Tag Archives: freezing

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.

If you respond by freezing

We normally talk about fear in terms of flight or fight responses. There are a lot of things we have evolved to deal with either by trying to punch them or trying to run away. However, in some circumstances, there’s a third response available – freezing. It’s less talked about and can be more confusing. Terrible things are happening and you just shut down, and do nothing.

Freezing is what we do when we’re overwhelmed. It’s a response to situations in which there is nothing we can physically fight off, and nowhere to run to. Unsurprisingly, a lot of people are experiencing freeze in response to the virus.

If you can’t focus your mind, can’t figure out what to do, are panic-scrolling on Twitter, half asleep all the time or feeling distanced from everything, this is the process you are in. Rest, time and distraction will help you move past it. This is a natural and reasonable response. It may feel confusing right now, but the answer is to be gentle with yourself and wait it out.

People who have already experienced trauma can find they are prone to freezing responses. Brutal lessons about your own powerlessness will do this to a person.

Hopefully there is a lesson we can all learn here for the longer term. Freezing is a normal response to being powerless. It is why many victims of violence, and especially of rape, do not fight back or manage to escape. Sometimes our bodies just shut down – it can have a protective function, helping us mentally distance ourselves from traumatic things. Understanding how this works will help us be more compassionate with ourselves, and with each other.