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 herein 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.
Rosenthal, M. (2012, October 10). PTSD and the Freeze Response, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, September 21 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/traumaptsdblog/2012/10/ptsd-and-the-freeze-response
Author: Michele Rosenthal
I find that I get easily overwhelmed, and can easily reach a state of sensory overload (thanks to PTSD and depression). My emotional reactions become slowed down to no response at all, except that I can listen and observe while sitting very still. I feel a natural calm, where I can't be hurried, and I can't process anything more. It seems to be a natural protective mechanism for the vulnerable person that is me now.
It's great for dealing with Narcissistic abusers who are trying to upset you, but not so good for normal interactions that you actually want to participate in.
One incident comes to mind:
I didn't let any man hold me for six years (since the traumatic experience in 2011)
I didn't go out with anyone for six years.
I didn't realise that I didn't feel safe until I met the man I gave a chance to (in 2017).
We met in the street, he was out walking and said hello to me. I was attracted to him within ten minutes, and so suddenly the inevitable conversations about my health and PTSD triggered shame and caused parts of my brain to go offline from stress.
I felt some dissociation, and observed myself from a distance after that. I quickly became overwhelmed, and couldn't speak for a while. Seeing this, he said nothing, he just opened his arms to me, and I let him hold me.
I felt like a wooden statue in his arms. I felt neither pleasure nor displeasure.
He asked me out for coffee, and I agreed, although on the way home I told myself all the reasons why it couldn't work out. I thought that I was too broken to be loved.
Over the next week I felt shame like acid burning my heart whenever I remembered how I'd let him comfort me in his arms by holding me. He was a stranger, and I'm very private, and dignified. What was I thinking?
I felt nothing for the next ten days, during which my subconscious mind was processing everything, then suddenly on the tenth day, I realised that he'd made me feel safe.
I was flooded with wave after wave of endorphins!
I've never felt anything like it.
It made me laugh with happiness.
No man has ever made me feel safe before (wanted, yes, but not safe & protected) and since the violent assault and indecent assault by the surgeon I went to (in 2011), my body had shut down.
On our date I had cycles of feeling overwhelmed, showing no emotional response, and absolute physical stillness.
I just let that be what it was, and then after a little time I felt energized and interested again. And ready for more kissing. He sat with his arm around me when I was overwhelmed. It was lovely, just what I needed.
The next day I slept until mid-afternoon. There was so much to process. It was happy exhaustion.
I have long been aware that I freeze when someone is furiously angry, either near me or if it's directed at me. My grandfather had Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and so did his daughter, my mother. She controlled with rage explosions (screaming and dramatic gesticulations, accusations and lies, endless criticisms and threats of violence, and threats to leave). We were always walking on eggshells.
When I was an adult and working professionally I really became aware of it, if someone would threaten me aggressively or try to intimidate me with anger. This was probably due to trauma bonding with my mother; there was no way to account for it otherwise. She was also sexually abusive and sexually jealous (cue waves of revulsion and nausea).
My Co-dependant father was passive-aggressive, and would suddenly lash out at us without warning. He'd drag us out of bed to punish us spitefully for some mistake kids thoughtlessly make. Often when he'd come home at night from work, my mother would drop a rage bomb to get a massive emotional response from him (N-fuel, according to HG Tudor's narcsite.com), and we little kids who were sitting up at the dinner table would scurry and hide. I used to get under the kitchen table as soon as he'd come in the door.
It was like being in an earthquake.
I hated it.
I didn't have words to defend myself from my parents, and it was like my brain froze at that point of development. I had to work really hard to overcome it, and learn what to say. I'm still developing those skills.
Thank you to everyone who has shared their private heartaches here. You aren't alone in your struggles.
I'm so glad you're feeling understood. I know how frustrating it is to feel like nobody "gets" you, but we do. You are not alone!
