Mental Health Blogs

PTSD and the Freeze Response

During my trauma, there was a moment so overwhelmingly horrific and painful that I literally willed myself to die. I became intensely still and allowed all energy to flow out of my body. Very soon, I felt myself leave my body and move toward a tunnel in the ceiling that was ringed with white light.

Obviously, I wasn’t successful in my death quest. But in that moment what did I experience?

Freeze Response and The Reptilian Brain

The freeze response is something we’re all very familiar with in the animal world: There’s a threat, say, a cheetah, and the opossum famously plays ‘dead’, which it does to avoid the of danger of a predator. Lying completely still, the opossum outsmarts predators by seeming to be lifeless as the reptilian part of the brain suppresses heart rate and respiration. The interesting thing about animals is that the freeze response allows them to move forward after trauma without any stress effects.

How Humans Experience the Freeze Response

In the human experience of threat, we also have a freeze response. You may have experienced it if you’ve ever felt so powerless, hopeless or victimized that you just become completely still. This can be an experience of physical stillness, or even emotional stillness. Remember that time someone said something so unkind you just stood there speechless? That’s a simple example of the freeze response in basic human life.

In trauma, the freeze response becomes a much bigger and more visceral experience. Driven by the reptilian brain, the freeze response occurs only when fight/flight responses are not an option. You can read more about it here in the words of Robert Scaer, a trauma expert. The video below shows an example of what the freeze response looks like, plus how it’s discharged.

Dealing with PTSD and the Freeze Response

My biggest interest in the freeze response goes beyond the science of it to how we perceive it and what we believe about it. While in your brain, the hippocampus and amygdala learn important lessons to protect you in the future, how does your emotional brain compute this strange, dissociated state? (read about PTSD and dissociation)

In my own experience, the moment I described above became the moment of my trauma that haunted me the most. The powerlessness, despair and desperation, the feeling of utter futility about my survival became emotional markers that built beliefs systems about many things from my own worthlessness to a constant fear for my physical safety.

I did not experience the traditional freeze discharge that involves shaking your body to allow the energy to release. Instead, I was brought back into my body by my mother demanding that I live; something for which it took me a long time to forgive us both – she for bringing me back into a body wracked with pain and the threat of death, me for being such a coward for leaving that body in the first place.

Since belief systems drive our responses, behaviors and attitudes throughout our lives, understanding the freeze response plus the lessons all parts of our brains learn can help you work with the freeze the next time you experience it. Rather than be frightened by it, which is both what I felt and what I hear from many survivors, next time try to work with the freeze. By that I mean, recognize it as a process your mind and body are taking to protect you and learn from the situation at hand. As the moment of danger ends, shake your body from head to toe allowing the freeze energy to discharge and then, as the polar bear does in the video, get up and move forward with your life.

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12 Responses to PTSD and the Freeze Response

  1. CM Hollywood says:

    I suffer from freeze response after surviving 47 years of every kind of abuse you could ever imagine. Although, I am known to come back after you with a vengence when I recover. No one expects you to come back ripping them a new one as they deserve & it usually solves the problem. Now, I eliminated most out of my life. I trust no one. I heard daddy beat mommy all my young childhood being pulled out of my bed always after 2am in my PJ’s in all kinds of weather to go to Granny’s or Aunt’s home. I have been molested at 8 by sick half-brother, spousal raped at 22-23, almost date raped at 30, Vegas police threw me in the middle of pimp, prosotute, crack alley knowing I’d be well taken care of, set up in TX to make it look like I stole a car from some1 with ties to the Mexican Mafia, date raped 12/24/10, my food was poisoned 12/20/11 by some1 who wanted more than friends..yeah, like that was going to gain him some points with me. I have been beat by 6 “men”. One held a knife to my throat saying he was going to cut it. Then I managed to get onto the bed where he threatened to cut my diamonds off. I left go of the headboard saying, Go ahead! I wonder how many years you will get for one finger & I’m willing to lose it to find out. I ended up with a concussion and imprint of the bottom of his sneakers in my back in deep purple. That’s okay they will get theirs because the Lord loves me & so does my grandparents who’ve been watching all of them abuse me including my own daughter.

    • @CM — I’m glad to hear you got yourself out of bad situations. The freeze response can be an issue but there are ways to lessen it. Check out this interview I did with a major trauma expert all about that: http://yourlifeaftertrauma.com/brain-body-trauma-recovery/

    • Sara says:

      I am not sure if u realize how amazing u are. You were neglected, ridiculed, violated, and shamed. Then u were exploited by the very system created to shelter/protect. That you continued to fight, that u continued to live, that is the very epitome of courage. You deserved more; you received the very antithesis of your existence. You are repeating the pattern that is familiar to you, so change it. If anyone can, it is u. You fight for u because u deserve all u have been deprived of. The Lord and your grandparents aren’t the only ones who love you. We are all connected, and you are one of the strongest members. My heart is with u.

  2. kristina1989 says:

    I become so overwhelmed that i become “paralyzed” Mentally, (can’t think at all) and physically,(frozen to couch) .. I wonder if there is a way to stop it, or interrupt it,once i realize it? Right now, i see no options. <3

  3. Pingback: MORAL EQUIVALENCY & NOTHINGNESS | Preyed on by a Narcissistic Psychopath

  4. Jen_g says:

    Michelle, thank you for the incredible resource of this blog–I look forward to exploring. I experienced the freeze response many times in reaction to verbal abuse growing up (sensitive kid), then again in a relationship I drew to myself to recreate those conditions and begin to heal. The physiological description of an animal’s response is the closest I’ve found to describe a strange reaction I had to a deep breathing/shiatsu experience–ferocious release of energy, semi-paralysis of limbs. Thank you for helping me with the puzzle pieces!!

  5. This is such a great post! It sounds like we have some similar traumatic reactions in our past. You are very brave. Thank you for writing this.

  6. Jay Gilliard says:

    i am a CSA survivor. It started when i was 4 and finalky ended when i was 32. At age 10 or 11, i spkit completely from myself. I actually stood in the corner and saw my body being abused. Total disociation. As a 57 yr. old adult and i still cant seem to get my body and emotions to work together. Either i can have a physical relationship or i can be emotional relationship. My councilor said they may never get together. I would have to remain diligent. I have. But it hasnt really changed.

  7. Claire says:

    I’m just like the polar bear! I experience a trauma trigger, I freeze, I have a seizure and then I take a deep breath and it’s all over and I feel refreshed. This has been happening to me for over 13 years! How do I make it stop? Do I focus on the freeze part? I experienced the majority of my trauma as a child where I could only freeze in reaction to trauma. Perhaps if I can recognise when I am freezing, and then choose to act rather than freeze. I keep having dreams where I am being attacked, abused or rejected, and I react in anger which I never do. It’s almost like my mind just wants to be able to act in a traumatic experience, rather than feel powerless. I have a lot of aggression under the surface. When I think about it I just want to punch and break things and attack.

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