What is the freeze response, and how might we relate to it and ourselves during the highly stressful experience of global pandemic
Just a note: “Somatic” means “of the body”, and in this case refers broadly to study, practice and guidance towards embodiment, trauma resolution, nervous system resiliency, and trauma-safe mindfulness. There are somatically-oriented coaches and counselors, therapists and bodyworkers, and professionals from many fields (medicine, activism, spirituality, midwifery) who train in somatics to add another dimension to their work.
In somatic practice, we track cycles of arousal and “dearousal” in the nervous system. Think of a sine wave! Activation, deactivation. Sympathetic, parasympathetic.
Sympathetic or arousal means a state of relative energy- being called to move, to do something, be active, productive, creative, expressive, and experience emotions like excitement, anger, irritation, grief, etc.
Parasympathetic or dearousal means relative rest or stillness- relaxation, integration, digestion, social engagement (chilling with your people), the sense of “receiving”, and sleep.
There is a further division of the parasympathetic system (as in polyvagal theory) that says there is a side that causes us to feel relaxed in an embodied, present, and socially connected way, and, there is a side that provides, among other things, the freeze response.
The freeze response is our (evolution-wise) oldest response to threat. It modulates how much energy is relayed overall, how much stimulus is received by the brain and at what acuity, to prevent further overwhelm and a breakdown of the ability to cope. It is characterized by the relative experience of feeling removed from yourself or your world in some way: disembodied, dissociated, numbed, or empty. It is adaptive for all kinds of reasons, but more on that later.
Freeze can feel like a lot of things but here are some examples:
- Incredible fatigue
- No motivation
- No energy in the limbs
- Nausea or increased fatigue when you try to do things
- Dizziness, lightheadedness
- Feeling heavy, like gravity got stronger
- Brain fog, confusion, forgetfulness
- Not being able to find your words
- Feeling helpless, hopeless or despairing
- Feeling cold, poor circulation
- Inhibited breathing
- Wide eyes and general overwhelm when talking or thinking about life
- Spacing out, forgetfulness
The list goes on, but you get the idea!
Freeze happens on a spectrum of intensity, and can be caused by developmental trauma (including emotional neglect), cultural trauma and oppression, abusive relationships, poverty, and traumatic, stressful or unfamiliar events like global pandemic! Freeze can also come up as a response to our own impulse to grow as a person.
What I’ve noticed in the last three weeks is that cycles of “state dominance” (periods in which one or more states dominate someone’s experience) that used to happen in the span of weeks or months are happening DAILY. State shifts that we may have experienced over a few days, weeks or months are taking place each day or every couple days.
One day, you may wake up feeling decent (for the circumstances)- able to do some of your normal things despite the stress, get stuff done, do some self-care, go outside, connect with your people, and maybe even leverage extra time you have in some way.
The next day, freeze hits BIG time. You may wake up with symptoms on the list above, and wonder why. It may come on in the middle day, or in the afternoon. It may dictate precisely what you are able to “make happen” in a day. This is TOTALLY NORMAL!
You are not at fault. You are not bad. You are not the cause. I’m having this experience with you too!
For some, chronic freeze is the norm, so things may not feel much different from before, or, the freeze may just feel worse.
I can’t speak to exactly WHY we’re experiencing these “compressed cycles”, but I did see another post that postulated that for most of us, our memory doesn’t register “pandemic” as familiar, so it’s swinging between different things to see what works. The swings are happening quickly! This can be pretty disorienting for folks who usually experience more stability/regularity.
Please know that it’s ok to have this experience, and again, it’s not your fault. Our bodies have reasons for doing what they do. Freeze is particularly wicked because, as a trauma response, it is associated with high levels of threat and feelings of helplessness and panic. When fight, flight and fawn are not perceived as viable options for dealing with a threat, the system opts for freeze. Freeze is an active inhibition on our sympathetic survival energies. This is the meaning of having the “gas and brake on at the same time.” This is why it is exhausting.
In the long term, if someone experiences chronic freeze, the sympathetic energies that have been held down can start to give up completely, making freeze feel like a total collapse characterized by NO energy, rather than a mix of exhaustion and restlessness.
