Abuse victims can experience anxiety so severe we are literally paralyzed with fear. Berating ourselves for lack of nerve, for cowardice, for weakness and – worse yet – a lack of faith does little or no good.
That the situations which cause us such extreme anxiety do not always, on their surface, appear threatening only makes matters worse. We can add to our list of faults childishness and irrationality.
None of this criticism is justified.
Fight, Flight, or Freeze
Most of us are familiar with the “fight or flight” response.
The body responds to perceived danger by preparing either to fight or flee. The nervous system releases adrenaline and norepinephrine, increasing brain activity, blood sugar level, heart output, and blood flow to the muscles. This response is automatic. It is not under our volition.
Science has learned that freezing behavior is an aspect of the fight or flight response . It is not uncommon for defenseless prey animals to freeze in place, when a predator is nearby. Some may feign death, in a last-ditch effort to stop an attack.
Specific areas in the brain (the amygdala and hyppocampus) control freezing behavior. Freezing is characterized by immobility, and measurable changes in blood pressure and heart rate. It may, also, involve shortness of breath, perspiration, and/or a sensation of choking.
Trauma and the Freeze Response
“I am losing all hope; I am paralyzed with fear” (Ps. 143: 4 NLT).
Human beings rely on freezing when the threat facing them is overwhelming, but it is clear they cannot escape. This assessment is, for all practical purposes, unconscious; arrived at in a matter of milliseconds. Freezing behavior is the result.
A form of dissociation, freezing acts to numb us against the horrors about to be inflicted on us.
Children are, by nature, vulnerable. They have few, if any, defenses. Freezing behavior may well be their only recourse.
For the freeze response to “thaw”, the perceived danger must pass. However, in situations of chronic abuse, the danger is real and unrelenting. The child is not afforded an opportunity to decompress, to let his/her guard down.
And the victim who freezes as a child is more likely to freeze as an adult.
“…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.”
-Leon Seltzer, PhD
 Psychology Today, “Trauma and the Freeze Response: Good, Bad, or Both?” by Leon Seltzer, PhD, 7/8/15, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/201507/trauma-and-the-freeze-response-good-bad-or-both.
Strategies for coping with anxiety and the freeze response will be addressed next week in Part 2
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21 responses to “Paralysis – Frozen by Fear, Part 1”
Great read! This has been my experience. I freeze for a moment then get into the “dissociation mode” I am a survivor! Trams leaves the survivor with “new” tools to handle situations. The thing about the “new” tools?? They are exhausting! Thank you for sharing this 😊❤️
There are no easy answers. At least, I know of none. It is important, however, we not reproach ourselves — whatever the scars trauma left in its wake. Scars are not signs of weakness. They are proof of the ordeal we somehow managed to survive. I am sorry that you suffered, and suffer still. But it is always a privilege for me to meet a fellow survivor. ❤
Same here it is great to meet other survivors 😊
I’m in a frozen state now. It’s hard to pull out. The fear I have is overwhelming! This happens to me so much. My words get stuck. I can’t function. And it never makes sense in the situation I am triggered.
First of all, you are not alone. There are millions of us. My best advice would be to get help from a qualified psychologist. There are many professionals today specially trained to deal with abuse issues. Untying the knots can be a difficult process. But it is far less painful than wrestling blindly with troubling thoughts and behaviors. At any rate, it was for me.
Triggers differ from person to person. The precise moment they took root or precise setting in which they arose cannot always be identified. But we can be sure they arose for a reason. And we can develop approaches for dealing with them.
Until you can locate a therapist, you may find that techniques to keep you in the present moment are useful. Though the trauma we experienced continues to echo within us, it is actually in the past — a memory never fully processed. We are no longer children attempting to cope with the trauma as it is being inflicted on us. We are now adults — with adult understanding, and adult coping skills — attempting to deal with the aftermath of trauma (painful though it can be).
I hope and pray you will find relief. I wish you well. ❤
Oh, that’s why I become silent and can’t think! Thanks for connecting some dots.
Took me quite awhile to figure it out, myself. ❤
Great post Anna.. I often get discouraged when I cant seem to beat my anxiety.. social is worse than general.. I pray, and have decided to take magnesium.. I read that magnesium glycinate, has worked wonders for stress, anxiety and insomnia.. Gods creation seems to be the answer for many ailments 🙂
Yes, I suffer from anxiety and social anxiety, too. It can be deeply discouraging wrestling w/ these afflictions, year in and year out. Humiliating as it can feel, the struggle is not a reflection of our inadequacy. It is one measure of the depth of our wound. Always good to hear from you, Mary. God bless. ❤
Very interesting and helpful. No reblog button. 😦
Thanks for pointing that out, Sue!? I hadn’t realized.
