Understanding Stress: The Freeze Response

woman holding snow heart in handsI have strong hermit tendencies. Especially when I’m in a funk, I retreat. I’ve been like this since I was a little girl. If I was hurt or sad, I would curl into a little ball and hide. I didn’t want anyone to help me, touch me, even look at me. Somewhere along the way, I learned this way of coping— isolate, hunker down, hide, wait it out. On the one hand, it effectively shields the people around me from the negative energy I’m putting out, and on the other hand, it makes it hard for anyone to help me. It feels primal, this drive to be alone when I feel really vulnerable.  

Turns out it is! Psychologists refer to this as a “freeze” response. A freeze response is a trauma response where instead of fighting or fleeing in response to a stressful trigger, we shut down. This is a contracted, disassociated state. Women are more prone to freeze responses than men, as evolutionarily it was more practical for us to hide than to fight or run from predators. Signs you’re in a freeze response: blank stare, zoning out, lack of blinking, hard to feel your body, can’t think clearly.

I’ve gotten a lot better at taking care of myself in these times. In the past, I might spend days feeling anxious, disconnected, and disassociated to the point where I couldn’t figure out what was going to help. My brain just shut down any useful input. These days I know that to thaw the freeze response requires I do a few key things.

How to Unthaw from a Freeze Response

  1. Move your body. I resist doing this. Going to yoga or hiking always feels like too much work when I’m in a “freeze” state. But jumping on my rebounder, or dancing to a song, or playing with my hula hoop feels manageable. It’s like magic, the moment I get moving I can feel the disassociation start to lessen. Move for the sake of moving, there’s no wrong way.  woman dancing
  2. Write/create. I process through creativity. It’s often writing, but any kind of creative process works— interior design, gardening, cooking, photography are a few others I gravitate towards. Choose whatever creative outlet brings you joy and is conveniently accessed.
  3. Acupuncture. Acupuncture connects you with your body. Your energy is stimulated by acupoints and it’s very difficult to disassociate or stay in a frozen state while receiving acupuncture. I often don’t realize I’ve been a bit numbed out until I get acupuncture and feel the difference.
  4. Connect with another human or animal. Even though this is the last thing I want to do in these episodes, it ultimately helps. When we can be witnessed in our experience, it helps us transcend the freeze response. Being around someone who isn’t also in a trauma-reaction allows our nervous system to resonate with theirs. This can aid in pulling us out of the stress reaction. Stroking the fur of your favorite pet can also help pull you back into the present moment and down-regulate your nervous system.
  5. Tune into your 5 senses. Because a freeze-response is marked by a disconnection from your body and the present moment, tuning into your 5 sessions is a simple way to snap you out of it. Start by blinking quickly, this helps get the brain out of a PTSD state. Then focus on something close to your body, a plant, photo, piece of furniture. Notice any sounds you hear or smells you smell. Rub your feet along the floor and your hands along your thighs to reconnect with the sensations of touch and get back into your body.
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2019-04-24T11:05:09-06:00

About the Author:

Caitlin Gordon, M.S., L.Ac., C.M.F.P., is a functional medicine clinician, board-certified acupuncturist, and transformative health coach based in Boulder, Colorado. Owner of Amaluna Wellness, Caitlin treats patients online and in-person. She specializes in treating stress, anxiety, and depression without pharmaceuticals.

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