How to understand the freeze response and its purpose

freeze response
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Have you been in situations where looking back you should have felt intense fear but instead felt nothing? Did you minimize or deny rather than assess the circumstance accurately? This upside down response to threat is part of the freeze response.

We often talk about the fight or flight response to threat, but the freeze response is also common among complex trauma survivors. This makes sense when fighting or fleeing were both impossible, so you would protect yourself by doing nothing.

A freeze response can be accompanied by denial of what’s happening. There may be some disassociation and numbing out to a clear and present danger.

For example, you find yourself in a threatening situation that anyone would agree is scary. But your freeze response protects you by shutting down instead of planning an escape.

Childhood freeze response

This is one of the many ways past trauma cuts us off from our lifesaving intuition and guidance system. As with many of our trauma responses, what kept you safe as a child becomes maladaptive as an adult.

With trauma responses, what kept you safe as a child becomes maladaptive as an adult. Click To Tweet

Your learned freeze response compels you to shut down when a person or situation turns threatening. This prevents you from assessing the situation accurately and taking necessary steps to keep yourself safe.

Growing up with an emotionally abusive mother, the freeze response became my go-to. Realizing there was nothing I could do to appease her, my body learned to detach until the tirade was over.

As I got older, my mother would berate me for my “stoicism”. In fact, my lack of response to her ranting was a way to keep myself safe.

It had the dual purpose of defusing her out-of-control emotions (though that never worked), and preventing me from feeling the full force of her ire.

Numbing out in other areas

freeze response

My freeze response allowed me to check out and avoid feeling the pain of the abuse. This numbing out extended to other areas of my life, however.

Like many sexual abuse victims, I never said ‘no’ or even pushed my attacker away. I let it happen which is what many survivors tell themselves, adding to their guilt and self-blame.

This is the tragic way trauma begets trauma. The ways we learn to cope become so maladaptive that we fail to protect ourselves in the most basic way.

The ways we learn to cope become so maladaptive that we fail to protect ourselves in the most basic way. Click To Tweet

Maybe I handled my attacker the same way I handled my mother. Knowing that disagreeing or protesting would only escalate her ferocity and thereby my level of threat.

So, in some ways you could say my narcissistic mother primed me to be date-raped. She taught me to never say no, never set boundaries, and never have a voice.

She taught me that what I wanted didn’t matter. I dare not breathe an opposing viewpoint or I’d be dead. (That’s how it feels to a child).

Growing up in an abusive home primes you to suffer abuse in your future relationships. Parents can be accomplices in crimes against you even when they are nowhere near the crime scene.

They conditioned you to stop protecting yourself as the only way to keep yourself safe. (Wrap your head around that one.) Then they put you out into the world with a body and brain trained to abandon you and work against you.

And then the world tells you that you need to forgive them. Think about all they’ve been through. Well, I say ‘no’ to that. What say you?

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  1. Jillian

    I never thought about it in that way! I was always the good, quiet child but of course I wasn’t allowed to speak, had to do as she says, not allowed to say no, do everything and be a yes person to others, had to forget about my needs, if I cried, being told stop crying or I will give you something to cry for, and now I understand what is meant by the freeze response, I have been frozen all my life, and she messed me up. I am in my 60s so it’s a bit late for me to realize all this and to change my life but I now realize too that my chronic illness is due to all the child abuse I received and being sent way to Boarding school at the age of 6. Thank you for your article which explained it all for me!

    • Hi Jillian, I’m so glad you got some insight around your situation. It’s never too late! The average age of my clients is 52. Once you get the tools to heal, things can change for you very quickly. I’m hosting a free retreat April 18-20 and one of the speakers is talking about this exact topic (chronic pain and narcissistic abuse). I hope you will join us.