Dr. Suzanne LaCombe, April 4, 2007.
Updated: January 6, 2010.
Ever catch yourself holding your breath, or spontaneously heaving a deep, long sigh? Read on as I propose an intriguing possibility for why this happens. (The answer is found in our mammalian wiring!)
Many people are aware that as mammals we’re wired for fight or flight. This automatic reaction propells us into action during times of danger. However, few are aware that the freeze response is an equally important and related survival mechanism.
If you enjoy nature shows (no, not March of the Penguins!) you’ve probably already seen the freeze response. You’ve also seen that a predator will ordinarily ignore prey that is not moving, for fear of contracting disease.
In the last moments of the chase, when there is literally no possibility of “fight or flight”, the victim will experience the freeze response. It will feign death by “playing possum”.
The freeze response is hard-wired in our reptilian brain. When “fight or flight” is not an option, our autonomic nervous system goes into a freeze response and we become immobilized.
The phrases “scared stiff” or “frozen with fear” reflect this mammalian characteristic. A deer that’s “frozen in the headlights” is responding likewise.
What’s important to understand.
The freeze response is an automatic, non-conscious reaction that occurs when mammals face an overwhelming threat. This response is a last ditch effort to save itself. In some instances it is the optimal survival tactic.
Where’s the ‘ol fight – flight’ when you need it!
Many who seek counseling for relief from the symptoms of trauma are puzzled when they recall how they froze in the face of inescapable danger. Indeed, they are frequently filled with shame about their reaction to what happened.
Our survival instinct is extremely strong. It is not easily overridden by the neocortex (i.e. our intentional self). In the same way that you cannot tell yourself to have a good night sleep, you cannot tell yourself not to freeze. The body chooses. It’s the optimal response at the time.
The Freeze Response
There is a growing awareness by neuroscientists that our evolutionary heritage has a greater impact on the nervous system than was previously thought. These new theories promise exciting new possiblitlies for improved human health and well-being.
This new perspective suggests that “freezing” doesn’t refer just to being motionless. It also refers to how the nervous system manages arousal during moments of traumatic stress. It is this type of freezing that causes many of us to develop trauma symptoms long after the danger has passed. In other words we may go into freeze yet not be aware of it.
Let me explain.
During an traumatic event an enormous amount of energy is released by our neuroendocrine system. This enables us to fight or flee. However, fight or flight is not always an optimal strategy in modern life.
For example, if my boss infuriates me I don’t really want to punch his lights out (i.e. fight). If my car is about to collide with another there is usually little advantage to jumping out of the car (ie. flight)–even if I had time to do so.
However, if there is sufficient resiliency in your nervous system you will be able to discharge this energy without being traumatized. For many people however this life-threatening experience sets the stage for dysregulation. The energy mobilized by the perceived threat gets “locked” into the nervous system when we go into freeze.
In these situations you may not even realize that you went into freeze, yet several months later you can still be reeling from the effects of an accident. One theory is that the nervous system has not yet discharged the energy that was mobilized for fight or flight.
This freeze response sometimes reveals itself when you breathe. Holding your breath and shallow breathing are both forms of freeze. The occasional deep sigh is the nervous system catching up on it’s oxygen intake.
Implications for counseling
What’s even more intriguing is the theoretical possibility of preventing post-traumatic symptoms. It appears that the more the nervous system is dysregulated, the greater is the tendency to move into freeze. (See Runnin Scared below)
I find this exciting because I look forward to a time when keeping our nervous system regulated is as common as dental hygiene.
Equally exciting are the implications for somatic therapy. As our clinical practices1 show, integrating the body into psychotherapy tends to restore resiliency to the nervous system, a key factor in its efficient regulation.
Runnin Scared: This is your brain on 9/11.
Scared to Death
You may find the discussion in the Counseling Psych Cafe helpful as a couple members describe the process of coming out of freeze.
1. I understand that this outcome is more easily identified in body-oriented psychotherapy. Since few clinical trials have been conducted so far, this observation remains outside mainstream psychological practice.
Resiliency may well be a common outcome in other psychotherapies however as I understand it, resiliency is not often tracked. That is, it isn’t noticed because therapists aren’t looking for it. Body psychotherapists are trained to look for it.
Levine, Peter, A. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.
Porges, Stephen, (1995). Orienting in a defensive world: Mammalian modification of our eveolutionary heritage. A polyvagal theory. Psychophysiology, 32, 301-318.
Stephen Porges’ identified two, not one, branch of the parasympathetic nervous system. His discovery of the dorsal vagal (and its relationship to the ventral vagal) has helped us to understand the relationship of the freeze response in the development of PTSD. The polyvagal theory has also been useful in understanding the mind body connection. You can access his classic 1995 article here (you will be taken off site:
Orienting in a Defensive World…A Polyvagal Theory.
Rothschild, Babette, (2000) The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment, London: W. W. Norton & Company.
Scaer, Robert C., “Precarious Present” in Psychotherapy Networker, Nov/Dec 2006.
Scaer, Robert, C., (2005). The Trauma Spectrum, New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Scaer, Robert C., (2001) The Body Bears the Burden, Haworth Press.
Here’s a more comprehensive look at the freeze response. These researchers differentiate the initial “stop, look, listen” type of freeze that happens when mammals first encounter danger from the “tonic immobility” or “fright” response that happens when there is no option for fight or flight.
Does Flight or Fight Need Updating?