The Freeze Response in a Time of Distress: How it Works

The Freeze Response in a Time of Distress

We’ve all heard of the flight or fight response to adverse situations. These are the responses governed by our autonomic nervous system: An age-old system part of our brain stem that has helped the human race survive for millennia.

Then why is it that, sometimes, when we face a dangerous or traumatic situation, we freeze? The situation overwhelms us. The freeze response kicks in. We feel stuck in our bodies, unable to move. Our chests feel constricted, our thoughts are unclear. We’re like deer in the headlights.

Our freeze response is also governed by our autonomic nervous system

This is thanks to our parasympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system. Ironically, it’s the same system, the same hormones, and the same neurochemicals that helps us to unwind after a long day which also cause the freeze response.

Without us having to think about it, it kicks into action when we need to conserve energy. Our heart rate slows down, our body spends more energy on digesting food, our muscles relax, we produce more saliva, and our pupils and our chests constrict as we no longer need to breathe hard and fast.

The freeze response in nature

Why would we need to conserve energy in a threatening situation? Imagine a tiny baby gazelle being hunted by a gigantic lioness. In no reality can it fight off its predator. It soon realizes that the lioness is faster and gaining on him. When the gazelle realizes that it can neither flee nor fight the lioness, its parasympathetic nervous system takes control and starts to conserve energy.

The buck will appear immobile in the hope that the lioness will think that it is dead and leave. It will release large amounts of endorphins in anticipation of immense pain. This is always a secondary reaction – a final resort and a sign of giving up.

The Freeze Response in a Time of Distress

You have 3 options: fight, flight, or fright. Which one will you choose? Chances are, you won't know until it's time.

Fighting the feeling of being powerless

As humans, when we are faced with a threat, our autonomic nervous system quickly assesses whether we should fight or flee to protect ourselves. Too often, we regard the threat as too overwhelming.

Without even thinking about it, we lose hope that we can overcome the adversity that we face. Our parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and we are literally paralyzed with fear. We go into a state of immobility. It's our hope that the threat will go away by itself, that the predator will lose interest.

We are not powerless. #DontFreeze Click To Tweet

The freeze response is exactly what we strive to avoid through nurturing a combat mindset. Before we even come face to face with our adversary, we need to believe that, as women, we are not powerless. With clarity of thought and strong hearts we can be aware of our surroundings.

So lets be fully prepared to take on what is out there whether it is by fight or flight, but never by freezing. And if you do freeze and go into that state where you feel hopeless and detached from the situation, ground yourself in the here and now.

Make your body aware that it’s not down time – it’s go time.

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