Have you ever had moments where your mind suddenly goes blank? What about when you scroll through TikTok videos, at first enamored with the creativity of others around the world, only to find yourself asking forty-five minutes later, "What am I doing?" Or those moments you forgot what you were going to say? Or sometimes you suddenly find yourself staring off into space, then you come to and not sure what you were doing. Forgetfulness, shy, anxious, these are all examples of our body going into freeze mode when it has become overloaded.
Freeze is the third most recognized of the five responses to stress. It is an automatic response we have when 1) we don't quite know which direction the source of danger is coming from, and 2) are sent into a state of alert and our minds need a moment to compute and plan what to do next. 3) Freeze also occurs when the source of danger is bigger or stronger than us and we are therefore unable to mobilize into fight or flight. 4) Freeze allows us to hide from a source of danger. This response can be subtle and occur just momentarily or, if we feel more powerless, the response will occur until the threat is deemed to be over.
There are many a situation where freeze may not seem as helpful such as being chased or attacked. When deer become alert and frozen on a highway, it does them a disservice as a car moves at them. However, still becoming used to running vehicles with headlights, the predator (the vehicle) is much different than what it's been used to for centuries (predatory cats). Not sure what to do with beaming headlights coming at it, it isn't quite sure what this threat is. However, hopefully for the deer's sake and for our own, evolution helps the poor deer to evolve.
While one would not want to go into a freeze response in these situations, there are however many other situations, where the freeze response can be quite life-saving. Let's say you are walking along a path and you see danger up ahead. You weren't expecting the danger along the peaceful walk you were hoping to have, yet here you are, seeing it up ahead. If you were to automatically turn and run, you're likely to catch the attention of something that could be dangerous. Instead, having that automatic rush of alert, "Something is not right," and freezing, then you can have those few moments to determine what response to have next. Freeze essentially puts you in an intense alert mode where you can then observe the threat and determine the best course of action to take. From there you might mobilize into a fight or flight response, or it might just be best to keep quiet and sneak off in a safer direction.
The usefulness of freeze doesn't stop there. It also allows one to hide more easily. Your heart rate and breathing essentially slow down and allow you to take cover, stay quiet, and not alert the predator. I remember the scene in Lord of the Rings where Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin are alerted to the Nazgul who are searching for the one ring, which Frodo happens to carry. Luckily for these four young hobbits, they were able to easily hide from their predator, whose vision was ultimately very weak and could not spot the hobbits unless one of them were to put on the ring or make any noise to catch the Nazgul's attention. Still close to the Shire, Merry and Pippin lead Sam and Frodo to a large tree with roots that had outgrown the soil. They were able to quiet themselves enough to hide under the roots. The Nazgul knew they were nearby but became fed up with not being able to find them, and rode his horse away, even though the hobbits had merely been inches from him.
If we're lucky enough for the senses of a predator to be weakened, with the ability to have our nervous system to freeze and slow down enough, we are less likely to alert danger and therefore can more easily avoid harm despite being close to the source. It's unfortunate that more characters in horror movies haven't picked up on this. While the victim of a serial killer is ultimately trying to hide as their last source of staying alive, unfortunately for them with an already activated flight response, we already know what's going to happen as the killer gets closer, hears their heavy breathing, and moves in for the kill. If freeze wasn't a response, we wouldn't have the ability to slow our heart rate and breathing which can compromise safety had it been in fight or flight response.
When Danger is Less Dangerous
Do you ever have times where you were in a state of conflict with another person, and didn't have much to say, only to then have all the comebacks later that evening that you wish you had in the moment of conflict? You then your friends, your dog, or the shampoo bottles in the shower of the smart comebacks you have now? That's possibly an explanation of the freeze response. We tend to go into a freeze, with quiet response when we feel that someone has more power than us and therefore we don't proceed to fight back. It tends to explain why we don't stand up for ourselves, especially when conditioned by cultural norms, family dynamics, and tendency of habit.
Often times the situations we come across can be so complex, that we tend to have more than one response at the same time. If one feels powerless and doesn't fight back to a bully, but is angry at the way they are treated, there are two responses the body is carrying,with one response taking over and the other one essentially becoming trapped, coming forward later when it is safe, hence explaining why you might tell the shampoo bottles what you wish you would have said in the mean encounter at the super-market. This can also explain why you might argue with your spouse after you feel picked on by your boss or when a child is verbally abused by a parent or older sibling, only to bully their classmates when they are at school.
