Stress Response: Freeze

Have you ever experienced the phenomenon of driving home from your daily activities and suddenly you’re at home with no memory of how you got there?  This common occurrence is an everyday example of the freeze response (dissociation) in action. In last month’s newsletter we looked at the flight response and over the next few months we will be diving deep into the subject of each of the 4Fs. This month we are looking at the freeze response.  

Briefly, the 4F’s are: 

  1. Fight – occurs when we have the resources to defeat the threat (real or imagined). Our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) pumps out adrenaline to our body so that we can fight off the threat. This is not always a literal physical altercation. It can also be a verbal argument, defensiveness, and – in extreme and chronic cases – narcissism. 
  2. Flight – occurs when we can’t beat the threat, but we can outrun it. In our modern era we are not often literally running from a threat, so our flight response looks more like an obsessive and compulsive need to keep busy. A person with flight as their primary response is likely to be perceived as a doer, a “type A” person, an achiever, or on the other side of the same coin may have more ADHD-like symptoms. When flight types slow down, they are likely to be worrying or making lists or planning to be doing something later on. 
  3. Fawn – the old adage “if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em” pretty well sums up the fawn response. Someone for whom fawning is their primary response to stress is likely to engage in people pleasing and codependent behaviors. We give up our own rights and needs in service to the needs of others. Folks who fawn may have trouble with self care, self efficacy, and boundaries. 
  4. Freeze – This response happens when there is no way to escape the stressor, so we escape through leaving the situation mentally. We escape through daydreaming, spacing out, watching T.V., playing video games and other right brain activities. Freeze is also the response that is engaged when we forget things that happened in our lives.    

Signs and symptoms of an activated freeze response: 

  • Spacing out, staring
  • Unexplained dizziness
  • Minimizing (“It’s not a big deal”)
  • Derealization (denial) 
  • Difficulty expressing or sensing one’s identity
  • Changing ourselves depending on the situation or people we are around, like a chameleon
  • Feeling disconnected
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Unexplained vision challenges
  • Forgetting events or periods of time
  • Daydreaming
  • Feeling disconnected from your body
  • High tolerance for pain
  • Inability to name or describe one’s emotions
  • Feeling detached from oneself or others
  • Dulled senses

The ultimate goal of the freeze response is to avoid feeling painful emotions. Some might refer to this coping style as “numbing”. In psychology it is known as “dissociation”. We can be in an acute freeze response (think deer in headlights) or we can be in a chronic freeze response (think zombie). In an acute freeze response we may experience difficulty moving parts of our body, or speaking. We may also forget the event all together. With a chronically activated freeze response, we may feel like the dimmer switch on our life, feelings, sensations, and relationships has been turned down. As with all of the stress responses, the freeze response is trying to keep us safe. The body will do whatever it takes to protect us. In the moment that an adverse event is taking place, our body decides that the best thing it can do for our survival is to disconnect and forget about what’s happening. This act by the psyche on our behalf can literally be life saving. It can also cause problems in our lives if we dissociate more often than is helpful. 

Dissociation can happen on many different levels. On the most extreme end is Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), which has been referred to in pop culture as “multiple personalities”. What happens in this situation is that the individual separates from themselves, or rather separates off aspects of themselves that they have deemed to be “bad”.  Those separated parts then become separate internal identities, or personalities. The part may express itself externally without the awareness of the individual or the other parts. 

Not all of us who dissociate have DID. Most people are fragmented to some degree. We all have parts of ourselves that we don’t like, and so we shove them into a dark part of our psyche where they can be forgotten. A familiar example of this phenomenon is the little boy who was told that “boys don’t cry”. If given that message consistently enough from caregivers and society, that child will push that emotional part of themselves away. They will disown their feelings and disconnect from them. Those disconnected aspects become what some healers call parts, others call them shadow selves, and others call them inner children.  Have you ever had a reaction to something that felt out of character or unaligned with your values? That may be a part of you coming up and expressing itself in order to be healed. What our parts, shadow self, or inner children want is to be acknowledged.  Once we acknowledge them we can begin the process of rebuilding our connection with them and develop a sense of wholeness and healthy emotional expression. 

Dissociation is not just a psychological phenomenon. We may also dissociate from our physical body. This circumstance is common among people who have been physically abused in some way and those who have had physical trauma such as an injury or surgery (especially if it is cyclical and chronic). This disconnect is also possible if we feel negatively about our body or have body based judgements. When we are disconnected from our body, we may be prone to accidents or see ourselves as “clumsy”. We may also experience a high tolerance for pain and/or low sensitivity to touch. Working with healers like Dr. Devin, Dr. Ruth, and Dr. Jake can help us to come back into our body and develop a new relationship with our physical selves.  

Dissociating is something that many of us do without realizing. When we learn that our sense of safety requires us to mentally check out of stressful situations, we may end up using that acutely necessary coping mechanism chronically – out of habit and without awareness. We may also utilize things like food, TV, social media scrolling, alcohol, or drugs to keep us in a dissociated state. Food and freezing go hand in hand, as many of us use food to self induce dissociation. This is one more example of emotion based food cravings. We may sit in front of the T.V. eating mindlessly and drinking alcohol, the self induced freeze trifecta!  We are also more likely to eat past the point of physical satisfaction when we eat dissociated, as that means we feel fewer physical sensations.   

