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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.

Michele is the author of Your Life After Trauma: Powerful Practices to Reclaim Your Identity. Connect with her on Google+LinkedInFacebookTwitter and her website, HealMyPTSD.com.

17 thoughts on “PTSD and the Freeze Response”

  1. When I was verbally abused in the car by a old friend it was clearly a trigger for me from physical verbal abuse n my body did I believe flight but when I couldn’t escape the car I froze then when the attacks kept coming even though I was frozen I went into fight mode as a defence n then I managed to muster up enough energy to flee somehow tho I was a shaking wreck trying to run to my house
    So you can fight or flight after the freeze response if freeze response means attacks aren’t stopping

  2. This is the most real thing I have seen about PTSD online… Everything else is just a bare-bones list of general symptoms, but this is great and makes sense! I have PTSD from witnessing my unmedicated bipolar mother physically and verbally abuse my family when I was very young (I once saw her throw an iron skillet at my dad’s head head which he ducked but it was still very scary), verbally and emotionally abusing and neglecting me and while I lived alone with her, (as well as her seeking me out to corner me and scream and rage at me after I moved out) and she would yell, scream, cuss, throw things, and be angry at me always. Not to mention she caused me much physical illness through her obsessive control and neglect.
    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?

    1. best advice i have for you is have an ice bath and then a warm shower go from one to the other after few hours after go lay down and think on some of the things bit by bit it should help alot to control the symptoms not sure how to fully fix it tho iv never fully fixed it trauma keeps happening to me foggy brain….hmmm ….. being fighting it for ages teeth grinding
      stiff upper back am stressed ….

  3. I have the freeze-response also. Not always, but first off, I always ‘wait’ and check if I’m right.
    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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

    1. Hi Jay
      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.

  6. 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!!

  7. 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

    1. @Kristina – You’ve just hit on the toughest part, learning to unfreeze. Listen to my interview with Robert Scaer for further thoughts on this: http://yourlifeaftertrauma.com/brain-body-trauma-recovery/

      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/

  8. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. I totally know how you feel. I have been in just about all of these situations and had to move 3,000 miles away from the family that stood by and not only watched these things happen to me but then delved in with their own abuse as if what I had already gotten wasn’t enough. It is hard to stay married to an angel that doesn’t care what type of havoc I wreak just trying to survive but to watch my girls try to love me and have a relationship with me through it all. They trigger the PTSD a lot when they get upset and I can’t please them. Even after 1 and a half years of therapy for severe PTSD it’s still very hard to cope sometimes. Today is one of those days and I am glad I read you post. Thank you for sharing. I feel so comforted and safe knowing I am not the only one here.

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