Why Do You Freeze in a Trauma or Dangerous Event?

"I was frozen to the spot!" Have you ever said this, or wondered why some people act, and others become immobile?

Go to the profile of Dr Tom Barber
Jun 08, 2017
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Ever Been Rooted to the Spot? If you've ever frozen during a trauma or dangerous event, here is why you no longer need to feel bad

Have you ever been frozen to the spot when something traumatic is going on around you, or is potentially happening to you? Have you later felt guilty, bad, or ashamed, because you froze and did nothing, when you feel you should have done something?

Guilt, shame and feeling bad can be strongly felt when somebody is traumatised, and can often lead to longer term issues, if not fully understood and forgiven.

Imagine you see someone beginning to cross the road in front of a car, and there you are, literally frozen to the spot, unable to do anything! Not even a word can come out of your mouth, even though you are shouting inside for them to ‘look out!’.

A work colleague suddenly clutches their chest and collapses, and yet your mind goes completely blank as to what to do. Or maybe you see a car heading straight towards you, and you freeze like a rabbit in the headlights.

These are just a few examples of ‘freezing’ in a trauma situation.

The very nature of a traumatic event, is that it is sudden, quick and unexpected. This means it is hard to make sense of what’s going on.


The Big Freeze: The moments before fight or flight

In trauma, your biology can react incredibly quickly, and much quicker than your thoughts can process what is happening. This is an evolutionary process, and is about your automatic life preservation reactions. When you freeze, you go into ‘alarm mode’, with your physical defence mechanisms kicking in.

You are instinctually getting ready to fight, run away, or become immobile, whichever is perceived to be the best option at the time. But you need a moment to make that decision.

So as one of these potentially trauma inducing events begins, your next action is to freeze. This is to become very still, and not draw attention to yourself while you assess the danger, so you can take action to ensure your survival. And all this happens in a split second!

Tonic Immobility

Only then do you react. You will likely have heard of and know the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. However, if when you assess the situation and you can neither fight nor take flight, then you go straight into another form of freeze.

This is where you can see what is happening around you, but you are without sensations or emotions. You are in what is called tonic immobility. This is about fooling predators into leaving you alone, a strategy which is millions of years old.

In this altered state, time slows down, fear dissipates and pain is absent. Tonic immobilisation can contribute to Post Traumatic Stress, as the individual becomes concerned with not having put up more of a fight, or not being able to think or do anything in the situation that would have made a difference.

Different Reactions: So why in a trauma, do some people fight, some flight, and some become immobile?

We are not really sure, even though this has been intensely researched. Here are some possibilities however …

1. Gender? Research has found that men want to eliminate the danger, while women want to care for others first.

2. Personality type? An extrovert or risk taker may instinctually ‘have a go’ at sorting out the situation, or try to prevent the situation from getting worse. However, a more avoidant personality may feel it would draw attention if they got involved, and that would be intolerable.

3. Decision making and judgement abilities? If you don’t know what to do, doing nothing is as good an option as you have.

4. Your past? If you have experienced injustice in your past, you may get fired up quickly, or maybe you have learned to freeze as a coping mechanism.

5. Overload? The event is a total overwhelming situation that naturally shuts down your attentional systems.

Whatever the reason, your reaction is out of your control. It is mainly an evolutionary reaction to trauma, danger, and fear.

So … everyone freezes initially. You don’t need to feel bad, or guilty about that. Whatever else happens, this is your brain functioning, deciding what is best for you to do in the circumstances, based on a variety of aspects.


Do You Want to Change Your Responses?

The way to do this is to create a new habit, or pattern of behaviour. So, if you froze when someone was having a heart attack, learn first aid, and practice this and rehearse it in your mind.

If you froze when you were attacked, learn some self-defence techniques, and again keep rehearsing a new response (the one that you want) so it becomes a natural reaction.

Whatever you want to change, remember your evolutionary brain wants to preserve you, and that how you react in a crisis is to a certain extent out of your control.

Most of all, forgive yourself if you feel guilty about how you reacted to an event in the past. Then you can work from a clean slate, and learn what you need to alter your future reactions.

That makes things so much easier in terms of your automatic responses, and can prevent a traumatic experience potentially moving into PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“The way I see it, our natural human instinct is to fight or flee that which we perceive to be dangerous. Although this mechanism evolved to protect us, it serves as the single greatest limiting process to our growth. To put this process in perspective and not let it rule my life, I
expect the unexpected;
make the unfamiliar familiar;
make the unknown known;
make the uncomfortable comfortable;
believe the unbelievable.”
- Charles F. Glassman.

To find out more about trauma, and how to overcome it, visit the Treating Trauma Workshop.

Tom.

Go to the profile of Dr Tom Barber

Dr Tom Barber

Dr Tom Barber has 25 years of experience as an Existential and Integrative Psychotherapist, helping people through a vast array of difficulties. As well as being a bestselling author, his research interests include the study of emotion, and addiction. Tom teaches workshops and lectures throughout the world, and has gained international acclaim for his contributions to psychology, and psychotherapy.

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