Abuse survivors struggle not only from the effects of abuse, but also with the belief that they are somehow lacking because they dare to show these effects, that is, anxiety, social anxiety, freezing etc. They operate on the concept that they should be able to rise above the hurts and psychological pain. They fail to see that they are not superhuman. It is natural, reasonable and logical that trauma is wounding and therefore needs special understanding and care.
This post reminds us that we have a perfectly valid reason to feel and act the way we do and that there is nothing wrong with us – we are reacting to deep hurts and wounds. We don’t need to beat ourselves up for not being calm and collected, socially adept and all the other things we think are expected of us. The fact that we have survived shows immeasurable strength and is enough.
Thank you Anna for reminding us about the effects of abuse and to be compassionate with ourselves in your own special way.
You are so right about the standards we set for ourselves, Marie. As abuse victims, we suffered in a profound way, whatever the form of abuse we endured. Our survival ought to be acknowledged and applauded.
Unfortunately, our abuse often feeds into a belief we are undeserving and somehow defective. We carry that belief — and the groundless accusation on which it is based — forward into adulthood, never realizing they are false.
That the scars abuse leaves behind may be invisible does not imply they are somehow insignificant. Emotional and psychological damage are real. Just ask the military.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has through the centuries been labeled nostalgia, soldier’s heart, DaCosta’s Syndrome, war neurosis, shell shock, battle fatigue, and combat stress reaction (CSR). In the context of early railroad accidents, it was called railway spine.
Sadly, abuse victims may, even today, misinterpret emotional and psychological injuries as “proof” of “insanity” (another pejorative term).
You have a way of explaining things so brilliantly, Anna.
I found this quote which I feel supports what you say that ” … our survival ought to be acknowledged and applauded”:
“… not realizing that abuse survivors are often the strongest individuals out there. They’ve been belittled, criticized, demeaned, devalued, and yet they’ve still survived.” *
It really puzzles me why we, (by that I mean, not survivors alone, but others too who have not suffered in this way) find it so hard to treat psychological pain with the compassion and understanding it deserves. Why does it feel as if our suffering is not valid and a sign of weakness. Why is there an expectation that if being a victim of abuse makes you ill, you should just get over it? Where on earth have these false ideas come from and continue to spread? It makes no sense to me at all.
*― Shahida Arabi, Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare: How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself
That is a great quote. I don’t know the answer to your question why.
Perhaps physical strength, strength that manifests externally, is more easily recognizable. We remember who held the spear that killed the mammoth, not necessarily who plotted the strategy for the hunt. Many know the valiant Spitfire pilots who defended Britain; fewer know Alan Turing, the Englishman instrumental in cracking the German Enigma code behind the scenes.
There is a terrific book called, “The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel Brown. It is the story of 9 young American rowers who defeated Hitler’s best at the 1936 Olympics. They were ordinary, working-class boys who had grown up on farms, in shipyards, and at logging mills during the Great Depression. Boys who’d gladly done punishing work for the sake of a meal. Brown felt the boys won because they trusted one another, cared for one another, and gave their all.
Not many of us will be oarsmen, abused or not. Still, winning a race is a metaphor for winning at life. It takes a special kind of endurance, and is far from painless. And it takes time. A fast start may seem helpful. But the challenges we face are the very situations that strengthen us, and impart qualities no easy road will.
You make some great points here Anna. I don’t think anyone knows the answers and I wasn’t really expecting “answers” as such, but your response has certainly made me think. I think mental strength and physical strength are closely linked and are absolutely necessary for the challenges we face. Although we can see physical strength in action, without a healthy mind working in tandem, we might not achieve as much. I’m thinking specifically here of those with a disability who still manage to make great achievements in sport amongst other things and do not allow the loss of a limb to prevent them from doing so – that takes immense mental strength, I believe. This is why it is so important to take care of the mind and provide the best health care possible for all those who suffer with mental health issues.
I’m so sorry you went through this.. it sounds awful. I haven’t been abused but I can relate to some of what you said from other stuff…keep strong x
Thank you, Lucy. You have a kind heart. ❤
Your welcome and thanks ❤️
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