The freeze response is discussed in this continuation of an earlier article I wrote on the automatic responses to trauma.

Three Brains, One Person

Okay, that’s a bit misleading. Humans indeed have only one brain. However, in my PTSD research, I have come across three distinct segments of the brain that require vital understanding when learning about the freeze response.

I’ll discuss the three parts of the brain and how they relate to PTSD in greater detail in other posts, but for this post, I’ll focus on just one section: the reptilian brain. The reptilian brain is the part of the brain that handles our basic instinct to survive. I’m talking things like breathing, digesting—any bodily processes that require no further processing. These are what keep us alive. This is where the freeze response (and other trigger responses, for that matter) occurs.

Fight or Flight, or Something Else?

It is difficult to escape the phrase “fight or flight” when reading or hearing about PTSD, and for good reason. We’ve engrained ourselves to subscribe to one of these responses to potentially threatening circumstances. Either we run, or we stay and fight. This paints an almost complete picture, with two key missing puzzle pieces.

The Automaticity of the Freeze Response

Enter the freeze response. The times where potentially threatening circumstances cause a survivor to stop. Think about this: if an animal is faced with such a traumatic experience, the animal will play dead. We consider this a normal response. This is what the freeze response ultimately is. The survivor “playing dead” is a way to placate the aggressor in the midst of a traumatic experience.

This happens in the reptilian part of the brain. It is automatic; it is not a response that a survivor can control. This happens automatically, just like when an animal plays dead. I cannot overstate this: it is an automatic response, completely beyond the survivor’s control.

Questions like, “Why didn’t you run?” or “Why didn’t you fight back?” often come up if the freeze response is observed. These might seem like fair questions on the surface, but they are asking the wrong questions. Questions like this put the blame on the victim rather than the perpetrator or cause of the trauma. Often, survivors respond with something like, “I couldn’t”, “I didn’t think about it”, or, “I wasn’t able to”. The survivor is left confused, ashamed, and responsible, asking the same question. Remember, this is something that is not controlled by the survivor. The freeze response is just as automatic and just as viable as the fight, flight, or fawn responses.

Observations of the Freeze Response

But something else also happens during the freeze response. The survivor ends up dissociating from the traumatic experience. Dissociation is a response to a trauma as a defense mechanism to avoid pain and is the primary sign of the freeze response. This manifests in several ways: from constantly keeping busy via distractions to overeating.

Dissociation of trauma can occur in either the left brain or the right brain. If it occurs in the left brain, behaviors like constant distraction and keeping busy crop up. Right brain dissociation manifests itself in ways like overeating, distancing and numbing activities. You’ll notice that left brain activities tend to be external responses: that is, the responses are outward focused. Right brain dissociation tends to be internal. In either case, it is self-destructive in the long-term, though dissociation can be a valuable and effective defense mechanism.

Helping Your Survivor Through a Freeze Response

What this implies is that the freeze response is a way for a survivor to escape pain during the source of traumatic experiences. This also implies that depending on the circumstance, it could mean increased frustration during a flashback. Since the brain can’t distinguish between experiences that have happened and experiences that are currently happening, flashbacks—as far as the survivor is concerned—are currently happening. If dissociation—freezing—is common for your survivor, he or she is likely playing dead during a flashback.

If dissociation (a.k.a. freeze response) is a common response of your survivor, it’s a good idea to come up with ways ahead of time to help get through the dissociation. Dissociation is a normal response, so it doesn’t make sense to invalidate it, but some strategies to help your survivor endure it more easily can help.

My PTSD forum members propose a few strategies to help:

  1. Keep a record of your daily activities thus far. Record specific times, places, and interactions. This helps keep you grounded and in the present. Remember, flashbacks transport the mind to the past, and the brain doesn’t know that it’s something that happened in the past.
  2. Write to-do lists. Not only does it help keep your mind present, it also helps plan for the future. Again, it helps keeping the mind out of the past.
  3. Listen to music, or some other background ambience, but try to engage with it. If you hear some music playing, listen to the lyrics, the instrumentation, and focus on it.
  4. Just roll with it. If you’re at a place where strategies don’t work, it might be your brain telling you that it needs a break. So take it. Put on some TV, a DVD, zone out and let it run its course.

Remember, these strategies are just ideas. Your survivor may require a different set of helpers. Always keep the lines of communication open, and always put safety first for your survivor.

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