Do you feel like crawling under the covers and ‘playing possum’ these days? You’re not the only one – The Freeze Response has crept up on many. By Tess de Klerk
Not as well known as the fight or flight responses, the freeze response is becoming more common and ingrained in society (especially in younger people) due to the perceived lack of control we have over everyday events. Think Covid rules coming and going without our slightest input, as one example. A feeling of power-lessness induces freezing; fight or flight both require immediate energy and power whereas freezing comes from a feeling of helplessness and fear which leaves the person unable to tap into the biological systems designed to assist them in either fighting or fleeing.
Clearly freezing in response to a threat might seem effective in nature as seen with possums “playing dead” in the face of danger but in humans freezing manifests as an inability to communicate, react, or take any action of self-preservation or defence.
Most people would have exper-ienced a degree of freezing in times of extreme shock and the benefits of this reaction lie in slowing down and ‘preserving’ but if this reaction becomes the go-to stress response then the brain is being programmed to decide that it cannot take on a threat nor escape from a threat. Of course, in our modern lives we rarely face real threats that can lead to imminent death as an animal does when being hunted by prey. No, our threats are much more subtle and are mostly presenting as problems and challenges for which we need to find solutions
– not freeze and disassociate and perhaps end up binge-watching instead of resolving our problems.
• Restricted breathing or holding the breath
• Feeling tense and stuck in some part of the body, commonly in the solar plexus region
• Mind becomes muddled or blank
• Inability to make decisions
• Feeling cold/frozen, numb
• Sense of stiffness and heaviness, sometimes limpness (the ‘flop’ response)
• Feeling of fatigue washing over body and mind
• Disassociating from problems by ignoring them, for example by binge-watching
• Disassociating from emotions
Interestingly, reports from psychologists are suggesting that many people who would previously routinely have reacted by either fight or flight in the face of challenges are now finding themselves freezing, avoiding and dissociating. Can-do believes have lost hope and become can’t-do believes which gnaw away at people’s self-esteem. It was widely accepted that our automatic stress responses are formed in childhood and that childhood trauma or PTSD at any time in life is the most obvious precursor for the freeze response but now it seems that prolonged periods of feelings of powerlessness are inducing this response too.
Whatever the reason, regularly reacting to stress with the freeze response risks programming the brain over time to become less and less resilient in dealing with stress. Unfortunately we can’t just ‘decide’ to stop it – it is an automatic response from the nervous system - but we can build resilience in many ways such as:
Self care in all its forms
• Talking with a therapist or trusted loved one. Having a soundboard helps to put things into perspective.
• Slowing breathing: The stress response causes fast, shallow breathing. People can slow this down with breathing techniques. For example, diaphragmatic breathing can lead to a quieting or reversal of the stress response.
• Verbal self-affirmations such as “you are safe”
• Practising mindfulness. The RAIN process in particular is very effective in dealing with overwhelming emotions.
A ALLOW & ACCEPT
This fantastic mindfulness technique Buddhist tradition, and modified by Tara Brach, focuses on radical acceptance and compassion. It can be practised as a meditation or simply during a few minutes of awareness.
R stands for RECOGNISE
Take a moment to recognize that strong emotion is present. Recognise and name whatever feeling is predominant at that moment, for example, “I feel overwhelmed”. These emotions should be treated without judgement as good or bad, providing you with the realisation “oh, so that’s what I am feeling.” Often enough, this step alone can provide some relief in the form of knowing exactly what’s going on in your own mind.
A stands for ALLOW and ACCEPT
Allowing means to ‘let it be as it is.’ It is the acknowledgement and acceptance of your present moment reality. Allowing doesn’t mean that we have to like the situation but it does mean that we fully accept the difficult emotions instead of suppressing them. The reason this is so important is because we often have the unconscious impulse to push away, suppress or ignore difficult emotions which can lead to inner struggles which in turn create more suffering and tension. Allow and accept your emotions without judgement and criticism – it is okay to just let it be.
I stands for INVESTIGATE
Now that you have recognized and allowed this emotion you can choose to investigate it. You may not always feel you need the “I” step as sometimes just the recognition and acceptance is enough. At other times you may feel naturally drawn to investigate.
Approach your thoughts with an attitude of curiosity and compassion by mentally enquiring with questions such as “Why do I feel the way I do?” “Are there events that happened ahead of the emotion that might have influenced it?” “Are there physiological factors (such as not getting enough sleep) that are affecting the emotion?” The single most valuable question is to ask the part of you that feels most vulnerable: “What do I really need right now?” Is it love? Acceptance? Forgiveness? Feeling accompanied? Feeling embraced? Feeling safe? These questions can help us come into wiser relationships with our emotions and thoughts.
N stands for NURTURE
This step is all about learning to be kind to yourself and offering yourself what is needed. Offering yourself what you recognised you need during the last step. It might be acceptance, forgiveness generosity or sympathy. It is not self-pity; rather, it is a recognition and acceptance of your humanness, your imperfection, and your suffering. It is empathising with yourself the way you might with your best friend. You might say “It is okay to feel overwhelmed, you’re only human and you have a lot on your plate”. Or, you can imagine that affirmation coming from someone else — a loved one, a spiritual figure. The source doesn’t matter as long as it’s nurturing.
In her book, Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach puts it this way: “Instead of resisting our feelings of fear or grief, we embrace our pain with the kindness of a mother holding her child.”
"We each have the conditioning to live for long stretches of time imprisoned by a sense of deficiency, cut off from realising our intrinsic intelligence, aliveness, and love. The greatest blessing we can give ourselves is to recognise the pain of this trance, and regularly offer a cleansing rain of self-compassion to our awakening hearts."