Trauma, dissociation, and the chronic freeze response.
Humans operate on many levels simultaneously, and not all of these levels are in our conscious awareness, many of our beliefs, actions, and reactions are operating on autopilot and we never reflect on the fact that there even is a process behind the scenes. Things we never think about is, for example, how we breathe, or how we beat our hearts.
Fight or flight, and freeze or fawn, are systems that are also controlled by our nervous system, and just like our heart beats and our breath, they also function on autopilot. We don’t actually have control over the physiological reactions that take place, like the increased heart rate, or the shut down of digestion, we don’t even notice that, because when you have to fight for your life, sitting down for a relaxing meal is not on your mind, but if it was, you would notice that your digestion was shut off. When fight or flight has become chronic, a disrupted digestive system is almost always present.
The common example of being chased by a tiger illustrates how the fight or flight is designed perfectly to save out lives, heart rate increase, adrenaline kicks in, muscle strength increases, pupils narrow and sight is reduced to seeing only the “way out”.
The end result is you either win or you die. Essentially.
Feelings during a freeze response may include, feeling cold or numb and rigid, or a literal feeling of physical stiffness and heavy limbs, accompanied by restricted breathing, and sometimes holding the breath. There is also a sense of fear, of dread and foreboding. The freeze response kicks in, again automatically, when fight or flight has failed.
These internal battles originate in the limbic system of the brain, the amygdala and the brainstem area, whereas logical and reasoning thoughts originate in the prefrontal cortex, the front part of the brain. One part of the brain will be in mostly in operation while the other is mostly shut off.
If we struggle with a chronic freeze response to to prolonged trauma, we might think that it’s our genetic “wiring” or socially inherited behavior, we will usually also feel a lack of trust in ourselves, and our ability to function normally, especially under circumstances where others seem to “have it together” such as relationships, parenting, marriage etc. in other words, situations that are not dangerous. At least not to most.
It can seem so inevitable, like we’re just going to have to learn to live like this for the rest of our lives, as if there is nothing that can be done. However, when we understand the danger response cycle, we can also see how that now contributes to our current “personality” or “genetics” or “wiring”, and when we understand this we can also change it.
According to Dr. Stephen Porges, the human nervous system essentially has the following “gears” available to it:
- social engagement (includes interaction with others as well as being in peaceful, relaxed alone time)
- fight, flight (experienced as anger/fear)
- freeze or fawn
All of these gears are responses to the environment and are designed to help ensure our survival.
These “gears” aren’t fully mutually exclusive, so we can be primarily in social engagement, but feel the beginnings of the fight response. Or we may be mostly frozen and immobile, but feel anxiety (flight) creeping up.
When we are in a safe and generally supportive environment, a well-balanced nervous system is actively in “social engagement” mode most of the time. This is also sometimes called “rest and digest”.
If something does start to go wrong in the social environment, a well-balanced nervous system will go to that social engagement option first: it tries to solve problems via discussion or negotiation, not jumping right into fight or flight.
It uses exactly as much fight/flight/freeze as the situation warrants, and no more. All four responses are freely available, and our automatic perception of safety/threat, called neuroception, makes a snap judgment about which one to go to.
However, our previous learning comes into play. Our system goes to what has worked in the past, and it avoids what hasn’t worked. So if you grew up with a very angry parent, when you encounter stress as an adult, you might:
- freeze, and that’s the only response available; or
- shift into too much anxiety or anger for the current situation
Your automatic, default response in any given situation depends on what your autonomic nervous system found most helpful in previous situations of high stress.
The more we are disengaged from of “social engagement system” and more and more engaged in a threat response, the more our survival instinct runs the show, and the more our reasoning and socialization shuts down. This explains why when we are under stress we can engage in behaviors we really regret later.
The freeze response is the least understood of all of our survival systems, especially in the general public, but even within the medical community.
The freeze response is closely related to tonic immobility, a state in which the body becomes completely motionless (think of animals that play dead). It’s also related to dissociation (disconnecting from one or more aspects of our experience).
A chronic freeze response is also closely related to depression.
The freeze response kicks in when the survival system has decided that whatever is facing us is too overwhelming. Fight or flight won’t work, it will only cause death. The next step is to save our life by holding still, by being uninteresting, walking on eggshells, seeing if the threat passes. Young children, who lack capacity for fighting or running away, are particularly prone to getting stuck in the freeze response. Domestic violence is another situation where an abused partner who is also a parent and needs to protect the safety of children, freezes and allows abuse until it passes (for this time). Anyone who is in a clear inferior position is vulnerable to this response.
People who are in freeze response typically look like they’re in a low-energy state, possibly lethargy, but it’s really an intensely high-energy state. It’s takes a high toll on the body, especially when it becomes chronic. The nervous system can be take a long time to come out of this state, even after the situation is safe. Any perceived and imagined threat can trigger this response, and again, this state can be long lasting, especially if left untreated.
None of these responses are a conscious choice. None of these states are manipulation. None of theses states are passive aggressive. None of these states are intentional.
Many people feel guilty when they freeze, but it is neither their fault nor under their control.
These states can be “rewired”, at least partially, so the autonomic nervous system response in a situationally appropriate way. This does not happen overnight, and it has to be treated actively. It takes time, but with consistent work it can be done.
Working directly with the unconscious part of the body-mind, the limbic system, is the most effective way, and talk therapy, or “crying it out”, “purging emotions” etc. will generally not work at all.
The cognitive brain, remember, becomes mostly disengaged during stress, and can’t be accessed. cognition becomes unavailable under high-stress states. Brain spotting and hypnotherapy are some example of a modalities that work directly with the limbic system.
Yoga, especially kundalini yoga, dance, movement, high intensity work outs, martial art, and art therapy, are some methods for moving the body out of the chronic freeze state. The body’s nervous system communicates both ways, that is, it communicates from brain to body, but also from body to brain. Treating a chronic freeze state by addressing both the brain and the body has the best effect in my experience. It is also important to find many modalities that are done together with someone, together with people, so rather than doing yoga at home, find a class to participate in. This is because the more the social engagement system is energized, the more the freeze response is disengaged. However, if all you can do is an online class from home, it will still have great benefits.