A Piece of Jess’ Story – A Snapshot of Walking Dissociation 

An average day sometime between 2015 and 2018 . . . . ..

I’m sitting in a group room at the Oregon State Psychiatric Hospital listening as my client discusses their experience during our check in. Suddenly, I start to feel very tired. My vision is blurry and I can’t seem to think straight. I try to squint, try opening my eyes wider, but nothing is helping my vision. I focus really hard on the words that the client is saying, but I just can’t seem to track it. For a moment, I wonder if I’m having a stroke. 

When the individual is done speaking, I offer a canned empathetic response and move on to the next group member. I feel hazy like this for the rest of the verbal check in. I muddle through the group and then leave the treatment area to go back to my office for charting.

When I arrive at my desk I sit at my computer and then ask myself “What do I need to do?” I open a few programs on my computer until I remember that I need to open the charting software. I start charting and notice that about halfway through each note I write that I space out. I stop typing, and have no idea where my mind goes. I figure I must be sleepy and go get some coffee. I end up not finishing the notes because I just can’t think, and now my eye is twitching. I feel so spacey and detached from what I’m doing. The thoughts are disconnected from each other and I can’t seem to put things together.   

At home I feel really tired. All I want is to lay on the couch and watch a show. I just have no energy to do anything else. When my partner gets home, he and I play videogames for a while before settling in, in front of the T.V. with some takeout and a beer. 

I wouldn’t know until much later that I was dissociated. I lived like this to varying degrees for most of my life with no awareness of what was happening. I like to call this phenomenon “walking dissociation”. In his paper, “The 4Fs: A Trauma Typology in Complex PTSD” Pete Walker says it’s as if our starter button is stuck in the “off” position. 

My life changed after the birth of my son. Our birth experience was a very dramatic one. I had not thought of it as traumatic until I was at my follow up appointment with my OB/GYN being diagnosed with postpartum depression. She said that the diagnosis was common among people who experience traumatic births. I asked her what she meant. My understanding of trauma was limited by my judgements and experiences treating people who had experienced extreme abuse and violence. Allowing myself to see my experience in the hospital as traumatic opened the door for reflection on other points in my life. 

I began to remember things from my childhood that I had previously forgotten. These memories came back in floods of somatic experiences. It was as if my body was in the past and my consciousness was caught somewhere between the past and the present. Like a phantom of the past was in my home and whispering in my ear and touching my body. In many of the memories I was looking at myself rather than experiencing the memory from my own vantage point. This kind of memory is common among those of us who dissociate. My therapist gave me a new diagnosis: PTSD.

I had always lived with pain and had a variety of health conditions. I had been seeing a chiropractor, acupuncturist, and massage therapist. As these memories began to resurface, I spoke to my chiropractor about it, and he said “Jess, your pain is never going to get better until you deal with this. I can keep treating you and you’ll get some relief for a little while, but it will keep coming back.” He referred me to Dr. Devin, who was just opening her new private practice. He said that she could help release the trauma stored in my body with a gentle visceral approach. I had no idea what to expect, but I sent her an email and set up an appointment. 

Though I had been working with mental health professionals, I was still really struggling. I was taking numerous prescriptions for the individual symptoms I was having. I was also seeing a talk therapist, focused on cognitive behavioral therapy. I was making some improvements, but trauma doesn’t just impact our brains. It affects our whole being. I started seeing really big shifts after I began addressing the physical challenges I was having. 

The first thing that I noticed about working with Dr. Devin is that when I told her about the strange sensations I was experiencing, ones that had confounded other healthcare professionals, she just said “yep” like it was totally expected. Dr. Devin also knew when I was dissociating. She’d ask “Are you with me?” and I would realize that my vision was blurry and I was wrapped up in a story in my mind, and not at all in the room with her. She would help me come back into my body, usually by asking me to concentrate on my breath. Most importantly, she saw me. She saw me in a deep way and accepted me. What I needed was a safe place to just be me, where there were no expectations, no one to impress, and nothing to hide. Her seeing me in this way opened a door for me to see myself. The moment that door opened is when my life began to change for the better.

In addition to my work with Dr.Devin, I now see a trauma therapist who has introduced me to Internal Family Systems. In this modality, we meet and build relationships with those separated parts of ourselves. I’ve come to realize that everything about myself that I want to change is connected to a part of me who is either wounded, or is trying to protect me. Getting to know these parts has been incredibly powerful. I think it’s especially impactful for folks like me who have felt alone for most of their lives. Now, when I feel lonely, I can check in with my parts and see how they are. I can take all of us out for a walk or do some gardening together. And somehow, taking care of those parts of myself is easier than taking care of just me. I do more selfcare these days because I know that they need it. I know that they need to see me take care of myself. It’s funny, I’m still more able to do for others than myself, which is my fawning response in action. We’ll talk more about fawning in a later newsletter. I’ll share more stories and insights then. For now, I’ll leave you with one last thought.  

My body began to freeze when I was a child. As children, we have little opportunity to fight back or to escape the things that we are experiencing. Many of us feel this way as adults too. We may feel trapped in a relationship or a job. We can survive these situations by numbing ourselves, but how do we thrive? We can begin to thrive when we connect to ourselves, emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually.  Along with support from a healer, everyday practices such as meditation, breathwork, and physical activity can support us in connecting back into ourselves. How will you connect with yourself today?