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Dear Candy Q & A: The Freeze Response

Q: "(Can you write) about the freeze response? I think a lot of re-trainers experience it and I’m certainly experiencing a lot more of it lately. I haven’t read extensively on polyvagal theory but I think it’s a more primitive response. Is it somehow less desirable than fight or flight? Meaning- is your body choosing the state because it’s too worn out/exhausted to go into fight or flight? Or is it just simply the choice your nervous system made in the moment? I'd love to hear more of your wisdom on this."


A: Freeze typically happens when a threat is too large or overwhelming to fight or flee. A part of us (unconsciously) recognizes futility in trying to fight or to flee, so it goes into freeze. If we think of our nervous system response tendencies as something that develops in childhood, it makes sense that children may find themselves in situations where they feel helpless, where fighting or fleeing is not an option. Additionally they may find themselves in situations where the attachment and defensive systems are at odds with each other (because they don't feel safe with their primary caregiver, for example). It is important to note that freezing can be an adaptive response in certain situations. A good example is animals that play dead in order to evade predators. It helps them to survive. Freezing is also an involuntary response, meaning that we do not have control over when it shows up. Often people who freeze up feel shame about doing so, so it is important to remember that is not something you chose to do. It is something the body instinctively did to protect itself.

Freezing can happen to various degrees. On the extreme end of the spectrum, our muscles can freeze up making it feel impossible to move. This is sometimes referred to as tonic immobility. Stage fright is a good example of this. On the other end of the spectrum, it may show up as feelings of overwhelm, numbness or detachment. Somewhere in the middle people may try to make themselves small or disappear.


It is equally important to remember this is an ancient primitive system that we are taking about here that isn't designed for modern day stressors. And the majority of the time, it isn't the actual events or situations themselves that cause a stress response, it is our perception of these events that cause our systems to react in a particular way. Remember our brain doesn't distinguish between our outside world and our internal imagination. Furthermore, it can't tell the difference between actual danger and what we perceive as dangerous to us. People who are well versed in the freeze response from an early age can frequently re-experience it in adulthood when there is perceived stress.

The good news is, just like our brain, the nervous system is neuroplastic and adaptive. It can learn to become more regulated. The more regulated we are, the greater our window of tolerance for stressors, meaning that we are not so easily knocked into a stress response, including the freeze response.


We need to understand that the energy of the fight or flight response is locked into the freeze response. It isn't a shutting down in the way that we may typically think. There is actually energy behind it that is stuck, and in order to move out of the freeze response we need to create ways to slowly and mindfully start to release that stuck energy. We cannot think our way out of this response as we do not have access to the more evolved parts of our brain when we are in a stress respone. Therefore, we need to go through the body.


The first step in helping ourselves come out of freeze is to accept that it is happening and that this is simply where our system is at in this moment. Also, outside of the moments of freeze we can practice accepting them with self compassion and without judgment to the best of our ability, and remind ourselves that this is an involuntary response that we are working to change.

Second, we need to start re-engaging the body and moving that stuck energy out into movement very slowly and mindfully. Small movements send the message to our brain that we are safe. We can start with moving the hands and feet - start to wiggle your fingers, slowly open and close your hands, wiggle your toes, rock your feet back and forth. If we do too much movement too quickly, it can be overwhelming, so it is really important to start small and take it slowly.


Once we have succeeded in the smaller movement we can start to make them a little bigger. Move your arms and legs, shake them out. Start to sway side to side. Invite the body to slowly move in ways that it feels called to do.


Like anything we are retraining around, it is imperative that we cultivate the curious observer and start to identify triggers and the way in which we typically respond to those triggers. By knowing what typically triggers the freeze response within us, we can start to work with it to circumvent the programmed response. We can begin to do this by using the memory of it as a trigger at the beginning of our brain retraining rounds, through visualizations of safety and wellbeing, and through practicing and role playing different responses. Remember that our brain doesn't know the difference between our external reality and inner experiences, so we can use that to our advantage to help regulate our nervous systems (in addition to releasing the energy behind these experiences as described above).


It is also a really good idea to get regular daily exercise (to the degree that we are able) if you are prone to the freeze response. Exercise takes our bodies through natural cycles of activation and relaxation. In other words, it helps to discharge energy and to retrain our systems to have flexibility of moving in and out of different states.


Working with freeze can be a little tricky, so if you feel you need support please reach out to someone qualified to assist you.


Until next time!


If you have a question, please email me at dearcandyquestions@gmail.com

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Candy Widdifield is Certified Master Coach, Registered Reiki Master Teacher and former Registered Clinical Counsellor, living in Calgary Alberta, Canada. She has a background in brain retraining & nervous system regulation, trauma, grief & loss, mindfulness, somatic therapy, & positive psychology. She taught the DNRS in-person program for 5 years, has over a decade of experience coaching brain re-trainers & provides mentorship to other coaches. Candy works with people all over the world, helping them to optimize their wellbeing and thrive in their lives. More information about Candy can be found at www.candywiddifield.com

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