Getting to Know Your Freeze Responses
Here are some examples your emotions, mind, and body show to indicate a freeze response.
sweating or feeling cold
looking flushed or having goosebumps
blood flow increasing to the major muscles of the body, creating a cold feeling in the hands and feet.
Reduction to the feeling of pain
feeling extremely alert
drop in heart rate
restriction of breath
Quiet and reserved, especially around situations or large crowds
Timid, Shy, Overly Private
Wanting to hide
Wanting to avoid attention
Appear calm on the outside, but not feeling that way within
Effects on Mental Health
So what do responses in horror movies have to do with mental health? A lot! As it's been pointed out in previous posts, mental health symptoms are essentially emotions and responses that are stuck and therefore we keep repeating the same responses and thoughts that ultimately make us feel like we're 'crazy.' Here's the thing, at one time these responses were probably normal for a situation you were in and now that you're not in that situation any longer, they no longer are normal, but yet here we are, still stuck with the same thoughts, emotions, and behaviors from experiences beforehand.
The effects of freeze tend to be long-lasting and become chronic symptoms when we are faced with situations that become everyday events. If a child has an angry parent or witnesses domestic violence, freeze responses will become habitual for that child to ensure safety so as not to draw attention to themselves or provoke violence from an already angry family member. If a child is faced with bullying at school or at home, and the feel too weak or powerless to fight back, that freeze response is going to trap constant feelings of shame and embarrassment with repetitive messages cycling through our heads, "I'm bad," "I'm weird," "I'm a freak," messages that then become our ongoing self-talk. These messages can lead towards chronic conditions of insecurity, depression, social phobia, generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, and other conditions. While other responses also contribute to these conditions, freeze is most impactful at influencing the sense of shame. This emotion can come from our lack of response at the time a traumatic event occurs. Also leaving us frozen and immobilized when we are attacked or embarrassed, our bodies don't have the chance to shake off feelings as easily, therefore we can become flooded with the cortisol that is being released when we are being harmed and attacked.
Becoming Re-Mobilized by Unfreezing Your Body
There are many effects that can occur from constant states of freeze, one of the most common is where individuals can become immobilized with feelings from the stress becoming stuck in the body. If you find yourself in a state you suspect to be a freeze response, here are some techniques you can do to essentially unfreeze your body.
Look around the room with your peripheral vision to let your mind become aware of the actual danger around you.
Notice your breathing. If you've stopped breathing, start to bring breath into your body by breathing through your nose. You can choose to take large breaths but it might also help if you justart with small and slow breaths in until your body becomes more relaxed. Don't forget to breath out as well!
Wiggle your fingers and toes. Begin to slowly move your body. You might turn your head from side to side to notice the room around you.
It might help to sigh to start releasing the stress that is being pent up in your body. If your breathing needs to become stronger or longer, feel free to do so. Let your body find the pacing of breath it is needing for the moment.
If you start to notice a release of emotion whether through crying, laughter, anger, it might be best to let these releases occur without judgment. When your body was frozen, these emotions couldn't be released. Now that you might have essentially deemed it to be safe or over, let these emotions come and go. When you unfreeze, you are essentially letting the valve release the pressure, clearing up space and giving your body the ability to express these emotions now.
Find a safe place to rest, whether it's your bed, with your pets, in your car, with a friend, or somewhere away from the stressful situation. Let your body adjust from the situation it found itself in to the sense of safety now.
Let your body know you are safe now. Provide it affirmations such as, "I am safe." "I can express my emotions now." "It is over." "I am okay."
Avoid judgments which will then lock up your body in another stress state and prevent the release from happening. When your body has the ability to release, you are actually freeing your body from the stress it's been carrying. Allowing your body this opportunity is the best response you can have to heal from what you just went through. Remember, the opposite of freeze is FREE!
Freeze, fight, flight, and the other responses are each unique. Often symptoms can blur together and become convoluted when we have more than one. This post is simply to give you awareness for what our bodies normally do under stress. While our own situations are individually unique, hopefully you can take this as informative and rather than judge yourself for your responses, instead normalize your responses and then free yourself from the habitual reactions that can happen when we've endured chronic stress. I hope you take the information from here and give your body the help it's needing. Feel free to leave any questions, comments or insights you might have. I also welcome emails if you have more to discuss.