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What Is the Freeze Response?

Jun 06, 2024
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Traumatic incidents such as sexual assault, mass shootings, and other violent crimes generate different stress responses in individuals. While many people go into “fight or flight mode”, some of us may feel paralyzed or unable to react during or in the aftermath of the traumatic event. While not as expected, shutting down or staying frozen in place – otherwise known as the “freeze response” is a common acute stress response to threats or perceived threats like sexual abuse and assault.

So what exactly is the freeze response? Like “playing dead,” it is an involuntary action. For example, in situations involving unwanted sexual contact, a person’s response to the onset of negative emotions can surface as feeling cold or numb, or experiencing heavy limbs, physical stiffness, and overall paralysis.

Edwards Henderson represents survivors of sexual abuse to help them pursue justice and recover compensation so they may have access to resources such as ongoing and future therapy costs, medical bills, psychiatric ward bills, and other expenses related to the abuse. Our team understands how the freeze response affects survivors of sexual abuse, and how seeking a civil lawsuit can help many survivors access the right resources and move forward in their lives. 

Key Takeaways

  • A freeze response is a temporary inability to move, speak, or otherwise react in a traumatic situation. It can also involve emotional numbness or dissociation.
  • There is no single “correct” response to sexual violence, although many survivors experiencing the freeze response often blame themselves.
  • It is important to seek help if you are experiencing a freeze, so you may heal and move forward in your life.

Physical Reactions to Trauma: What Causes the Freeze Response?

The freeze response is an instantaneous reaction to threats or danger, like sexual assault. It can make a person feel numb and unable to move, run, talk, or fight back. Like a “deer in headlights,” freeze response may cause survivors to temporarily shut down their regular stress response systems. 

The amygdala, or the brain’s major processing center for emotions and decision-making, activates our sympathetic nervous system and causes involuntary changes like tonic immobility. According to the Polyvagal theory, under extreme fear or trauma, our brain can get into a state of immobilization as a survival strategy to limit social engagement. In other words, the freeze response becomes our way to cope and heal after a violent incident. Symptoms include feeling stuck in certain parts of your body, coldness or numbness, physical stiffness, decreased heart rate or restricted breathing or holding of the breath, and a sense of dread or foreboding.

It is important to remember that freezing or fawning during a sexual activity does not imply consent. When a person enthusiastically consents to performing or participating in a sexual act, their agreement is visible through physical and verbal expressions and actions. If you have not shown your enthusiastic consent for a sexual activity, and instead been ‘frozen’, you did not impliedly consent to the act. A freeze response should not be misconstrued as a willingness to engage in any sexual act. Nobody should shame a sexual abuse survivor into thinking that just because they did not run, yell, scream, or fight, they were fine with unwanted advances or activities. 

How Long Does the Freeze Response Last?

Threats or perceived threats are enough to prompt the freeze response. While panic attacks typically last 20 to 30 minutes, it can take around 20 to 60 minutes for the body to return to its normal state after the stress response is activated. 

Once the shock wears off, sexual violence survivors might experience debilitating and lingering side effects that compromise their quality of life, such as severe anxiety and panic episodes, increased cortisol and stress-induced insomnia, depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, hyperglycemia, and type 2 diabetes. Almost all sexual abuse survivors experience some form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as flashbacks, repressed memories, or other triggers that can generate a freeze response. 

Trauma response behaviors that persist long after the incident can be paralyzing for many survivors. Here are examples of coping mechanisms that can help during a freeze response:

  • Grounding exercises to center a person using their five senses to shift focus from negative thought patterns (e.g. smelling essential oils)
  • Prescription medication to help with anxiety, depression, and other associated conditions
  • Motions like laying down, sitting, or standing, as well as breathing exercises such as deep breathing or belly breathing
  • Guided meditation or guided imagery
  • Self-soothing measures like a hot shower, bath, ice, or heating pad

While there are many therapeutic methods for trauma survivors, they can be a long and costly investment. This is where a sexual assault attorney can help you secure the compensation necessary to fund expensive treatments, therapy, and alternative therapy. 

Reactions to Trauma: Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn

Every survivor’s unique history — upbringing, past traumas, coping mechanisms, parental/caregiver support, and instincts — plays a role in how they respond to stressful situations. There are four broad categories of trauma responses: 

Fight Defined

A ‘fight’ response relates to facing threats or perceived threats aggressively using tactics like impulsivity and hypersensitivity, physically defending yourself, shouting or yelling to get attention, or exercising a biting or caustic tone. 

Flight Defined

A ‘flight’ response refers to running away from danger and “fleeing” to a safe place in an attempt to avoid the situation.

