The Freeze Response – by Joy

This article was generously submitted by a guest writer for

Written by Joy Richardson

For Julie Woodley

 The Freeze Response

Have you ever been so afraid that you have felt paralyzed?  When a frightening event occurs, many of us become stuck like deer in the headlights.  This can happen to us even if we are in the position to help some one else who is hurt or being hurt or help ourselves.  Victims in hostage situations sometimes choose not to take a chance on escaping because of the physical and psychological phenomena that occurs when life is threatened.

At the moment of contact (or just before), the hunted impala falls to the ground, surrendering to its impending death.  Though it may be still uninjured it seems that the prey has given up.  This is different from playing possum.  The stone-still animal is not pretending to be dead, it has instinctively entered an altered state of awareness shared by all mammals when death appears imminent.

I used to own rabbits that lived in a large cage outside my home in Australia.  When I would try to catch one of my rabbits, at first it would dart away as fast as it could.  When I finally cornered it and there seemed to be no escape for the rabbit, it froze, surrendering with its head low in a submissive gesture.

Many indigenous peoples view this phenomenon as a surrender of the spirit of the prey to the predator, which, in a manner of speaking, it is.  Physiologists call this state the ‘immobility’ or ‘freezing’ response.  As in the Greek myth of Medusa, the human confusion that may ensue when we stare death or danger in the face can turn us to stone.  We may literally freeze in fear.

I have been in situations where I was being harmed and there were people around me that would not come to my aid.  For decades I harbored a bitter resentment toward these people.  I simply could not understand why they would not help me.  I had thought that they were terrible people, or that they had decided I wasn’t worth the effort of saving.  Surprisingly, my anger toward them was even more intense than my anger at the people who directly hurt me.  I knew about the fight response, I knew about the flight response, but until I learned about the third response, the freeze response, I could not forgive them.

Some of us are more susceptible to the freezing response than others.  Children are especially vulnerable.  Their young minds go into shock mode when they sense danger.  I have had friends who wonder why as a child they didn’t try to fight their abusers or even flee.  “How could I have been so stupid?”  They say.  “Was there some part of me that liked the abuse?  Was it really abuse if I did not try to stop it?”  But this is not about intelligence or the severity of abuse.  The adrenaline coursing through our body like lightning produces different states of mind for different people.  When a parent realizes they have accidentally driven over their child, there is an explosion of neurological activity after the initial shock.  One parent might be able to literally lift the car off of their child while the other parent might simply stare at the scene with their mouth hanging open, unable to do anything but scream or faint.  This does not make one parent more loving or brave than the other, it is simply their body’s response to traumatic stress.

If you have experienced this response because of trauma, do not blame yourself for not rising above the fear.  In that moment, your mind simply could not allow your body to fight or flee.  I also encourage you to not blame others who experienced this response in the face of danger.  They may have wanted very badly to help you, but the freeze response overcame them.  Realizing this can give you peace and you will come to the realization that the human mind is complex, sensitive, and strong, but it does have its limits.

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