Given safe conditions and support from our environment, we can, you betcha, affect the “level of freeze” in our system over time. Emphasis on “conditions and support!” Since freeze is specifically a physiological disabling of movement itself, it can be very hard to self-motivate out of it. One way we can consciously work to end the reiteration and reinforcement of freeze is to stop believing the story of shame we have about our own experience. Shame would say: “you are a good-for-nothing who can’t get anything done and you deserve to continue feeling terrible about yourself.” Toxic shame, I believe, is one of the linchpins of chronic freeze. So again, if you are in freeze: YOU ARE GOOD. You are good. You have my compassion and the compassion of all the healers and mental health advocates and therapists right now.
Freeze in wild animals is neat because they use it to stay safe. They go deeply into their freeze, for different protective reasons (energy conservation, playing dead, limiting visibility, analgesia) and when their system perceives the time is right…. they RISE! The difference between our coping and the coping of wild animals is a whole other topic, but I bring it up to say that in a context in which freeze is implicitly understood as “natural”, it has a beginning, middle, and end.
For folks whose freeze isn’t super tied up with anxiety and fear, you MAY be able to follow the sleepy aspect of your experience into deep rest or a nap. You know when you yawn, you can either go about your business or stick with that real sleepy feeling that follows? Sometimes freeze shows up with the physical symptoms of heaviness and fatigue without the awful emotional and cognitive aspects. If you can follow these sensations onto the train for nap town, go for it! Get that deep rest! I successfully napped the other day, and other than feeling a bit disoriented when I woke up two and a half hours later, it was a reset. There was an honest to goodness light in my eyes that wasn’t there before.
I believe that a lot of the “good work” in relationship to freeze is managing expectations of ourselves in times of stress, resisting our culture’s obsession with productivity-as-worthiness, de-pathologizing our own experience (resisting internal and external messaging that our very symptoms are “the problem”) and processing toxic shame. A story that goes along with this is that if we give into it, it will never go away. That we will never feel rested, actually, and never be called from within to rise. I challenge this notion because I don’t know that the conditions exist for many of us that would allow for us to actually test it.
I also believe that we deserve to feel the pleasure and benefit from the coping behaviors we choose, even if they are not the ideal. We may hope to “be good people” at all times and make the healthiest choices, but if Netflix and Cheetos are on the agenda for you, please make sure to notice and receive the enjoyment you get from your Netflix and Cheetos. I don’t know that there is any benefit to be gained by dissociating from the pleasurable aspects of these behaviors, out of shame. Our system is yearning for positive experiences, for pleasure and comfort. I see you, I know you, I am you. All I can do sometimes is eat hot chip and lie (down.)
For Chronic Freezers
Freeze can co-exist with fear, anxiety and depression, which means the more one follows it, the more these symptoms increase. This would prevent the deep rest I just mentioned. A phase of rest and Cheetos would hopefully be just that- an experience that shifts when the need is fulfilled; when the circumstances change. But for those whose resting and hot chipping has led them down the path of what feels like no return, the rest of this piece is for you! Highly active freeze + fight, flight or fawn is a tremendous type of suffering, in which attempts at rest are thwarted because the system is overwhelmed by the experience within. I tell you from my heart, that this is so much to hold for one person. And not helped by losing one’s job, being in isolation, the general uncertainty of this time, etc.
Remember that Freeze is an active inhibition of our survival energies- this means there is sympathetic energy under the surface, waiting to be mobilized! Contacting this movement, and widening the range our system has for feeling and expressing it, is one of the slow and steady processes we work towards in a somatic approach to healing.
Freeze can feel like a prison, so let’s think about breaking out:
Breaking out requires movement, but it can be really small, even a movement of the mind- recognizing that you’re “feeling freezy” is a good start. Telling a compassionate friend can help.
It can feel begrudging to make a move toward movement, from a place of freeze. I myself have personally identified as the Queen of Just No. In this way, turning on a song, for instance, that does NOT match your mood can be a stretch, but, you know, it’s an experiment to change our state. It’s up to you to decide whether the benefit could outweigh the awkwardness or struggle. The idea is get your nervous system moving, your body. This is why RHYTHM is important (yeah, click that link!)
And, who says we have to do something we hate to break out of freeze? There are so many possibilities, despite what the blankness of freeze may tell us. If you can, reach to the sources of nourishment in your life that you may want to think of as lifeboats, or as something essential. Things that you may not even engage in very much, but when you DO, they provide something truly positive. For me, I’m thinking about things like contact with nature, listening to music, companionship, intellectual stimulation, dance and spirituality. It may be a very different list for you.