The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook (New Harbinger Self-Help Workbook) 6th Edition, Kindle Edition
by Matthew McKay (Author), Martha Davis (Author), Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman (Author), Patrick Fanning (Author)
While it is possible for young ladies under the age of 18, even as young as 13, to marry in certain states, it is not legal for anyone to be forced or abused at any age.
Unchained at Last http://www.unchainedatlast.org/get-help/ will help anyone in a forced marriage. Their phone is (908) 481-HOPE, or you can follow the link for online help.
Please stay safe and get the help you need. I'm sorry you have to go through this. Tia
So you can fight or flight after the freeze response if freeze response means attacks aren't stopping
Now, whenever there's a crashing sound like someone throwing something out of frustration, especially accompanied with loud, angry cussing, or if someone raises their voice at me in anger when I've done nothing wrong, I shrink, shake, and freeze... If someone is angry, even if it's not at me, I become quite afraid of that person and feel I must placate them.
I recently had the most concerning episode yet; I dropped something I was holding, trembled a bit and froze at initially hearing a crash and a shouted cuss word in the next room, and then fearfully sought out a corner which made me feel a bit safer before I heard more crashing and yelling/cussing, which made me completely freeze up... I was sitting in the corner with my knees to my chest, hands above my head at eyebrow level, staring at one place where any person would have to pass through to get to me, and I couldn't move except for some shaking... When I heard more loud, angry, sounds, I started making a weird, quiet, trembly, panicky noise but it went away when it was quiet again. I felt like I was back in my mother's house and she was in a dangerous mood, even though I knew I wasn't, and I couldn't shake the vague flashbacks. When my fiance came in and saw me (he is very safe and non-violent), he was very non-threatening and tried to hold me and comfort me, but I couldn't move myself to cooperate and when he moved my limbs out from my body a little, I started shaking violently until they were put back. I couldn't speak well- I was extremely stuttery- and it took a very long time to even be able to stand, and when I did, my legs where almost too wobbly/shaky.
I know that when I panic, curling up in a corner makes me feel safer, and my core being exposed is especially frightening, as is eye contact. But, I'm not sure what to make of the frozen muscles, difficulty speaking, and shaking more when taken from my defensive position. Do you have any insight on those symptoms?
stiff upper back am stressed ....
When someone is indeed trying to take my clothes off or ís telling me that he has a knife, etc.
I have to take a moment and let that in.
Normally I would've believed my own ears, but during sexual abuse at 12, I was told that I should ignore the bad feeling I got, because it'd make me look stupid if I told.
Therefore, my first reaction is thinking. Usually, 'it' already happened, someone touching my butt or someone grabing my knees in public transport..
After that, I can stand up for myself and say something, or ignore it and walk away.
But when I'd imagine myself in a situation in which I'd have to push someone off of me or when I'd bullied and thrown on the floor, I can already feel my arms starting to 'freeze up.'
So I'd be shaking a little and my arms would feel like pudding, I'd be tired and just lay there and cry.
I hate that freeze-response, because I would have the energy, but it just paralyzes me.
The only thing that happens is that I move very slow if I try my hardest to move and I continue to mention; NO! or 'STOP!' even untill the person is gone.
I remember this years ago. I remember deciding to marry myself. This was suggested by a spiritual guide. So I married the two sides that were not together. I am left with the ptsd frozen mentally and physical response. My counselor is saying mine is too old to perhaps heal from 4 to 59 now. I will continue to heal it if I can, even if I can relax a little. I have a meltdown of crying, now that I don't get angry. It's so embarrassing.
Also, developing a mindfulness practice can reduce this experience, plus give you a way to shift out of it. There are many places to find information about starting a mindfulness practice. I like this post as a beginning: http://tinybuddha.com/blog/7-obstacles-to-mindfulness-and-how-to-overcome-them/
My interview with an expert in becoming presenth: http://www.changeyouchoose.com/becoming-more-present-and-why-you-dont/
My interview with an expert in the freeze response: http://www.changeyouchoose.com/brain-body-trauma-recovery/