Flight/Fight + Shutdown = Freeze
You’ve probably noticed by now that I refer to the third defensive behavior set as “shutdown” and not “freeze.” Typically, the word “freeze” is used and was my default word as well. Until I chatted with Dr Porges himself and he clarified that “freeze” and “shutdown” are distinct phenomena, though closely connected. “There is this whole ambiguity because people use the word ‘freeze’ when they really mean “shutting down.” The mouse in the jaws of a cat is not frozen, it’s just limp… The limp loss of muscle tone is a dorsal vagal response (SNB).
Shutdown is collapsing or going limp. Freeze is stiffening. Freeze is the combination of sympathetic arousal plus shutdown. It’s flight/fight in combination with immobilization. There is an intense and rapid buildup of energy to run or fight, while at the same time the body is immobilized or immobilizing. “When functioning defensively as a fight/flight machine, humans and other mammals need to move. If we are... placed in isolation or restrained, our nervous system… wants to immobilize (Porges, Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory 67).
The body will immobilize with a neuroception of life threat. This can be through external physical forced immobilization or the internal perception that the body is going to die. Sexual assault is an obvious example - there is an impulse to run away, but the individual may be unable to do so for various reasons. They also aren’t able to fight back. They may also be physically forced into immobilization with the sympathetic energy in their system. As a result, they may enter a freeze mixed state.
People can also enter the freeze state in everyday scenarios, like being put to sleep while highly anxious before surgery. When someone goes under in this state, they come out of their anesthesia with a sympathetic charge. They wake up in a fit, screaming or flailing. This is something that medical staff have told me they often witness in surgical rooms.
Panic is probably the most common experience of freeze. When we panic, we are highly charged, fearful, activated and alert. Yet we’re also stiff, frozen in place and unable to move. We aren’t completely gone; we’re present enough to experience the discomfort. Panic might lead to being catatonic and not cognitively available.
For example, Melody enters her therapy session at a high level of sympathetic arousal, wanting to fight a group of off-campus peers she perceives as being a threat to her. She is not able to run, since they know what school she attends. Melody is convinced they might be waiting for her after school. She is also not able to fight them, since they are not present. Being outnumbered and surprised also leaves her without a clear target or possibility of winning the fight. In session, she ruminates on the thoughts, going deeper and deeper into her sympathetic arousal without the possibility of getting safety. The therapist attempts numerous interventions, including walking outside, deep breathing and reality testing, as well as discussing safety planning. All these interventions overwhelm her further in combination with the therapist’s desperation and frustration, which sends her cues of disconnection. Her nervous system attempts to immobilize, while she is sympathetically charged, resulting in panic, sending further internal danger cues and thoughts that spiral out of control. Finally, she enters a catatonic freeze, her entire body contorting and freezing in place, which lasts for a few minutes.
People also experience some version of freeze when it comes to phobias. They are highly sympathetically charged, yet neurocept that their life is in danger. I often have trouble when it comes to heights. There is a bridge that arches at a drastically high angle on the way to San Francisco, in the Walnut Creek area. This bridge is my worst nightmare. In my head, I know I am safe - my car is in good shape, I can drive just fine and the bridge won’t collapse. Yet when I am on that bridge, my body gets highly charged with an increased heart rate, rapid and very shallow breathing, muscles tensing, rapid speech and an inability to ground myself despite my best efforts. Story follows state, so I imagine that the car is going to somehow turn off in the middle of the bridge and cause people behind me to crash into me and each other. While this is going on, since I am unable to escape the situation, my body begins to shutdown. I go numb, the blood exits my face, blood decreases to my brain which results in a noticeable dissociation. I make it over the hump and can see the Earth, but only after talking out loud and basically narrating everything that is happening while forcing myself to keep breathing regularly. The freeze immediately resolves itself after I get to the ground again.
Coming out of freeze in the moment
In the intense moments of panic, I don’t know if there is an ideal answer or one answer that works for everyone. I don’t think that there is. In these intense moments, the individual does whatever has been the most helpful in the past or might be helpful in the moment. That could be a wide range of things.
Sensory stimulation seems to be helpful for some. Using their eyes or their touch to anchor themselves back into their body. It may help to have someone firmly grasp your hand and be with you. Saying things aloud can be helpful, like narrating what is happening or counting things in the environment. Anything to get grounded in your body/mind and activate the safety pathways enough for the defensive flight/fight and shutdown pathways to recede.
Part of coming out of that intensive freeze in the moment is to actually feel the feelings of being in freeze. If you can allow yourself to feel them, it might reduce the intensity. Or it actually might increase the intensity as the energy surges through your body. Allowing those feelings to be there, while focusing on breath and making sure you’re regulating your breathing can be helpful.
You may also want to allow for movement as the freeze feelings increase. Don’t keep it bottled in, but don’t explode or withdraw either. Instead, start moving. Get outside and walk. Tense your muscles and relax them as you sit in place. Remind yourself that you’re safe and these feelings are okay to have.
Coming out of freeze through thawing
But a freeze state can be ongoing. Not just a panic attack, but a state that someone exists in for years and years potentially. This long-lasting freeze should not be confronted head on. Instead, it should be gradually thawed. Ideally, the stuck sympathetic energy is felt in small pieces at a time, something called titration. This process is beyond the scope of this book, but can eventually be done. I recommend reading up on Peter Levine, he has a number of books that can be helpful, including Healing Trauma and Waking the Tiger.
However, there is one essential aspect to thawing a freeze that is often neglected and ends up making things worse when it is neglected. And that is the process of building the strength of the window of tolerance. More on this later, but for now, understand that thawing through titration is only going to be successful if the window of tolerance is strong enough. And that means developing the strength of the safety pathways.
If you begin to feel the stuck frozen energy without being prepared, it may end up reinforcing the stuck frozen energy. It will be self-defeating and reinforce any fears you have around getting unstuck. So I know that you want to discharge that energy, “heal” the trauma and move on with life. Like, right now. But this is something that really should not be rushed.
When you’re well-enough anchored in safety, titration becomes an option. And part of that is another process called pendulation. This is when the individual identifies and feels themselves anchored in a safety resource, then pendulates to the stuck defensive energy, then pendulates back to safety and then back to the defense. This process goes back and forth until the defensive state softens enough to be tolerable or even discharges from the body.
Again, this is not something that I recommend you do right now. If you’re ready for this kind of work and have resources to assist you, like the teachings of Peter Levine or a therapist that specializes in this, best of luck. If this is brand new to you or you know you don’t have enough safety development, then hold off. Continue laying the foundation of safety first. Besides my Building Safety Anchors course, I also recommend the books of Deb Dana (see the end of this eBook). They have lots and lots of exercises that you can do to increase your feelings of safety, like Anchored and Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection.
Name one instance from this past week when you felt your freeze mixed state active.
How do you know it was freeze?
Would you say that you have allowed a thawing to happen in your system?
Would you say that you have wanted to rush through getting unstuck or that you have had curiosity and patience for your thawing process? Is there a difference between now and the past in your patience level?
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