Trauma can create a variety of responses. We’ve introduced the four types of trauma responses (fight, flight, freeze, or fawn/appease) and discussed what both fight and flight look like in previous posts. All of the responses are driven by the same underlying stress hormones, including adrenaline.
Whenever our brain senses a threat, it tries to protect us. In a matter of seconds, or even less, our mind and body will decide which response offers the most likely chance of survival. And this response doesn’t always mean physical survival, of course.
The responses trauma triggers protect us in whatever way we need protecting: emotional, social, physical, etc. So, how does “freezing” protect us?
More Active Than It Looks
On the surface, the third response of “freezing” doesn’t appear nearly as active as a response as the first two. After all, there’s no apparent action to take, no fighting back or fleeing. You can read more about how these two responses look and feel in the series’s previous posts (linked above).
Nevertheless, freezing is a tactic to survive and get through the trauma. You can also think of freezing as feeling paralyzed with fear or making yourself unnoticeable.
Where I live, wild rabbits are a thing. And of course, I live in a neighborhood with cute dogs! Have you ever watched a wild rabbit freeze in plain sight when it hears a dog bark? It might look like an odd response but it often works. When it stops moving, the dog can’t follow its movement and loses interest.
This concept is the same one that drives the human freeze response to trauma.
Why We Freeze
Therapists have found that people who experienced trauma during childhood adapt to that trauma and fear by freezing. This response often looks like dissociating from one’s experiences or feelings. You might say that someone is numb or out of touch with what’s genuinely happening with them.
Some experiences are so scary and overwhelming that a person feels utterly unable to fight back or defend themselves. You can see how this mindset is particularly true for children.
In the big world of grownups, kids typically don’t have any significant power. This dynamic is especially true for a child who is abused (physically or emotionally) or molested. They know if they fight back or try to run away, the grownups will overpower them and likely inflict more pain. In short, there is no way out.
What Freezing Earns Us
It’s not just kids who learn to “hide” by being passive or emotionally withdrawn, of course. Adults can respond to trauma in the same way, even if their traumatic experiences didn’t happen in childhood.
Freezing is a way of trying to draw less attention as a protective mechanism. Think back to that rabbit hiding in plain sight. Also, consider biologist’s advice to survive an attack from a mother grizzly defending her cubs: play dead.
The trauma response of freezing can honestly help someone survive a terrible experience. By “checking out,” they are freed from having to live through the pain. They are emotionally protected from terror — at least at the moment.
While staying emotionally frozen and withdrawn is detrimental in the long run, it is an understandable response in an immediate situation. Fortunately, it is possible to move out of this emotional paralysis with time and treatment and into a more vibrant life experience.
If you’ve survived trauma and are searching for healing, please don’t give up hope. There are many proven treatment approaches for trauma and the anxiety and fear it can create.
I’ve worked with many people like yourself to process and move beyond trauma. Please contact my office for a free 15-minute consultation or visit my page about Trauma and PTSD counseling to learn more about how I can help.