Freezing in the face of panic

Flight and fight responses to panic tend to be easy to spot. If not at the time, then at least with hindsight. Freezing isn’t so self announcing. It’s taken me a while to even identify when and why I respond that way because even from the inside it can be hard to spot.

From the outside, freezing is easily misread. All too often it is taken as a kind of passive consent to what’s happening. This is incredibly problematic around how we view victims of sexual assault. When the expectation is that victims will fight or flee, the victim who freezes is not considered credible. This urgently needs to change.

For me, the freezing process can take several forms.There’s a version where I flop like a rag doll and become totally dissociated from my body. This can include not being able to communicate at all. 

I’ve identified another form of freezing that involves a shutting down of executive function in my brain. I become unable to make decisions, and this has a paralysing effect. It’s been noticeable on a few occasions recently where I’ve become unable to interact with people on social media. I look at posts and I am unable to work out what would constitute an appropriate response. My brain will fire off many potential responses, but then I panic and am unable to make any decisions about how to proceed. This results in me just sitting there, frozen, inactive and overwhelmed with panic.

Most of the time my decision-making skills are good. I note however, that when anxiety gets its teeth into me, my ability to make decisions rapidly decreases. From the outside it might look a lot like the rag doll response, but mechanically speaking there are some very different things going on. Small decisions become impossible. Do I want a drink? I have no idea. 

I’ve found that when I’m frozen with panic, what makes the most difference is how the people around me behave. Plying me with warm drinks and bringing me comfort definitely helps. Making sensible decisions for me so that my body is taken care of during the time frame when I can’t make decisions. Not letting me crash my blood sugar because I’m unable to decide whether food is a good idea or what I should eat – that sort of thing.

I didn’t get here on my own. These responses are supposed to be defensive and they’ve had their uses in the past. They aren’t always useful now. The ideal solution is not to go there in the first place, but that depends a lot on how other people treat me. Where I can have conversations about what helps and what doesn’t, I get to feel safer and my vulnerability to panic decreases. Where my panic is met with kindness, I am less likely to panic. 

I mention this because I see so much content online about how unreasonable it is to ask people to accommodate your triggers. My experience is that when people are kind and supportive, my risk of being triggered diminishes considerably. There’s a lot we can get done with a little care and consideration.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

13 responses to “Freezing in the face of panic

  • M.A.

    When I panic my entire left side spasms, not helpful. And my brain shuts down, pretty much the way you’ve described. I think we all need to accommodate each other’s triggers — how much kinder the world could be!

  • druidcat

    I’ve had this. At old workplaces, I’d eventually freeze while the person causing the stress continued to yell at me – and then some more because I’d frozen. I am amazed how some people just lack any empathy at all for the effect they have.

    Comfort is definitely preferable. Getting to a safe place and trying to breathe again… these things shouldn’t be too much to ask.

  • lornasmithers

    I totally get the inability to make decisions shut down. It happens by degrees, depending on how stressful and unhopeful the rest of my life is…

    • Nimue Brown

      I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s probably better to just step away and come back when I can than just sit there. That at least reduces the stress, but I know its not an option in all situations.

  • karenenneagram

    Thanks for this. Not many people know that freeze is the third response to fear, let alone recognise its symptoms.

    Have you come across Steve Porges’s polyvagal theory? It shows quite clearly that where we used to think the vagus nerve only had 2 branches, there is a third, evolutionarily newer branch and it’s mainly to do with the social ….. and! that our human connections are needed for healing and particularly supportive in times of the 3 Fs.

    As for people who claim ‘I’m being authentic. If it triggers you that’s your problem not mine.’ (implying that you should be the one to change), in my view they’re inauthentic and unconscious, using ‘it’s just who I am’ to deny the possibility of a) not liking themselves and b) change, and ownership of responsibility for others’ responses to them. See what happens if you hit one of their triggers! Better not, though – as you say just get the hell out and avoid them if possible.

  • Laura Morrigan

    I only recently learned about freeze and fawn responses. The latter is apparently hoping if you are nice enough to your victimiser, they will start treating you well. I definitely suffer from both of these!

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