What Trauma Experts Say About the “Freeze Response”

Many people have experienced some kind of trauma in their lives. I know I have. I’m taking a five part series called the Advanced Master Program on the Treatment of Trauma, presented by the The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine. (NCIB). It’s facilitated by a variety of Mental Health professionals: doctors, phycologists and therapists. In today’s blog, I’ll be exploring what trauma experts say about the “freeze response” and how they treat it. If you or someone you know has experienced it, this article will help you understand it and get treatment.

Two types of the freeze response

The two types of freeze responses are orienting and fight or flight.   Orienting lasts only a minute or two and everyone has experienced it.  An example of the orienting “freeze” response is when you’re driving and you hear breaks squealing, sirens from an ambulance or someone cuts you off in traffic.  Your heart rate drops because you sense danger. But it only lasts for a minute or so as you realize you’re not in danger. The ambulance passes you. The squealing breaks don’t mean someone is going to hit you. The car that cut you off isn’t going to hit you. You go back to your normal state

Fight or flight is the second type of response. It’s developed as a survival skill because of past repeated trauma such as childhood abuse. If it never gets resolved, as adults certain triggers will throw us into fight or flight. 

Have you experienced trauma?

If you’ve experienced trauma and it hasn’t been resolved, certain experiences may trigger you into a freeze response. Maybe you were attacked and robbed before and it traumatized you. Let’s say you’re out walking in the dark, you’re alone and you hear footsteps behind you.  Suddenly, you tense-up, you become hyper-alert, your energy goes up and all of a sudden you can’t budge.  You’re unresolved trauma has been triggered and you’re frozen.

The freeze response triggers the fight or flight response

This is what trauma experts say about the “freeze response.” Freezing affects the central nervous system which prepares us for the fight or flight response. It tells us to get the hell away from someone or somewhere because we’re in danger.  When you get triggered, you revert back to the trauma, and experience wanting to “flee,” but you can’t.  It affects your breath, posture and causes the muscles to become rigid.  These sensations stop in the thalamus in the brain and never make it to the cortex to fully integrate the experience.  That’s why you re-experience the trauma. It’s like a loop that goes around and around.

If you experienced trauma from abuse as a child or an adult, you used the freeze response as a survival skill. What was happening to you was so horrific that you shut down. You stopped taking in what was happening in your internal and external world.

Since shutting down was the survival skill that prevented you from experiencing the horror of what was happening., you can revert back to this “freeze” response if that same experience is triggered.  It’s like you go offline and you can’t hear or feel what is happening around you. 

The abused person feels self-blame and shame from the freeze response. They replay the trauma and try to figure out what they could have done differently, because they don’t realize their freeze response was what helped them to survive. 

Getting help

girl with hands over face and fingerings  on four sides pointing at her in blame
A freeze victim feels shame and self-blame

If you’ve experienced this in the past it’s best to seek the help of a mental health counselor.  Or maybe you are in a position where you deal with people who are in a freeze response. This could be a parent, a teacher, medical professionals: paramedics, doctors, nurses, medical assistants, etc. If you feel you or someone else needs help a good place to start is MentalHealth.gov. They list a variety of resources and contact phone numbers.

What trauma experts say about the “freeze response”

Now we’ll explore what trauma experts say about the freeze response and how they treat their patients.

The therapist can recognize the response if the patient’s breath goes shallow and their eyes are fixed. When a patient freezes, their awareness shuts down and they can’t take anything in. They stop sensing what’s happening in their internal and external worlds.

The therapist must act slowly to bring the patient out of the freeze

Two turtles on a log
The therapist acts slowly to bring the patient out of the freeze response

Since the patient’s nervous system is overwhelmed, and it can’t be rushed, the therapist must work slowly with her. She is actually terrified and needs to be assured she is safe as the therapist guides her back to the present. The therapist must respond to the overwhelmed nervous system. Empathy won’t work since the nervous system has shut down and the patient can’t take anything in.

Movement helps bring the patient to the present

Movement helps bring the person out of the freeze. The therapist will start out saying something like: “stay with me” and then ask if they can feel their hands, fingers or feet. They might encourage them to use micro-movements like blink their eyes or lift a finger.

The therapist can ask yes or no questions and ask the patient if they can nod their head to indicate their response.  You learn this at a very young age—around 6 months, and it’s automatic. If she nods yes, then the therapist might ask “are you feeling a lot of fear?” The patient needs to understand that the therapist knows how incredibly terrified they are. 

If they patient can’t move, their eyes can

Pretty girl with blue eyes and auburn hair with a cloth covering the lower part of her face
When the patient can’t move, the eyes can.

If the patient can’t move, their eyes still can.  So the therapist asks if they’ll move their eyes as far as they can to the right. Looking all the way to the right makes the head turn and makes them move. Since the patient is terrified, it must be done slowly to assure the patient they are safe. If it’s done quickly the patient will feel they are in even more danger and is unlikely to respond.

The therapist can ask the patient to focus on the breathing if they still haven’t calmed down. If her breathing is still very fast, the therapist would offer to breath with her. Breathing slower activates the parasympathetic nerve which helps the patient calm down.

Additionally, the therapist can ask that the patient describe three non-threatening things in the room. Maybe a painting, a plant, or a clock  Having them name things serves as an anchor and connects them back to the present.  This calms the parasympathetic nerve (which activates in the fight or flight response).

What to do after the freeze ends

The patient doesn’t know what happened because it’s a nervous system response and they don’t connect their feelings with their bodies. It’s not a response to a question like: how are you? How do you feel? So the therapist has to help the client find an expression for what they feel in the body, like describing the tension and where they feel it.

A rewind when the freeze response ends

A tape recording rewinding
After the trigger, the therapist does a rewind with the patient

When the patient is out of the trigger the therapist helps her rewind. She asks what triggered the response and what happened before it. Maybe she remembers how she used to hear the abuser get home, or the smell of alcohol. Because this happens before the freeze the client is still able to take action and flee. This helps her prepare and take action to stop the freeze from occurring.

Additionally, this helps the client shift the content out of the memory. Remember, in trauma, the experience reaches the thalamus but not the cortex which makes the memory incomplete. If they pre-plan and know they can take action, then they’ve learned to “flee” the memory in a sense.

The therapist needs to help the patient understand the affect the freeze has on the nervous system. To do this, they have the patient focus on what the body is doing and describe what it feels like. Maybe she feels tight in certain parts. After she identifies that, the therapist asks what action the body wants to take? Since they were frozen during the abuse, asking them what their body wants to do is important. Maybe they wanted to push the abuser, or twist or turn away. The therapist has the patient do that move and this helps them take action against the trauma.

Celebrate the accomplishment

After she takes action and the patient feels calm, together they celebrate the moment. This helps the patient tune into more positive emotions, change their beliefs, and empowers them.

Again, I found this valuable information at Advanced Master Program on the Treatment of Trauma, presented by The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NCIB) if you’d like more information. Also, if you’ve experienced trauma — whether it be the freeze response or something else, contact your local mental health agency or MentalHealth.gov.

Leave a comment below or click the link to email me. Your perspective on trauma would be greatly appreciated and you can help others in that process.

Until next week, from my pen ✍️ to your heart ❤️–Kathy

Picture of Kathy the blogger
Kathy the blogger

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.