force yourself to relax (Your body may not be ready). Instead, relax in small bits.
To achieve the release you want, stay attuned to slight variations in the sensations you're tracking.
I'm not sure if you saw the ad above Paul. I have Cheat Sheets on coming out of freeze. You could get more information from them.
I wish you the best,
My mother had a traumatic fall about 4 years ago. Since then she has been "freezing" and falling. It started when there were unexpected noises or movements close to her and it now occurs almost and can occur by just bending over to pick up a piece of paper.
She has seen numerous neurologists and a few psychologists. She did try EMDR and had some success, but was told she couldn't continue it until they discovered the physical reasons she was falling.
After numerous tests the doctors have found NOTHING physically wrong with her. They think that neurotransmitters may be blocked and have put her on some medication to help that along with anxiety meds. They think she may have Stiff Persons Disease, but she tested negative for the antibody.
Do you have any suggestions on next steps for therapy or any other type of help? We could use all the help and suggestions we can get!
Hi there Jodi, it might be that she’s going into freeze (and collapse) owing to the trauma she experienced. The noises are setting her off - when we’ve experienced a trauma we can be extremely sensitive to noise.
if you’re in Colorado then I would contact Robert Scaer M.D. or Dr. Peter Levine. Dr. Levine has been responsible for training hundreds of practitioners in the area of trauma.
You can reach Peter through his organization and they may be able to help you: http://www.traumahealing.org.
Dr. Scaer at: http://www.traumasoma.com/contact.html
Hope this information leads to some help for your mother.
Jane (SYDNEY, Australia)
Hi Suzanne , thanks for your helpful information, I have had some episodes at work where I have frozen in emergency situations , and as a Nurse this has been very frightening for me . I am a very anxious person , and I understand to have less anxiety to begin with is necessary , and I would really like some strategies to bring my brain back in the mean time !
Oh for sure Jane, I definitely can recommend some brain strategies. The priority is to get your nervous system working optimally.
Hi from Portugal, thank you very much for your article. I wonder, can we program our brain to react in freeze responses? for an example, in front of a car usually the person tend to stop instead of run. is it because our instinct is not used to deal with this kind of situation? can we learn to react thru mental exercises?
Well, those are some interesting questions Luís. I might have to ask a colleague or two. But in the meantime, my guess is...yes, we can train ourselves to react differently--but only for specific situations--and for only situations we have had actual experiences with.
If you were prone to going into freeze mode when seeing an oncoming car, you'd have to practice actually facing an oncoming car many times until it became an automatic response to run. You might run into some significant collateral damage in attempting to override this basic survival strategy!
The military uses this type of training all the time. They train soldiers to react in a specific patterned way given certain cues. The soldiers "over learn" certain reactions until they are done without thinking.
That's the nature of procedural memories (or patterns), they're done without thinking. Walking, playing the piano and eating are all done using the procedural memory system. We use procedural memories all the time, we just don't realize we're using them.
But even with a behaviour, like running across a street, if your nervous system becomes tapped out, you will freeze despite your learning. In the military, when a soldier has faced too much trauma for the nervous system to handle, he or she will freeze. (This freeze response used to be called "shell shock". Today, it's called PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.)
However, there's a much easier way to have reactions like James Bond. Lower your level of activation.
This will allow you to have good reaction times. The lower the activation in the nervous system the less prone we are to the freeze response and the more our intentional brain has the space to do what it wants. We will have time to say to ourselves, RUN.
Annie (Washington DC, USA)
I am actually going thru therapy for this. Using Peter Levine\'s CDs and working with therapist too. We do EMDR when anything comes up from the guided imagery. Working great. Maybe someday I will feel totally healed from the sexual abuse. Thanks for posting this. I am sending many to your site to read your article.
Thanks Annie, appreciate your comments. I too have found using the body in psychotherapy helpful--both personally and professionally.