Most people are familiar with the term “fight-or-flight.” The phrase, which was coined back in the 1920s, is used to describe emotional reactions which are stress-based. They are the mind and body’s way of responding to fear, perceived threats, and events. “The idea of ‘fight-or-flight’ is pretty much what it says,” an article on the Harley Therapy Counseling Blog explains. “If we are faced with danger, we run away, or stay and fight.”
But did you know there is a third (less common) response. It’s true. While most of us fall somewhere on the “fight-or-flight” spectrum, some individuals — like myself — freeze. You zone out, tune out, and numb out. I don’t know what to say, do, or how to act.
Here’s everything we know about the freeze response, and how you can deal with it.
What is the freeze response?
According to Healthline, “freezing is fight-or-flight on hold, where you further prepare to protect yourself. It’s also called reactive immobility or attentive immobility. It involves similar physiological changes, but instead [of running or fighting], you stay completely still.” Your mind and body enter a state of hyper-vigilance, one which may cause your heart to race and/or skin to sweat. You are on edge but unable to do anything about it. And, as the name implies, you freeze.
How does freezing differ from fleeing?
When an individual is confronted with a real or perceived threat, they can react in one of three ways: They can jump into action (also known as fighting). They can remove themselves from the situation — also known as fleeing — and/or their mind and body can lock up. They can, literally and figuratively, freeze. And while fleeing and freezing may sound similar, they are both avoidant behaviors, the former involves (some degree of) action while the latter involves dissociation or “playing dead.” When I freeze, I clam up. My mind wanders and my voice shakes, inaudibly, in my throat.
That said, it’s important to note that the freeze response can occur in tandem with other responses. “The freeze response can also be an ‘in addition to’ [reaction]” an article on Harley Therapy Counseling Blog explains. “You might freeze but then flee, or flee and then freeze.” The order doesn’t matter; what is important to note is that freezing isn’t always a standalone reaction.
What are the symptoms of the freeze response?
According to the Harley Therapy Counseling Blog, those who freeze tend to experience the following symptoms:
- They can’t think clearly, if at all
- They experience varying degrees of physical and mental exhaustion
- They can’t make a decision
- Some individuals are unable to move
- Those who are “frozen” tend to have no emotion, often describing themselves as blank or numb
- “Frozen” individuals tend to dissociate, i.e. they feel like they are watching a movie of themselves and their life
- They don’t feel as if anything is real
- Focusing is a problem
They may also sleep excessively and/or want to be alone.
“Fight-flight-freeze isn’t a conscious decision. It’s an automatic reaction… you can’t control it,” Healthline explains. What’s more, “your specific physiological reactions depend on how you usually respond to stress. You might also shift between fight-or-flight and freezing, but this is very difficult to control.”
The good news is, these reactions are temporary. Your body will return to its normal state after 20 to 30 minutes.
What causes individuals to “freeze?”
While there are numerous reasons why an individual may freeze — i.e., freezing is a normal and natural reaction to fear, danger, and real or perceived threats — those who freeze often find their response is rooted in their upbringing and/or associated with trauma.
“Your brain doesn’t have an oversensitive stress trigger naturally,” the blog on Harley Therapy Counseling states. “It’s a decision your brain has made because somewhere in the past you went through something that felt so bad, you decided you would not let that happen again.” The freeze response is also connected to certain mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and neglect.
What can individuals do to change this reaction and “unfreeze” themselves?
While you cannot change your reaction — at least not in the interim — there are ways to cope. Activities that promote relaxation will help to counteract your stress response. Meditation, yoga, tai chi, and deep breathing exercises are all useful, as is mindfulness. In fact, a study of patients diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) found mindfulness can reduce anxiety and help with stress reactivity and coping. Physical activity can also be advantageous. Walking, running, cycling, and lifting weights release endorphins and improve overall calmness, and therapy can be helpful.
“A mental health professional can help you determine the underlying cause of these feelings,” Healthline states. “They can also create a plan to reduce your stress response, depending on your symptoms and mental health history.”
“Learn[ing] things like better communication skills, how to stick up for yourself, or even self-defence” can also make a world of difference, the Harley Therapy Counseling Blog explains.
If you’re tired of feeling like a deer in the headlights when it comes to stress, trying a few of these suggestions can help you cope – and feel more successful in managing whatever life throws at you.
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