PTSD: Reflex and The “Freeze” Response

…You know I’m all about feedback, right? You know this is YOUR blog, and I’ll write about whatever you need?

Well – my stats tracker thingy tells me somebody ended up on Coming Back Home by Googling “PTSD + Freeze response”.

And I thought, Huh – I don’t really have a good article on that. I mean, if I was Random Google Person, I’d be a little disappointed.

So – good suggestion, Random Google Person! This post is for you!

If you recall from previous discussions, PTSD is basically a survival reflex stuck in a loop with no off switch. This reflex has three parts, depending on what kind of threat you’re up against:

fight is where you respond to a threat by beating up on it. Military training works to strengthen this part of your survival reflex.

flight is where you run for the hills to get away from the threat.

freeze is what you do when neither of the above is an option.

In this post, we’re going to discuss the freeze response, the way it happens in the face of an actual threat. Next post, we’ll talk about dissociation, which is what happens when the “freeze” reaction gets stuck, like in PTSD or dissociative disorder.

It’s like this: imagine a goldfish.

It’s in a fishbowl. The cat just jumped on the table and stuck his paw into the bowl. What’s the fishy gonna do?

He’s can’t fight off the cat, and he can’t run away, because he’s in a fishbowl. Poor little fishy. The cat is about to enjoy some fresh sushi.

So – what does the fish do? He freezes; freezing helps him feel less pain, both physically and emotionally.

Freezing might feel like time has slowed down; like what’s happening isn’t real; or like he isn’t really there. The goldfish might feel like he’s floating above his body, watching the cat enjoy his sushi.

Feeling this way is a normal reaction to a situation of extreme, life-threatening danger, where you can’t fight and can’t get away.

If you’re a goldfish who’s about to get eaten by a cat, feeling like you’re floating above your body and the whole thing is not really happening is less terrifying, which is why our reflex is built this way.

But – suppose just as the cat is scooping up the goldfish, someone comes along and screams, startling the cat. Poor little fishy lives, but is scarred by this near-death experience: he might get stuck in this “freeze” reaction. He might end up with severe PTSD, and symptoms that we call dissociation. We’ll talk a bit more about that in the next post.

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I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

 

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel free to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is the copyrighted property of Larry M. Jaipaul; please do not copy images without permission.

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11 thoughts on “PTSD: Reflex and The “Freeze” Response

  1. This is an amazingly simple, yet true post. I was/am so excited to read it coz it describes what I would say, if I could have found the words. Wonderful!! Been battling PTSD for years – I have tried to describe the “freeze” and no one seems to really GET IT. This is perfect – it’s like you read my head. THANK YOU!!

  2. Great analogy of the freeze response. I have had over 18 years of therpy and still find myself in the freeze/dissociative mode at times. It’s like a switch gets flipped and I can’t flip it back. I am bettet at knowing what my triggers are but there are still times where it happens out of nowhere. In those moments all the grounding tools I have learned still don’t help. I just have to wait it out until the perceived danger passes. Sometimes that means I’m useless for a few hours and it happens at work.

    1. Cathy, thanks so much for sharing your story; that sounds like it’s been a long road to recovery for you. For some people, it’s just like you describe – it comes out of nowhere, and you just have to roll with it. It sounds like you have a system worked out for recognizing it and coping as best as you can. I hope your treatment is continuing to make a difference.

  3. I have been in therapy for many years and have been told over and over by many professionals that the survival reflex is hard-wired in our brain and it produces an automatic response. I’ve been told by many that my freeze response was automatic, that I had no choice, that this is how my body responds to life-threatening stress, that I had no control. I have come to terms with many things from my traumatic experience but the freeze reflex is not one of them as a matter of fact it is a huge barrier in my recovery. This explanation has left me always feeling extremely vulnerable and totally incapable of taking care of myself if an actual threat were to occur again. It has stymied me and has actually fed my fear to the point of my agoraphobic and isolating tendencies. Your explanation says the freeze response is an “option” which suggests that in that split second a person is actually surveying the situation and has a choice of what the best action to take before dissociating. This gives me hope, I can deal with and come to terms with choices. Are their ways that I can re-enforce the fight/flight response, to me these are taking action whereas the freeze response has left me feeling I did nothing and all the guilt associated with “doing nothing”?

    1. Hi Gail.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment and share your experiences.
      I think we’re partly on the same page; in a split second, the person’s reflex responds, rather than the person; that is, the conscious, thinking part of your brain is not involved here. However, the reflex does have three parts, depending on the nature of the threat – fight, flight, or freeze. Freeze is the last resort when the other two options are not available. So, if we are faced with a threat where we can fight, or we can run away, then there’s a chance we will do that. I hope that helps, and I’m glad that it gives you a sense of hope.

  4. Hi there my husband is a PTSD candidate since he returned from Vietnam . He is realizing what is starting his anxiety.Do you have any suggestions that will keep him from going backs wards in life. I would appreciate some feedback.
    Thank you and keep up the great work .

    1. Hi BL,

      Thanks for stopping by!

      I’m not sure what you mean by “going backwards”; if you go to the top of this blog, right under my banner picture, the second button from the left – right after “home” – is called “start here”. It gives you a bit of a primer to some of the things I’ve blogged about before. That may be a place to start. Working with a psychologist may also be helpful; without knowing your husband, it’s hard for me to predict all the difficulties that he might encounter, but I’ll certainly keep writing, and I hope that might be of help.

  5. Great article. I’ve never heard it addressed before (I’m the wife of a combat vet with PTSD). I’m definitely looking forward to the next one on dissociation.

    Thank you. Your writing is very clear. And I love your style.

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