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.