Tag Archives: “fight or flight” response

Paralysis – Frozen by Fear, Part 1

Tiny mouse frozen in fear, Author Madhur D’silva (PD)

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 [1].  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

[1]  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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