by Peter Goetz, MFT
The clearest objective example of the Freeze response in humans is the deer-caught-in-the headlights look. In it, an individual appears to be unresponsive to their environment, appears to be non-functioning, appears to be, well, frozen. They look like they are in shock. All of this when not engaging, not responding to their interactive environment may be the least adaptational response possible. Freeze is the response-of-last-resort when we’re experiencing overwhelm, danger or imminent threat to our lives. When these conditions are present, common sense tells us to take defensive action, to get the hell out, to take flight, not to stay locked in place, unresponsive to the environment surrounding us. Freeze, on first glance, doesn’t make a lot of sense.
The evolutionary value of Freeze is that survival chances are maximized when conditions we’re facing threaten our most basic safety. Predator/prey interactions show us that predators respond to the movement of prey (think house cats stalking a mouse). When predators see movement or activity, they instinctually respond by pouncing. When the prey is still, motionless, the potential of being pounced upon is lessened and survival chances are enhanced. As mammals, these responses hold true for us. Freeze as an energy conservation tactic enhances survival.
Take for example, a young child living in a home in which their father returns at unpredictable hours often in alcohol fueled rages. The father bellows and stomps, the child is yelled at, targeted for no reason or cause. They may be hit, abused or violently thrown about their room. Over time, the child learns to be vigilant to the movements of their father returning home at night. Certain sounds, the slamming of the door, the particular soundings of footsteps, voices raised (or not) tell them how safe they are. This child learns the particular feel for the potential for danger for that night. Their body-mind system will learn over time that to stay quiet, appearing to be asleep, appearing to be invisible will enhance their being able to make it through, that is, survive that encounter. This is not a thought out or considered practice, it is one borne of immediacy. Vigilance and tracking of another’s behavior tells them that staying still, quiet and small enhances their chances for safety. Basic life support. This is Freeze.
Freeze can be an internal experience or an outwardly observable one or both but in either case it is borne of fear and the felt - or learned - experience that fighting or taking flight is not an option. Freeze is more than stillness with shallow or held breath, it’s a shut down mode wherein action, feeling and thought slow, stop or become distorted. Freeze is actually a state of great psychobiological mobilization combined with immobilization. It’s like having your foot on the gas pedal and brake simultaneously, both feet to the floor. This is the energy of Freeze. This is not to say that an individual in Freeze has conscious awareness of this. Sometimes not being aware of one’s responses is protective, though it sometimes leads to self-recrimination or blame for not doing something.
Brain scans show that Broca’s area, a small limbic structure that mediates speech goes dark, physiologically offline when under extreme stress. The phrase ‘scared silent’ is literally true.
It may appear that a person in Freeze has gone away, has left the building. Eyes may lose their communicative abilities, may seem blank. Contact with others becomes diminished, minimized, but this is all in the service of maximizing survival, of getting through. People caught in Freeze may not respond to spoken interaction; if they don’t, they may not hear what’s being said or dissociated to an extent that it’s not registering. Thinking through one’s options is probably not an option. Stillness may be matched with a tightening of muscles, a felt rigidity. Freeze is most decidedly not about physiological relaxation! As full diaphragmatic breathing promotes parasympathetic deescalation, Freeze is coupled with shallow breathing to the point of it being non-observable. Shallow breathing may be an indicator of a slowed physiological life function.
Paradoxically, the way out of Freeze can be utterly simple. Breathe. If Freeze is the energy conserving response of shutting systems down in the service of survival, then utilizing one’s breath is an energizing action that can reverse a Freeze response. Bringing breath fully into the chest and body will energize and counteract the deadening non-responsiveness of Freeze. This often needs to be done with outside encouragement; an individual in Freeze will have trouble initiating this on their own. A person returning from a state of Freeze may appear deflated, slightly dazed as if they have just gone away and come back. Eyes may move about the room, taking in the world and people around them. Musculature may appear looser, more mobile. Responsiveness returns, slowly, but discernibly. They will appear to be returning to life.
2015, by Peter Goetz
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