Imagine a possum playing dead. His body is limp, his tongue sticks out, and he seems to have stopped breathing. It’s frozen, completely devoid of any sign of life.
While the opossum isn’t actually dead, it isn’t faking it either. Indeed, it has entered an involuntary state of catatonia, rendering it immobile in reaction to the shock of a predatory threat.
The autonomic nervous system regulates involuntary functions, such as respiration and circulation. It also monitors our stress response.
At any time, depending on whether the ANS detects a hazardous environment or a safe environment, it will go into one of three possible states: safe, mobilized or immobilized.
The security state is what we experience when the ANS does not detect any current threats. It is the state we find ourselves in when we feel calm, relaxed, or when engaging in social activity.
The mobilized state is what we commonly refer to as our ‘fight or flight response’, during which adrenaline increases, allowing us to respond to a threat either by facing it directly or by exiting the dangerous situation. .
Finally, the immobilized state is what is commonly referred to as the gel. Whenever the ANS determines that a threat is too overwhelming to deal with, it shuts down the body, lowering our heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature.
These involuntary decisions of the nervous system are beyond our conscious control. These are answers coming. It doesn’t matter if we can understand why we are reacting in a certain way or if we feel connected enough to our body to be prepared. They are just coming.
As each of us navigates the world, cultivates who we are, develops relationships with others, and follows the trajectory of time, we are constantly processing the information presented to us.
In a renowned neuroception process, our body determines how safe every situation is. No matter what our conscious mind believes, the ANS can view something or someone as dangerous or life threatening and alter bodily functions accordingly.
Think about being in a situation where everything seems to be going well and all of a sudden the body starts to feel like something is wrong. At such times, primitive intuition is strongly communicating something and controlling autonomic functions without much warning.
People’s responses will be different depending on the trauma they’ve been through and what their nervous system thinks it’s capable of at any given time. This is why, for some people, a situation that does not endanger their life – like taking a timed exam, participating in social interactions, or spending a shift at work – may be encountered with disturbing symptoms such as an elevated heart rate.
Sometimes closing is not a choice. It’s just what the body does. For people traumatized by an isolated incident or chronic stressor, the ANS can become unregulated and begin to sense danger in unregulated situations.
So, in a moment of extreme fear or stress, the ANS will trigger the involuntary freeze defense mechanism. This is why some people do not scream or run for help when faced with sudden danger. They can’t because they’re frozen.
The freeze response may apply to the average student in this country, especially given the usual concomitant stressors such as the typical college lifestyle, the work-oriented culture of the United States, the overload of common information with frequent internet use and increased generational stress and anxiety levels.
Being overwhelmed by intense feelings of stress, pressure, emotions, and socialization can cause some people to stop or burn out. This long-term shutdown mode, rather than a form of self-preservation during a moment of attack, may simply be a manifestation of an unbalanced autonomic nervous system due to trauma.
If you often experience chronic symptoms of nausea, feel your throat tighten when trying to express yourself, have trouble thinking clearly, or generally have so little energy that all you can conceive of is to lie down for days, you may be in freeze mode.
It is imperative that those of us whose bodies frequently resort to freezing when faced with intense stress and fear understand that this is an involuntary response. How your body behaves is dictated by how you have reacted to past trauma.
The first step to getting better is to validate your experience. Take the time to learn about psychology, the connection between mind and body, and how childhood experiences affect adult behavior patterns.
If you are in freeze mode, you are not inadequate or unworthy. Most importantly, you are not alone.