Because we can get something like amnesia during freeze, I recommend making a list of all possible sources of nourishment, enjoyment, and getting your mind off things. Here are some real ones from adult clients I’ve worked with:
- chatting with friends online
- walking the dog, snuggling the pets
- cooking for self or others
- yoga, qi gong, stretching, running
- this list could be very long- the amnesia would like us to think we have no access to enjoyment at all, but it lies
Our nervous system needs to know if our environment- meaning, the room or space you’re in right now, is safe. This is a hairy topic, because what we’re experiencing with COVID-19 (let alone climate crisis, poverty and wealth inequality, white supremacism, hate politics, etc.) certainly doesn’t amount to “safety” for massive populations at this time. The ideas that follow are intended as humble offerings for those whose basic needs are taken care of at this time. And really, for all of us, do what you need to do to be safe, or get to safety. For those of us in safety- reach out. There are mutual aid funds being launched for immediate financial need in cities around the world, food banks, etc.
Even if we deserve a deeper or longer term vision of safety, this work of coming out of freeze could be looked at as a way of developing “internal safety” or resilience that can empower us to feel strong and connected, and to experience choice and agency in the face of our circumstances.
in order for the nervous system to know whether our immediate environment is safe, we need to know our immediate environment. In chronic fight, flight, freeze or fawn, our brains have already decided what information is important, and draws from past experience to proceed. In a way, the basest impact of trauma is that it prevents us from making direct contact with our world, in the present moment. This constant state of “backlog” prevents us from receiving support and nourishment that may be possible, but is not accessible.
Let us practice seeing when we look, hearing when we listen, and feeling when we touch.
The point is that in this moment, what is inside is overwhelmed and overwhelming, and we want to send our brain some signals from the outside that at least for now, things are “ok.” All those cute infographics that say “name five things you see, four things you hear,” etc. are coming from this same notion.
Doing this takes EFFORT when you’re in a freezy state, so easy does it. Your attention may feel glued to what it’s on already. Try not to add too much pressure.
Can you feel the texture of the blanket you’re under or the sweater you’re wearing? What is it like? Pick some fingers to graze back and forth on this texture and spend some time zooming in on the sensation.
Is there a window to look out of? Anything good out there? What about that tree off yonder? No really- what about that tree? See if you can spend a weird amount of time noticing things there are to notice. Are there aspects that are more interesting to you? Things you didn’t notice before? How about the overall shape? Good job. A deeper and spontaneous breath is an indication of receiving some good signals from the environment.
WALKING is excellent for this because there is an abundance of stimulation. Your feet on the pavement, the plants in people’s yards, the architecture around you.
“Connecting to the environment through the senses” is a form of trauma-safe mindfulness, also called Orienting. The language and clinical practice of orienting comes from Organic Intelligence, a protocol that supports nervous system function and traumatic symptom resolution.
Things I Can Do
The cognitive message of freeze is “I can’t.”
Therefore, I will at times make a list of “Things I Can Do.” I’m talking totally random, general life things. It doesn’t matter what it is. This is to get my sympathetic juices flowing in the easiest way possible:
- I can make a good breakfast burrito
- I can appreciate the beauty of nature
- I can put my hair up in a vey cute bun on the top of my head
- I can put on a podcast
- I can beat my husband at chess 1/2 of the time.
So make a list of things you can do. I KNOW there are things you can do.
Imagination can play a positive role, because our minds can be mobile even when our bodies cannot. You can visualize yourself doing one of the things on your list, or walking outside, or what have you. Not because you’re “supposed to”, but because on some level, perhaps it could feel good. Go on a pleasure stroll in your mind- maybe the path is lined with a certain flower, or you are walking by a river.
Think about the approach. If you were to approach making a meal, what might you start with? No pressure. These are thought experiments.
So: rhythm, rest, things that nourish you, movement, orientation, making a list of Things You Can Do. Squeezing your muscles and letting them go. Contacting your trusted people.
There is a ton of information online for nervous system wellness. Follow your curiosity! I personally recommend the Organic Intelligence Youtube channel for a wealth of information and practices. The Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute has resources and a directory in which you can search for practitioners in your area (folks often include whether or not they offer online sessions in their listing.)
And finally, during this time of high intensity, I think we all deserve to:
Ask ourselves how we’re feeling today.
Check in, see what our bodies are saying.
Try to meet the answer with acceptance, even compassion.
Notice if our activities are worsening our state.
Know that we are good.