Fight, Flight & Freeze

Fight, Flight & Freeze

Fight and flight are responses most of us are aware of. We all probably learned it growing up. Freeze is not a response that has made it into common everyday conversation. However, psychology tells us that fight, flight, and freeze are all normal human psychological responses. So let us understand what it means to freeze and whether it is good or bad for you.

When confronted by a stressful trigger, our body has to make a choice. Should I fight back or escape? It uses its trained memory to determine these choices. What happened in the past when I got an email from my boss at 3 a.m.? Was it generally good or bad news? Depending on prior experience, my body would then determine whether to deal with the email or procrastinate. So far, so good.

Sometimes, though, a stressful trigger can send us into a state of freeze. Our mind and body shut down, and we find ourselves unable to do anything at all. Imagine someone entering your home at night to burglarize it. Instead of getting roused up, you find yourself completely frozen with fear. Why would this make sense from an evolutionary point of view?

One simple way to look at it was that your prior experience (perhaps even missing experience) was unable to decide whether to fight or run. What if running instigated the burglar to do something worse? What if charging the robber resulted in bodily harm? Remember, all these decisions occur in milliseconds. Sometimes you get overwhelmed and simply freeze.

To be clear, this state of being frozen is not helplessness. It was what your body felt was the best thing for you to do at that point in time. It was a choice. Perhaps the robber will not spot you, burgle the house, and leave, which may be a better outcome than being physically harmed.

One unfortunate outcome of freezing is carrying the trauma beyond the event. If you had run or fought, the energy built up to deal would have found expression. When you freeze, some of the energy remains bottled up. It shows up later on in other ways, such as indigestion, headaches, migraines, undiagnozed pain, and more.