Fight, Flight and – that’s it – freeze. In this article we have a look at where the freeze response comes from, what it does, and why it’s important. The more awareness you have about your body’s instinctual patterns and behaviour, the more empowered you will be.
What is the freeze state?
There are two primary freeze responses. Firstly, there is an ‘orienting freeze’ which kicks in when faced with a predator. As humans, and therefore animals, we are evolutionarily programmed to have this ‘fight or flight’ reaction. We experience a small dip in the heart rate at such times. A good example could be when you hear a siren or the sound of squealing brakes. Our bodies are preparing themselves for action, quite possibly extreme action.
As our predator moves closer, we then undergo the fight or flight response. If, however, neither of these options are available to us, there is one further (emergency) option. This is when the freeze response can kick in – when neither running or fighting are possible. This response has a vital role to play in the evolution of the planet and of our species. Apart from anything else, we do not feel pain while in the freeze response. All the better for being eaten!
How to tell if we’re stuck in freeze
Pat Ogden mentions physical indicators – tension we can feel in the body. Clients say they feel ‘stuck’. So certainly this is a very physical experience. It’s not a thought, it’s not an emotion, it’s energy that has become stuck in the body. It is a physical experience.
The first move to address the residual ‘freeze’ is to get the client moving. This was always their instinctive response. As it never had a chance to express itself, it rests in the body, dormant.
The nervous system
We can, and must, now apply Polyvagal theory to trauma. What really helps the body’s ability to rediscover its own ability to self-regulate, For a nervous system to feel the presence of another regulated nervous system is of fundamental importance. This is what was missing the first time around, and provides the safety net that allows the tension to relax again.
When working with a facilitator, it’s fundamental that both participants stay in communication with their nervous systems. It’s also known as ‘resonance’ and represents the facilitator’s ability to be present and open to what is alive in their client without judgement.
A good facilitator will be extremely present, picking up on what their client’s nervous system might need in that moment. The facilitator must demonstrate this presence and connection through careful eye interrelation, directly and openly with them. It’s also important to use a soft cadence to the voice. And always remember, you can’t hurry the nervous system into feeling safe.
What to say
Stay with me. Can you feel your feet on the ground?
Can you nod your head for yes, and shake your head for no?
Then ask Yes/No questions
Are you feeling a lot of fear?
Would you be willing to turn your eyes so you can see as far to the right as possible?
Some advice for helping you manage it
Working with the freeze response, we can make use of enormous amount of information that a client gives us when in this state. Or if we are focusing on ourselves, just be open and receptive to what is going on in the body, the feelings and sensations that are alive in that state.
It’s also worth being aware of what triggers your freeze response. Did it come out of nowhere? What brought it on? How did I interpret the situation and what ‘buttons’ did it push for me?