Freeze Response to Anxiety: Understanding and Moving Through
You may have experienced the freeze response to anxiety if you suddenly feel like you’re frozen to the spot, unable to move all or parts of your body. This article will explain what the freeze response is, how it impacts the body, and how it can be a part of anxiety. We will conclude with exercises to move through the freeze response and a recommendation to reach out for additional help.
What is the freeze response?
The freeze response describes one way your central nervous system responds to threats. Your central nervous system has two main parts.
One part is the parasympathetic system. It is aroused in response to a threat and is initiated by your brain through the release of the hormones of cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones then relate to the rest of the body through the vagus nerve to respond to the threat.
These responses have been categorized into three groups: fight, flight, and freeze, which describe the body’s response. One author explained, “Freeze is accompanied by several biological responses, such as a sense of dread, feeling cold or numb, pale skin, a loud pounding heart or a decreased heart rate, feeling trapped, heaviness in the limbs, restricted breathing or holding of the breath” (Davis, 2021).
In addition, the response can further be broken down into the sub-responses of orienting freeze, when you are trying to interpret the situation; tonic immobility, which is the rigidity of muscles; and death feigning of collapse or shutdown (National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine, 2022). Knowledge of the freeze response can help you understand how anxiety is held in your body.
How do the freeze response and anxiety affect the brain?
One way to understand how anxiety and the freeze response affect the brain is through the polyvagal theory, first articulated and researched by Stephen Porges. The theory is centered on the vagus nerve—the longest cranial nerve and “it oversees a vast range of vital functions communicating sensory input from outside triggers to the rest of the body” (Davis, 2020). This nerve is central to how you interpret your surroundings and then decide how to respond to them.
When the nervous system is healthy and untraumatized, it can move through the stages of arousal and take steps to remove the threat, then return to baseline. But when an individual has repeated or prolonged exposures to threatening situations (such as childhood abuse, natural disasters, unstable home life, etc.) the nervous system may be overwhelmed by the inability to eliminate or escape the threat and may move to the freeze response. This is a way of escaping without physically removing the body from the situation.
In this state, the brain sends signals of shutdown or freeze to the body to not feel the full impact of the threat/trauma. Furthermore, “Such ‘paralyzing’ psychological phenomena as phobias, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and various anxiety states can frequently be understood as symptoms of a freeze response that never had the chance to ‘let go’ or ‘thaw out’ once the original experience was over. And many features of post-traumatic stress disorder directly relate to this kind of unrectified trauma” (Seltzer, 2015).
When faced with prolonged exposure to and an inability to escape threatening situations, the brain learns to cope with the freeze response.
The freeze response is related to anxiety in several ways. For instance, the nervous system is responsible for interpreting our environment. Examples include tones of voice, what that loud sound was, and if that person walking toward you is a friend or a foe.
When someone has a history of trauma, their nervous system is on high alert, ready to protect from anything that has been correlated with unsafety in the past. These are learned/conditioned responses where otherwise neutral stimuli have been paired with the previous experience and now your nervous system interprets them as a sign of threat.
In this way, you may feel anxious around those signals since you have been conditioned to interpret them as a sign of danger. Anxiety is a protective way your nervous system works to keep you safe and understanding how anxiety is held in your body and correlates with the freeze response is fundamental for healing.
How does the freeze response affect the body?
The freeze response begins in the brain’s automatic nervous system (ANS). It travels to the body through the vagus nerve and impacts the entire body as it sends the message to fight/flight/freeze.
Some common ways the body is activated is through the “release [of] adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormone. These hormones are released very quickly, which can affect your:
Heart rate. Your heart beats faster to bring oxygen to your major muscles…your heart rate might increase or decrease.
Lungs. Your breathing speeds up to deliver more oxygen to your blood…you might hold your breath or restrict breathing.
Eyes. Your peripheral vision increases so you can notice your surroundings. Your pupils dilate and let in more light, which helps you see better.
Ears. Your ears “perk up” and your hearing becomes sharper.
Skin. Your skin might produce more sweat or get cold. You may look pale or have goosebumps.
Hands and feet. As blood flow increases to your major muscles, your hands and feet might get cold.
