When we are faced with actual or perceived dangerous or threatening situations,
our fight, flight or freeze stress response is activated. This unconscious defence mechanism enables us to instantaneously evaluate the situation and triggers a series of physiological processes to support survival. The sympathetic branch
of our autonomic nervous system (ANS) is a crucial part of the process, releasing stress hormones to drive our fight or flight behaviour. The chemical effects of these hormones, for example palpitations, rapid breathing and trembling, are common physical symptoms of anxiety and panic. While the fight or flight response is
widely-known, the freeze response is less familiar. Understanding this defence mechanism illustrates why, when we encounter stressful situations, we sometimes appear to do nothing.
Our freeze response is triggered when fighting or fleeing the situation or person
is not an option. From a physiological perspective, the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of our ANS are simultaneously activated. However,
with fight or flight unable to aid survival, the parasympathetic branch takes control. Commonly associated with a state of relaxation, our parasympathetic system counterbalances the physical effects of the stress hormones flooding our body.
This process triggers a state of ‘freezing’, our heart rate and breathing slows down and we may find that we hold our breath. We may feel cold or numb and we might experience a sense of being trapped within our body. Pain killing hormones can also be released into our system to reduce the physical and emotional impact.
Our memory may also be affected, leaving us struggling to recollect part of or all
of the experience.
Freezing is often associated with traumatic experiences and can leave us paralysed in fear. In such distressing situations, the physical impact of our stress hormones are magnified, causing intense negative emotions including extreme shock, anxiety, panic and terror. Powerless to defend ourselves, the experience becomes too much for us to cope with and our brain shuts down, enabling us to dissociate from the experience. Dissociation can alter our perceptions on reality, time may appear to slow down and we might experience complete separation, where we are an observer or watching the events unfold in a film. Freezing therefore has adaptive functions; it protects us physically, emotionally and psychologically and it can also enable us to ‘fake our own death’, which may give us the opportunity to escape from our attacker.
Freezing can also be triggered when we experience anxiety or panic in our everyday life. Social situations, interviews, exams, giving a presentation and relational conflict can all lead us to freeze. Our mind may go blank leaving us struggling to defend ourselves and it is only when the perceived threat has passed that we think of things we could have said or done differently. When we experience shock, we may react in an exaggerated way to when we are surprised. We open our eyes wide, to process the situation and open our mouths ready to scream or take in air and run. Freezing can therefore give us time to decide if we are in personal danger.
Although freezing serves adaptive purposes, it can have a detrimental affect our mental health. We can feel guilt, shame and self-directed anger if we consider we have not protected ourselves. It is important to remember that freezing is an unconscious defence mechanism and in the moment, offered the best chance of survival.