How to Overcome the “Freeze” Response
If you’re worried you might “freeze” when your safety is threatened, you’re not alone. It’s a legitimate concern that many share. But what if I told you it’s okay to freeze? Freezing is not only natural…it’s a necessary component of threat analysis. Because a wide range of factors influence our ability to respond effectively when our safety is threatened, some people find it more difficult than others to move into the action oriented responses. Fortunately, techniques for overcoming the freeze response can be learned, but first we have to understand how our body and mind are designed to respond to threats.
When I began to research fear responses, I was intrigued by a 2004 study titled Does “Fight or Flight” Need Updating? This group of researchers reviewed the original “fight or flight” theory and combined it with current research to propose a modified model with two additional components—freeze and fright. The contemporary version of the fear response model includes freeze, flight, fight or fright, which is a more accurate reflection of the complexity of the reaction and the order in which these responses generally occur.
The “freeze” component is associated with the survival instinct that animals possess—if they remain frozen, they won’t be detected by the predator. In humans, the “freeze” component is better described as a hyper vigilant state or being “on guard”. When we sense a threat, we stop and engage our senses collect more information and decide how to respond. If the freeze phase analysis indicates our safety is being threatened, we attempt to flee and if we are unable to flee, we fight. So far, it’s fairly straightforward, but the “fright” or “tonic immobility” response adds an intriguing twist to the theory. The fright response is most easily explained as the act of “playing dead” and serves an important purpose in survival, particularly from an ethological perspective. In animals, the fright response is designed to make the predator lose interest or loosen its grip thinking the prey is dead, which allows the prey a chance to escape. It’s easy to confuse the fright and freeze components, but critical to our safety that we don’t.
From a personal safety standpoint, it makes complete sense to stop what we’re doing and focus on analyzing the threat, but only temporarily. If we get stuck in the freeze response, our reaction time is compromised and we can lose our defensive advantage. Being unable to disengage from the fright response is equally detrimental to our safety. Immobility enables the perpetrator to complete the act and commit additional acts, up to and including taking our life, without any resistance. Some form of protective and defensive response is generally more successful in the types of threatening situations we face today. For humans, the effectiveness of these innate responses is based on fluidity—our ability to control our movement into and out of response modes.
Although we generally associate the fight or flight response to life threatening situations, it’s important to understand that our bodies respond similarly to any type of threat to our well being—even stressful encounters that are harassing or abusive in nature. We also need to remember we are complex beings and our cumulative life experience plays a role in our reaction. If you have a more passive nature or if you have experienced trauma in the past, you may have to work a little harder to develop your ability to move into the action response, but you can do it.
In her book, Healing from Trauma, Jasmin Cori explains that there are a multitude of reasons a person might not be able to flee or fight when their safety is threatened. In a traumatic situation, immobility, dissociation and numbing are all natural and valid coping mechanisms. If prior victimization occurred in childhood, these were likely the only response options available. The imprint of past responses, whether positive or negative, becomes an integral part of our psyche. Without intervention, a pattern of negative or ineffective responses can lead to a lifetime of responding to threats in this way and a future of recurring victimization.
Once I had a strong understanding of the fear response model, I was able develop a set of psychological, interpersonal and physical strategies that enhance the innate responses that are effective and counteract the responses that are not. Throughout my curriculum, I specifically incorporate concepts I call “action activators” that trigger people to move through the levels of the fear response more efficiently. These include visualization techniques, positive triggers, movement mapping and other techniques. This non-traditional approach to personal safety education and training is the key to helping people understand natural fear responses and learn to move through them with the fluidity necessary to protect themselves from the full spectrum of modern dangers.
Nicole Sundine is the founder of Realistic Safety Solutions, LLC. After a lengthy career in law enforcement and victim advocacy, she decided to devote her future to teaching others a series of Realistic Safety Strategies designed to protect them from threats to their personal safety that range from behavioral offenses to abuse to violence. Learn more at www.realisticsafetysolutions.com
Cannon, W. B. Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage: An Account of Recent Research into the Function Emotional Excitement, 2nd ed. Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1929
Bracha, H. Stefan, Ralston, Tyler C., Matsukawa, Jennifer M., Williams, Andrew E., Bracha, Adam S. Does “Fight or Flight” Need Updating? Psychosomatics 2004 45: 448-449
Gray, J. A. The Psychology of Fear and Stress, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 1998
Cori, J. Healing from Trauma: a Survivor’s Guide to Understanding your Symptoms and Reclaiming Your Life 2008 2-13