Most everyone has heard of the concept of fight or flight. You might have even heard some people say “I’m a fighter” or “I flee.” You can probably recall a time your fight or flight response kicked in. An easy example would be anytime someone has jumped out and scared you. What most people are unaware of is that research has discovered a third response, freeze, and that the fight-flight-freeze response takes place on an automatic and subconscious level. The fight-flight-freeze response is a type of stress response and it is your body’s natural reaction to danger.
How Our Bodies Respond to Trauma
Let’s break this system and response down to help us all understand what exactly is happening when this stress response in our body is activated. When we face a threat or anything that is perceived as a threat, a signal is sent to our amygdala. The amygdala is the part of our brains that plays a vital role in processing fear and other emotions. Our amygdala then sends this information to our sympathetic nervous system, which controls our involuntary responses. What is key about this is the word involuntary. In other words, you have no time to think about it, the body simply reacts based on the information gathered. From there other organs and systems are activated to further protect us and move us through the stress response.
So, what does this mean exactly and why is this so critical when understanding a traumatic event? So many times, when I sit with a client and they tell me about their trauma there is a sense of anger and frustration towards themselves. I often hear “why did I not just fight or run?” This question and ones similar to it can cultivate a deep level of shame and self-loathing setting us up to believe that in moments where we are in danger, we have a choice. The truth is, we don’t. As detailed previously, our brain and body make the decision on how to respond in a split second and pick the option that sets us up for the best chance of survival. Because of this, statements such as “I’m a fighter” or “I freeze” are inherently inaccurate and create the false notion that we have a say. The response of freeze is typically the one I hear generating the most self-loathing comments. If we look at it through the lens of why your mind chose freeze, we will see that your brain chose to freeze, because it knew it gave you the best chance of survival. Your brain knew you could not outrun your attacker. It chose to freeze because it knew you could not overpower your abusive parent. Your brain chose to freeze because it knew that noise or movement may have put you in more danger. Freezing does not mean you consented to what happened or were okay with the event, it means your mind knew any other response put you at more risk. What do each of these responses look like and how might they play out? Below are some examples of what might occur during each of these responses:
Fight: Tightened jaw or fists, a drive/desire to strike out physically (punching or kicking), raised voice, anger or rage.
Flight: Shallowing breathing, inability to focus, restless movements, fidgeting, feelings of anxiety, feeling trapped, fleeing the situation.
Freeze: Feeling stuck in a certain part of your body or feeling as though you can’t move, feeling cold or numb, experiencing physical stiffness of heaviness or limbs, decreased heart-rate, restricted breathing or holding of the breath, or having a sense of dread.
An important note regarding the freeze response is that it is not abnormal. Freezing during an assault or other form of trauma is not a rare response. In one study of sexual assault survivors, 70% reported experiencing some degree of tonic immobility or freezing. Having a clearer and more accurate understanding of the flight, flight, or freeze response allows us to begin the work of deconstructing the shame that might surround trauma. It allows us to better understand our friends and family members that have experienced a traumatic event and it allows us to begin to speak truth to the event and begin to experience healing.
Rothschild, B. (2017). The body remembers. W.W. Norton.