Estimated reading time: 25 minute(s)
The fight-or-flight response has been conceptualized as a natural way to stressful stimuli since the 1920s. While most people are familiar with how these responses work, they remain grossly unaware of the third response, the freeze response.  The medical team did not consider the freeze response for at least 50 years after discovering the fight-or-flight response.
Often compared to “playing dead” in the face of a threat, freezing appears to be an effective response to escape danger. In humans, this response manifests in various symptoms, such as the inability to react, communicate, or take any action for defense. While the response helps many people manage day-to-day stressors, it can also be risky and difficult. Learning about freeze response, where it comes from, and how to manage it in someone is crucial for general well-being.
Freeze Trauma Response in Early Development
The freeze response has been commonly observed in people who experience a greater degree of fear in response to specific stressors.  During childhood, the ability to protect or defend themselves for such people mostly relies on their primary caregiver and is otherwise highly limited. If such people used to feel unprotected or unsafe by their guardians, they eventually acquire a tendency toward the freeze response as adults. Simply put, when a child cannot fight a danger or run from it, they may become numb or immobile.
Childhood trauma remains the most common cause of fear and panic in children. When a child experiences physical or emotional abuse by something or someone that they cannot defend themselves from, they start feeling helpless. They cannot tap into their biological systems designed to help with the fight-or-flight response. In such circumstances, their anxiety and panic lead to tonic immobility or paralysis. Remember that this tonic immobility is normally counter-intuitive for humans, especially in danger. The tonic immobility shows itself in the form of a freeze response every time a child faces trauma or threat, and this response often carries itself into adult life.
Those who use freeze response as children also develop a tendency toward anxiety and panic disorders, dissociation, and posttraumatic stress disorder. As a response to anything that triggers childhood trauma, dissociation remains one of the most harmful ways of freezing. Dissociation is when a person checks out of themselves to avoid the stressor, gets disconnected from the surrounding, and zone out with zero response.
Recognizing the Response: How to Differentiate Freeze from Fight or Flight?
Each response that a person utilizes to face a perceived threat is different and unique. In general, your mind and body align with certain innate behaviors to help you respond to a threat or danger in a chosen way. Identifying which response is triggered during a threatening situation can be helpful for a person who is trying to change their reaction to a certain stimulus or to avoid falling into a freeze response in everyday situations.
Following are some characteristics of three of the most common responses:
- Fight: This response includes clenched teeth, tightened fists or jaws, a raised voice, homicidal or suicidal thoughts, glaring, rage and anger, and a desire to strike out physically.
- Flight: This includes shallow breathing, anxious feelings, inability to focus, a sense of entrapment, fidgeting, restless limb movements, and tension.
- Freeze: This involves feeling stuck in a specific part of the body, physical stiffness, feeling numb and cold, heaviness in limbs, restricted breathing or completely holding breath, a sense of dread, and decreased heart rate.
How to Overcome the Freeze Response: Tips to Remember
The most important thing to remember is when a person is stuck in a freeze trauma response; they cannot process verbal communication properly. This is because the brain area needed for processing oral information goes into a shutdown during a freeze response. In such a state, a person may not even benefit from psychoeducation or psychotherapy, as nothing can get to the brain. For this reason, helping such people with verbal support is often not enough, and a somatic approach is more likely to benefit them.
Mentioned below is a stepwise approach to help someone overcome the freeze response smoothly and effectively:
Start with small movements.
While facing someone in a freeze, start with small movements, such as nodding. Remember that some people may be so deeply stuck in the freeze trauma that a simple yes or no head nodding may be too difficult for them.
Consider breathing exercises.
Ask a person stuck in a freeze response to take slow, deep breaths to activate their parasympathetic nervous system. This part of the nervous system helps the body rest and relax.
Ask them to observe their surroundings.
Once a person’s freeze response starts thawing, encourage them to scan their surroundings more thoroughly. You may consider asking them to observe three things and describe them in detail. This practice can help them break free from the freeze and activate their mind.
Advise full-body mobilization.
Once the trauma freeze response is beginning to settle, encourage a person to move around the room to loosen their muscles while reconnecting themselves with their surroundings. This type of mobilization can also strengthen their body-brain connection.
Try co-regulating with them.
According to experts, humans communicate with each other through social engagement systems that involve facial expressions and vocal intonation. With the help of inviting body language and a calm prosody, it is possible to impact safety cues to help a person feel stable in your presence.
Freeze Trauma Response: What Not to Do
If you have someone who uses freeze response commonly while dealing with threats and dangers, it is imperative to know what not to do when they are going through it. Following are some things that should not be done if you encounter someone who has gone into a freeze.
Don’t make eye contact.
For someone experiencing trauma and stuck in a freeze response, eye contact may seem too intrusive and can sometimes dysregulate them even more. Hence, avoid looking directly into their eyes.
Avoid offering any touch.
A person who is in the middle of a trauma freeze response cannot respond verbally or physically. Hence, they may consider any unsolicited touch violating.
Ask for permission.
People struggling with trauma often lack choice and control. This is particularly true for people who freeze in the face of danger. Such people are at a high risk of being harmed while they are in a state of freeze, sometimes unknowingly by the perpetrator who is only trying to help them. Hence, always respect their boundaries and seek permission wherever you need to interfere.
Continue working slowly and gently.
For someone in the freeze, taking things quickly can lead to further dysregulation. Therapists also recommend taking treatment forward with care and calm to avoid sending a client into freeze into a collapse or shutdown.
Do not reassure them that it’s safe.
During an active freeze, the prefrontal cortex of a person goes offline. Hence, verbally reassuring such a person they are safe is unlikely to make a difference. Alternatively, try using cues of safety instead to make them feel secure.
Use minimal positive expression.
For many trauma survivors, the use of positive emotion may be linked with threats. For example, a person whose mother was loving and caring one minute and extremely violent and abusive the other minute during childhood may feel that feeling good does not mean feeling safe. Hence, avoid being overly animated, empathetic, or engaging with them while being warm and gentle.
Clarify that going into a freeze is okay.
Remind a person that their body responses to trauma, including a freeze response, are involuntary and are a part of their survival skill. Such experiences do not reflect their lack of strength.
What causes a freeze trauma response?
According to experts, a person is likely to experience a freeze response when they feel entrapped, cannot escape, and feel like trying to fight off is more dangerous. Following are some other causes of a freeze response:
- To stay still and hide to avoid a threat
- To reduce the blow of an event through dissociation
- To get a better sense of the situation by taking in the surroundings
- To get some time to decide how to respond to an ongoing threat
What are some symptoms of a freeze trauma response?
A freeze response may make you:
- Unable to think clearly
- Suddenly exhausted and heavy
- Unable to make a decision
- Feel emotionless or blank
- Feel like sleeping or being left alone
- Feel as if you have left your body and are watching yourself from outside
Does everyone go through a freeze response?
Fight and flight remain more common responses to dangerous or threatening situations than a freeze response. A freeze response is more likely to occur in certain situations, for instance, circumstances where a person loses control, cannot escape the threat, or end it altogether. In such cases, the best way for the body to keep itself safe is by freezing.
1 Schmidt NB, Richey JA, Zvolensky MJ, Maner JK. Exploring human freeze responses to a threat stressor. Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry. 2008 Sep 1;39(3):292-304.
2 Roelofs K. Freeze for action: neurobiological mechanisms in animal and human freezing. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 2017 Apr 19;372(1718):20160206.