How do you respond to stress — flight, fright, freeze or fawn? While all of these responses might have roots in past trauma, there is a significant connection between those who exhibit the freeze response and trauma. Additionally, living with a dysregulated nervous system and unresolved trauma can increase the likelihood of substance use disorder (SUD).
So what is the connection between the freeze response and SUD? Let’s start with the basics.
What is the freeze response?
The freeze response is one of a collection of stress and danger responses (flight, flight and fawn being the others) collectively known as “acute stress responses.” First identified by Walter Bradford Cannon, acute stress responses activate the autonomic, sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system when the body perceives an imminent threat or attack. These responses are perfectly natural and have developed over the course of human history as a survival tactic.
However, they can also present themselves when a perceived threat is disproportionate to an actual threat, which can often be the case for those who have endured trauma or lived in a toxic environment where everyone is on edge. In such cases, the freeze response may be triggered by any situation later in life that echoes the conditions of the trauma.
The freeze response is more or less what it sounds like — an impulse to do and say nothing, shrink away from trouble or avoid notice.
Why is the freeze response a bad thing?
While acute stress responses are natural and therefore neither good nor bad, acute stress causes one’s nervous system to become dysregulated, which can lead to mental health issues such as:
- anxiety and panic
- sleep issues
- poor memory
- impaired concentration and attention
- rage outbursts
Living in a prolonged state of stress has a known and well-established relationship to substance use as a coping mechanism. In many cases, this substance use develops to the point of dependency, which would be categorized as a substance use disorder (SUD).
Long-term stress, trauma and SUDs
Dealing with chronic or long-term stress can cause a myriad of problems, one of which is trauma. Trauma, be it childhood, sexual or other, has a well-established and documented link to addiction. When looking specifically at someone with trauma who deals with stress by freezing, it can refer to physically being unable to move, but can also include difficulties communicating, reacting or taking control of the situation. Taking substances can help ease feelings of dissociation and numb the pain, leading those to create mal-adapted coping mechanisms.
When dealing with someone with a co-occurring SUD and trauma or a trauma-related issue (like post-traumatic stress disorder and others), healthcare professionals develop a trauma-informed care plan that addresses the complexities of trauma and the addictive behaviors that are inexorably intertwined.