Thursday, 21 January 2016

The freeze response

As a survivor of sexual abuse a term I’m familiar with, and have often experienced, is the fight or flight response. I believe it is our way of surviving instinctively when faced with traumatic situations. In my reflections over the past couple of months, I’ve noticed that in certain situations I feel unable to fight or walk away, instead I simply freeze. Intrigued by this revelation and interested in finding out more, I did some research and was relieved to find that the fight or flight response is now referred to as the fight, flight or freeze response.

I’m sure we have all seen footage of predatory attacks where an animal suddenly “plays dead” in order to potentially survive. It’s interesting how humans adapt the same technique in dangerous situations. I recently saw a film of a polar bear being chased, he suddenly froze and his body started shaking. Seeing this image of the polar bear shaking made me cast my mind back to a traumatic event in my life. I remember the way my body shook profusely for what felt like hours after the event, now I realise it was my body’s natural stress release.

The freeze response occurs more commonly in children as the capacity to protect themselves is limited. In adulthood the capacity to deal with difficult situations should be greater than it was earlier. However, those of us who were exposed to ongoing trauma during childhood might rely on this response in adulthood, and use it inappropriately. Anxiety, phobias and panic attacks can frequently be symptoms of a freeze response that was never processed once the original experience was over. PTSD can be directly linked to these unrectified traumas.

In my experience, a situation in the here and now has reminded me of a trauma suffered years ago. The original fear or panic linked to that memory has made me feel as though what happened in the past is actually happening in that moment, and this is when the freeze response has come into play. As a child I adapted and used this defence mechanism to dissociate from the pain and trauma. As an adult it has been frustrating when my body goes into freeze mode again and I’m seemingly unable to act appropriately.

Thankfully I have been able to work through some of these triggers with a counsellor, and the panic and fear I felt in certain situations has gone away. On reflection, it seems that my present freezing reactions aren’t necessarily linked to a specific memory so I believe they may be caused by heightened stress. The reactions have certainly decreased since therapy though and I no longer feel I’m living between the past and present, so my observations are positive.

The challenge I’m faced with at the moment is learning to recognise when I’m using the freeze response. If I am able to feel it happening, I think I will use grounding techniques similar to those I have used when experiencing a flashback, such as noticing the environment around me, reminding myself I am safe and concentrating on my breathing. I realise the importance of understanding that the freeze response is an automatic, subconscious reaction. I accept that my body chooses to use this response from time to time but I’m glad to know more about it.