While fight-or-flight was conceptualized as a way humans respond to certain stressful stimuli in the 1920s, the additional and perhaps less noted third response, freeze, was not widely considered until around 50 years later, and still had not been studied as widely as a response. Freezing as a response to a threat might seem effective, a sort of “playing dead” in the face of danger; however, in humans freezing manifests as an inability to communicate, react, or take any action of self-preservation or defense. Where does someone develop this tendency, how does it affect the ability to cope with stress, and how can it be avoided when it harms the mental state?
Freezing in Early Development
The freeze response is more common for those that experience a large amount of fear in response to certain stressors. As children, the ability to protect or defend oneself is limited and mostly reliant upon the caregiver. Therefore if one felt routinely unsafe or unprotected by their parent or guardian, they could have a tendency toward this response as adults. When a child isn’t able to fight or run from perceived danger, it incites a panic response, making one numb or immobile in the face of the stressor.
Trauma as a child can be one of the most common causes of panic and fear. When a child is subjected to emotional or physical abuse by someone or something it cannot defend itself from, they are left feeling helpless, unable to tap into the biological systems designed to assist them in either fighting or fleeing. Anxiety and panic are indicated as two factors that contribute to the concept of tonic immobility, or a natural state of paralysis, something that is otherwise counter-intuitive for a human in the presence of danger. In other words, a child that suffered from constant anxiety and fear due to trauma may develop a tendency to freeze as a response to triggers as an adult.
Those who froze as a response often as children may develop a tendency towards disassociation, anxiety or panic disorders, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. As a response to triggering events that resemble childhood trauma, disassociation can be one of the most harmful ways one freezes. Disassociation is where we check out of ourselves in order to avoid the stressor, and a person who struggles with it might regularly feel disconnected from their surroundings, zoned out and unable to respond, or even feeling detached from reality.
Recognizing the Response
Each response looks different as a person prepares to utilize it in the face of a perceived threat. Our bodies and minds align with a set of innate behaviors to best aid them in responding in the chosen way. Recognizing which response is triggered can be helpful when working to change the reaction to a certain stimulus or to avoid regularly falling to the freeze response in life situations.
Fight – Tightened jaw or fists, clenched teeth, a desire to strike out physically such as kicking or punching, glaring, raised voice, feelings of nausea or knots in the stomach, thoughts that are homicidal or suicidal in nature, anger, and rage.
Flight – Feelings of anxiety, shallow breathing, darting eyes/inability to focus, restless movements in the limbs, fidgeting, feeling trapped, feeling tense, feelings of restlessness.
Freeze – Feeling stuck in a certain part of the body, feeling cold or numb, physical stiffness or heaviness of limbs, decreased heart-rate, restricted breathing or holding of the breath, a sense of dread or foreboding.
There is an additional response that has more recently gained consideration that is not currently included in the stress response model, called fawning. Fawning is a response marked by people-pleasing behaviors, conflict avoidance, unable to find one’s voice or ability to stand up for themselves in the face of a threat, and taking care of the needs of others to one’s own detriment.
Do We Have Any Control?
Can we control our stress response? Many of the things that happen are an instinctive or biological response; for example, an increase of adrenaline when one is preparing to engage in the fight response. However, the best way to deal with an unwanted response in these situations is to engage in therapy which can help to call attention to and process the negative experiences that cause them. Once there is an awareness of what triggering events may cause these reactions, grounding techniques are often the most helpful in the moment.
-Stimulating the nervous system
-Practicing awareness of your physical surroundings
-Verbal self-affirmations such as “you are safe”
Ultimately the best way to avoid a negative response is to heal the underlying trauma that necessitates it. This will help remove or lessen the trigger, helping to respond in a more stable and safe way to perceived threats.