In my trauma-focused therapy practice in Portland, Oregon, it’s very common for me to see clients who experience the “freeze” response. And when my clients admit that they shut-down in current situations, sadly, I find that too many feel shame.
Many of you know about the fight, flight, or freeze response, but the one response that is the least understood is “freeze”. Misunderstandings and shame seem to go hand-in-hand; our society values action. We’re taught that “doing something about it” is commendable. And expected. (Even our court systems don’t necessarily understand this “do-nothing response”. It’s difficult for me to see that.)
“Doing nothing or freezing” – is that an inferior response to stressors? Absolutely not.
If your stress response is to freeze give yourself compassion. Your response is not your choice – it’s a hard wired response from past traumatic experiences – and your body automatically chooses the safest response possible to conflict and trauma, even if you don’t remember where it all started.
Let me explain. Our brains were developed to protect ourselves. Like the animal world, our brains can brilliantly make a split-second decision when there’s “danger”. Are we strong enough to fight? Have the speed to flee? The most adaptive response is to flee. But here’s the wisdom in the freeze: when the choices of fighting or fleeing are too dangerous, our brain signals our best choice is to freeze. Freezing also happens when we have inescapable stress: it does not need to be a physical danger. So believe in your body’s inherent wisdom to choose your best strategy for safety.
Freeze and trauma in childhood
The freeze response can be best explained for a child. If as a child you experienced threatening situations, such as a caregiver not providing a safe home, what could you have done? You were not strong enough to fight the source of danger, nor get away from it, so the natural reaction would be for your body to shut down. This is the wisest choice for a child – to immediately react and become frozen in adverse situations. And – if this happened to you over and over – your whole nervous system conditioned you into leaning towards this freeze response going forward.
Trauma-based therapy to heal the freeze response
This common freeze response is just another reason why I choose a treatment other than talk or cognitive therapy. When someone talks about a past situation, they can easily again shut down. My trauma-response therapy uses ART (Accelerated Resolution Therapy), which builds upon learnings from EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). ART uses a much different, more effective and gentler approach than traditional talk therapy.
Being guided in therapy to even silently remember something can bring up a freeze response – although to a lesser degree. In my practice, I look to guide a person away from reliving a trauma. I watch for physical signs such as losing a train of thought, having a certain look in the eyes, becoming distracted, having shortness of breath, and other reactions.
Is there hope to overcome one’s freeze response? Absolutely. Psychotherapists who specialize in trauma learn to see all the subtle and not so subtle physical signs to keep the therapy on track. And I respond very, very gently as we try certain methods to keep moving beyond the trauma. For example, I’ll reassure a patient that this is a temporary response. I’ll ask the patient to perhaps do things like nod or move the eyes from left to right. Or notice the safety of the room. We stay present until the sympathetic response has calmed down so, together, we can move forward with treatment. This process is quiet, calm, and cannot be hurried.
Online resources on the freeze response
If you are interested in learning more about the brain and the freeze response, here is one short video story on NICABM’s website (National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine). Here, Peter Levine, PhD, comments on the need to help a client release a body’s freeze energy response. Even though this site is for professionals, I think NICABM’s resources can often be helpful for others.
I specialize in trauma-focused therapy here in Portland, Oregon. Currently I am offering this therapy via telehealth and I continue to experience remarkable results. I invite you to contact me to learn how my treatment approach, that frequently includes Accelerated Resolution Therapy, can help you heal. Or, please feel free to contact me for your first appointment. Together we can change your life.