Imagine your boss or colleague says something insulting or demeaning to you, you don’t reply because, for that moment, you have zoned out. It might only be for a split second. You look like a dear stuck in headlights. Eventually, you look away nonchalantly, even smile like it did not bother you. But it did. Later on you feel angry, mainly at yourself. You feel ashamed for not saying anything. You have had a freeze trauma response.
The freeze response can be dramatic or subtle as described in the above scenario.
In this article I will explain what the freeze response is, the signs to look for and how to overcome it.
What is the Freeze Trauma Response?
The freeze response is one of the four possible reactions to a perceived threat, along with fight, flight and fawn, know as the 4F’s. It is a survival mechanism that helps us cope with overwhelming danger by shutting down our body and mind.
It can be triggered by physical, emotional or psychological trauma. Such as abuse, violence, accidents or natural disasters.
Although it is a natural stress response, the freeze trauma response can also become a chronic problem that interferes with our daily functioning and well-being.
It can make you feel paralyzed by fear and anxiety, you can feel like you can’t move, speak or think clearly in a stressful situation.
11 Signs You Have a Freeze Trauma Response
When you have a chronic freeze trauma response that shows up in all and unexpected areas of your life, you will develop certain habits and behaviours. The behaviours help you dissociate from feeling shame (lack of self worth) in everyday situations.
People who have freeze as their main trauma response will often exhibit the following…
1. You feel numb, empty or detached from your body and emotions.
2. You have difficulty expressing yourself verbally or non-verbally.
3. You tend to isolate yourself from others or avoid social situations.
4. You have a toxic inner critic, among the other negative things, it tells you anything less than perfection won’t do. And will attack you viciously for the slightest imperfection.
5. You often feel helpless, hopeless or powerless.
6. You have low self-esteem or self-worth.
7. You experience emotional flashbacks.
8. You have difficulty trusting others or forming attachments. You believe people are dangerous.
9. You struggle with anxiety, depression or other mental health issues.
10. You cope with stress by using substances or by binge watching shows and browsing online.
11. You tend to oversleep and get lost in daydreaming.
Steps You can Take to Heal From the Freeze Trauma Response
If you struggle with the freeze response, you are not alone. There are ways to overcome this condition and reclaim your life.
1. Learn About the Freeze Response and How it Affects You.
The first step to overcoming the freeze response is to understand what it is and why it happens. The freeze trauma response is a natural and normal reaction to a life-threatening situation. It is not a sign of weakness or cowardice.
It is your body’s way of protecting you from harm by conserving energy and reducing pain.
However, when the freeze response is triggered by non-life-threatening situations or persists after the danger is over, it has become maladaptive and harmful.
It impairs your ability to think clearly, communicate effectively, make decisions, take action, and feel emotions. It can also cause physical symptoms such as numbness.
2. Seek Professional Help
The freeze response can be a symptom of a serious mental health condition that requires treatment.
If you experience frequent or severe episodes of freezing that interfere with your daily life or cause you significant distress, you should consult a qualified therapist who specializes in trauma recovery.
A therapist can help you identify the root causes of your freeze trauma response, provide you with coping skills and strategies to manage it.
The therapist will also guide you through the process of healing from your trauma.
Because people who have the freeze response fear and distrust people, sitting with a therapist is hugely beneficial because it gives you comfort that there are good people. Especially valuable if you have few people in your life that you feel yourself around and comfortable with.
Some of the evidence-based therapies that can help with the freeze response include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), somatic experiencing (SE) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).
3. Practice Grounding Techniques.
Grounding techniques are simple exercises that help you reconnect with your body and the present moment when you feel frozen or dissociated.
They can help you break out of the freeze response by activating your senses and stimulating your nervous system. Some examples of grounding techniques are:
Breathing deeply and slowly
Focusing on an object in your environment
Naming five things you can see, hear, smell, touch and taste
Moving your body in any way that feels comfortable
Squeezing a stress ball or a soft toy
Listening to soothing music or sounds
Repeating a positive affirmation or mantra
Hugging yourself or someone else
Gently splashing cold water on your face or hands
4. Develop a Safety Plan for Future Situations.
The freeze response can be triggered by anything that reminds you of your past trauma or makes you feel unsafe or threatened. Most of the time you wont know what triggered it until afterwards, sometimes not even then. This is why prevention is important.
To prevent or reduce the likelihood of freezing in the future, you can create a safety plan that outlines what you will do if you encounter a triggering situation and how to be in an internal place where your are more robust so as not to be triggered in the first place. A safety plan can include:
Identifying your triggers and warning signs
Having a self-care routine to relax and recharge. Something like yoga will benefit you.
Make sure your sleep, diet and exercise routine are serving you.
Improve your emotional intelligence. This will help you understand yourself and others better.
5. Work on Building Your Self-Esteem and Resilience.
The freeze response can erode your sense of self-worth and confidence. It can make you feel powerless and ashamed. To overcome these negative feelings and beliefs, you need to work on building your self-esteem and resilience.
Self-esteem is how you value and respect yourself as a person. Resilience is how you bounce back from adversity and cope with challenges.
You can boost both these by:
Recognizing your strengths and achievements
Challenging your negative thoughts and life scripts.
Practicing gratitude and optimism
Setting realistic and attainable goals
Celebrating your progress and successes
Seeking feedback and support from people you respect and are positive.
Learning from your mistakes and failures. See them as opportunities for growth not condemnation.
Take care of your physical and mental health by eating a good diet, getting enough sleep and avoiding toxic people, videos, shows or movies.
6. Understand and Reduce the Inner Critic
The above steps will help you with reducing the inner critic. However, you have to address it directly and understand it, to be free of it. We assume the negative voice is ours, it’s not. I will write more about this in a future post.
7. Understand and Heal Emotional flashbacks
All the steps benefit each other. however, like the inner critic, you have to understand and deal with emotional flashbacks directly. Click on the link to learn about emotional flashbacks and how to heal them.
Origin of the Freeze Trauma Response
People who suffer from complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), anxiety disorders or depression may experience frequent or prolonged episodes of freezing that make them feel helpless and disconnected from reality.
The chronic freeze response is often due to childhood trauma. The child was neglected, abused or not seen as an individual but as an extension of the parents. As a result the child develops complex ptsd.
The various human freeze responses are natural. Like other animals we have this response when we might be in danger. We freeze to make ourselves less of a target and to take in and evaluate the perceived danger.
So it is a useful initial response. However if we stay stuck there it is no longer serving it’s purpose.
The freeze response is one of the four trauma responses, the others are the Fawn, fight and flight response.
It is a useful response when we think we are in danger, however it becomes chronic in trauma survivors who have suffered childhood abuse or people who have to deal with chronic stress.
If you have experienced trauma and suffer from a pathological freeze response (or any of the other three trauma responses) there are number of things you can do as explained in this article.
The freeze response to trauma is not something that you have to live with forever. You can overcome it with the right knowledge, help and tools.
Heal from your trauma and reclaim your life. You are not a victim, you are a survivor. You are not frozen, you are free.