Pain perception. Fight-or-flight temporarily reduces your perception of pain. (Nunez, 2021).
These are just a few of the ways to understand how anxiety is held in the body, and how it’s related to the freeze response.
Ways to move through anxiety
The crucial component of the freeze response and anxiety is the nervous system’s interpretation of what is a threat or safe. These decisions occur in milliseconds and are often automatic and involuntary. When a person is in the middle of a freeze response, talking to him or her or trying to talk through it is often not helpful since the brain is less able to pay attention to language.
Rather, focus on “bottom-up” support like breathing and small movements (National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine, 2022). Focusing on conscious movements like breathing slowly or directing attention on an object can help bring the person to the present and begin to “thaw” from the freeze.
Window of Tolerance
One helpful guide for understanding how anxiety is held in the body is the window of tolerance. This describes a person’s optimal state of alertness and calmness, as well as defining the present threshold of what triggers may push them into an anxious or freeze state.
This term was first coined by Dan Siegal, knowing these parameters can be helpful in measuring growth and healing as a person’s window of tolerance expands in capacity. For instance, as someone goes through therapy, they may notice that past triggers no longer are correlated with the freeze response, and they are able to regulate and respond when they used to react.
Tips for Moving Through the Freeze Response
Since the freeze response and anxiety are often automatic, moving through is more readily facilitated by sensory exercises than talking. Some helpful practices include:
- Breathing exercises: Conscious breathing exercises such as box breathing (inhaling for 4-5 seconds, holding for 4-5, and repeat the sequence to make a box; and 5,6,7 breathing (inhale for 5 seconds, hold for 6 seconds, release for 7 seconds). Both exercises signal calm to the parasympathetic nervous system.
- Focused attention: Looking at a close neutral object such as a chair, coffee cup, or tissue box. Then, when able, describe the object in detail.
- Movement: Simply shaking out your hands, standing up/sitting down, arm swings, or walking may help bring the body and mind back to the present.
- Five Senses Activity: First name five things you can see in the room and focus on them for several seconds as you name them. Then turn to four things you can touch. Reach out and touch them and focus on the textures. Next, focus on three things you can hear, taking several seconds to listen to each one. Follow this with two things you can smell. Finally, engage with one thing you can taste.
Overall, understanding the freeze response and how it relates to anxiety is the first step to being able to respond and move through it. There is hope for healing how your nervous system interprets your environment and expanding your window of tolerance. You can move through the freeze response. A qualified Christian counselor can help you deal with your freeze response in proactive ways based on biblical principles, so please reach out today to learn more.
Aundi Kolber, Try Softer
Deb Dana, Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection: 50 Client-Centered Practices
Stephen W. Porges, The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation
Davis, S. (2020, 3 2). Poly, What? Understanding Polyvagal Theory. Retrieved from CPSTD Foundation: https://cptsdfoundation.org/2020/03/02/poly-what-understanding-polyvagal-theory/
Davis, S. (2021, February 21). Rejection Trauma and the Freeze/Fawn Response. Retrieved from CPSD Foundation: https://cptsdfoundation.org/2022/02/21/rejection-trauma-and-the-freeze-fawn-response/
Karaca, J. (2022, January 19). An Introduction to Polyvagal Theory. Retrieved from Counselling Directory: https://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/memberarticles/an-introduction-to-polyvagal-theory
National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine. (2022, April 25). How to Overcome the Freeze Response. Retrieved from NICABM : https://www.nicabm.com/topic/freeze/
Nunez, K. (2021, February 21). Fight, Flight, Freeze: What This Response Means. Retrieved from Healthline: https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/fight-flight-freeze#in-the-mind
Seltzer, L. F. (2015, July 8). Trauma and the Freeze Response: Good, Bad, or Both? Retrieved from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201507/trauma-and-the-freeze-response-good-bad-or-both
“Stressed”, Courtesy of Simran Sood, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Enjoying the Outdoors”, Courtesy of Tracey Hocking, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sitting on the Rail”, Courtesy of Getty Images, Unsplash.com, Unsplash+ License; “Standing in the Sun”, Courtesy of Cristian Lozan, Unsplash.com, CC0 License