What the Freeze Response Tells You About Your Anxiety

Self-ImprovementPsychology

  • Author Emma Sloan
  • Published February 15, 2024
  • Word count 599

It can be difficult to describe anxiety that doesn’t come as a cyclone; anxiety that, rather than heart palpitations and waves of vertigo, instead locks your muscles in place. Slows your breathing. Dries your palms to dust.

For me, my anxiety turns me into a deer in headlights. A situation will shock me into stillness, and, against my will, I’ll feel my teeth clench–feel my breath lodged in my breastbone–until it’s over. Only then will my field of vision fill out again, and I’ll release a lungful of air I hadn’t realized I was holding.

Why? Frustrated with myself, I scoured books and medical journals for answers. Do I have such little self-esteem that I can’t step up and set boundaries in the moment? 

The answer, it turned out, lay in stress responses.

  1. The Different Types of Stress Responses—and Their Impact on Your Anxiety

The “freeze response” is the third of four bodily reactions to stress–the others being “fight”, “flight”, and “fawn”, respectively.

The freeze response is, according to experts in the field of psychology, more common for those that experience fear in response to certain stressors. This typically stems from childhood: when, as a child, you found yourself unable to confront perceived danger, it instead incites what’s called a “panic response.” Like deer, this panic response can make our bodies go numb or prone in the face of significant stress.

Other common indicators of the freeze response include, but are not limited to:

-Difficulty breathing

-An increase in heart palpitations

-Shortness of breath

-Muscle tension (shoulders, traps, chest, neck, jaw)

-Feeling hot or flush

-Headaches

-Nausea

-Diarrhea

-Tingling in fingers or toes

-Tunnel vision

-Dissociation

-Decreased heart rate

-Physical stiffness or immobility 

-A sense of dread

People who suffer from the freeze response also tend to deal with fawning, which includes people-pleasing behaviors to de-escalate perceived conflict. Those who froze as a response as children may develop a tendency towards disassociation, anxiety, or even panic disorder: as a response to triggering events that resemble childhood trauma, disassociation can be one of the most harmful ways one freezes.

  1. The Importance of Self-Reflection and Self-Forgiveness

Giving yourself grace, as I’ve now learned, is the hardest part of working through any stress response–but also the most crucial. 

For others who deal with freezing as a response to stress, professionals recommend the following grounding techniques:

-Deep, intentional breathing

-Practicing awareness of your surroundings

-Verbal or mental self-affirmations

-Stimulating the nervous system (such as physically touching something)

According to many experts, physical reengagement of the body is the most effective way to work through a freeze response: stamping one’s feet, crossing arms, tapping one’s own shoulders, or even “shaking off” the feeling can help yourself feel grounded enough to take the reins of your anxiety.

Another popular practice comes from psychologist Judson Brewer, which has been dubbed RAIN:

-Recognize/Relax: Recognize what is arising inside (“what if” thoughts)

-Accept/Allow: Give it space to be there instead of running from or distracting from it

-Investigate: Ask, “What does my body feel like right now? What thoughts may I be experiencing?”

-Note/Not attach: Note the experience. “I am having these thoughts or these feelings, but I am not my thoughts and feelings.”

While handling stress will always be a work in progress for many of us, that doesn’t mean that we have to berate ourselves for how we may have handled things in the past. Every day is a new opportunity to respect–and understand ourselves–more.

“Emma Sloan is an essayist, fiction writer, and poet. Her works have been featured in publications such as Alopecia UK, The Huffington Post, Elephant Journal, and Her Umbrella Magazine. Follow her at @emmacsloan for writing updates and news.”

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