Freeze Defined

An overwhelming feeling of numbness and an inability to talk, walk, run, or move in a dangerous situation are all characteristics of a ‘freeze’ response. 

Fawn Defined

‘Fawn’ refers to avoiding or minimizing stress or danger by pleasing or appeasing the threat and keeping the abuser happy. 

Many sexual abuse survivors commonly respond to the abuse through fawning or freezing. Since abuse is often attributed to a power imbalance, this type of reaction is a coping mechanism for a survivor who is dependent on the abuser for things like money, a place to live, a job, or their reputation. 

It is important for survivors to understand that they are not responsible for sexual abuse and they need to let go of guilt, shame, and fear, in order to lead a more peaceful life. Our legal team at Edwards Henderson has helped many survivors of institutional abuse hold influential perpetrators liable for sexual abuse and assault, such as predatory clergy members, ill-willed Hollywood agents and producers, and sexually violent Boy Scout leaders.

Reacting to Dangerous Situations: The Fight or Flight Response 

During dangerous and unexpected situations, we assume that we will summon superhuman strength and be able to think on our feet and rely on our instincts. However, this is rarely the case. In reality, there are multiple ways in which we react to unpredictable situations. 

Gun Violence

Shootings and events involving gun violence are often high-adrenaline situations, leaving survivors feeling the urge to fight back, flee to safety, or shut down. Gun violence provokes a range of emotions, such as panic, fear, anger, and grief. Living with the painful memory often triggers trauma when flashbacks, dreams, or intrusive thoughts resurface, and lead many survivors to experience insomnia, sleep disorders, anxiety, depression, PTSD, and more. 

Gun violence can occur in various settings such as bars, nightclubs, schools, concerts, or public events. A bar and nightclub shooting lawyer can support your recovery efforts so you may recoup financial losses pertaining to medical treatment, rehabilitation, lost wages, or therapy. 

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse includes any unwanted sexual contact between people. It usually entails a pattern of gradual abusive behavior, and may be preceded by grooming. Sexual abuse manifests in different ways and can be physical, verbal, psychological, financial, visual, or ritualistic. 

The potential threat of, or the act of, sexual abuse prompts different survival mechanisms such as physical or verbal resistance, dissociation, or attempts to placate the abuser. All sexual abuse survivors, especially children, face myriad effects of sexual abuse, like pain, sexually transmitted diseases, fear of intimacy and sexual relations, boundary issues, eating disorders, and other forms of PTSD. 

Sexual Assault

Sexual assault is any instance of non-consensual sexual contact or behavior, such as rape, attempted rape, fondling or unwanted touching, kissing, and forced masturbation or incest. Assault happens in various settings like homes, offices, concerts and festivals, and more. 

Unlike sexual abuse which may occur over a period of time and involve a pre-existing relationship, sexual assault generally happens in the form of a single incident or a single series of incidents. It can still involve an abuse of power or trust, and leave survivors in a fight, flight, or freeze mode. How a person responds to sexual trauma can vary depending on factors such as the nature of the assault, the survivor’s history and coping mechanisms, and the support received in the aftermath of such a harrowing experience. 

If you have gone through sexual assault and wish to understand your legal options, a skilled and compassionate sexual assault attorney can help. 

How To Overcome the Freeze Response

The freeze response is not a choice. It shuts a person down when they feel out of control, but the repressed emotions do not go away. One can overcome the freeze response with the help of trauma-based therapy methods, such as:

  • Eye Movement and Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): This is a technique that involves moving your eyes a specific way while you process negative memories.
  • Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE): Also known as “talk therapy,” PE is a cognitive approach that teaches people to slowly process painful memories, feelings, and situations that they have been avoiding. 
  • Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT): The TF-CBT method helps people process hurtful memories, overcome problematic thought patterns, and develop effective coping mechanisms and interpersonal skills.
  • Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT): CPT is a 12-step session to help with PTSD symptoms meant to teach a survivor to evaluate and change upsetting thoughts related to their trauma.
  • Self-soothing: The practice of self-soothing is a science-backed method of calming oneself and inducing peace while on high alert. 

Besides the above, many survivors take the support of their loved ones and/or engage in practices, such as meditation, yoga, and breath work, that can help them recover from the after-effects of sexual trauma. 

Securing Resources for Healing Trauma

There is nothing fast or easy about trauma healing. Every survivor is unique, so treatments can become unexpectedly costly as it might take months or years to resolve difficult memories and emotions. The estimated healthcare costs per rape survivor is $87,000 in unanticipated expenses, including therapy and doctor visits, medication, lost wages and decreased earning capacity, and other medical bills.

A civil sexual abuse lawsuit can provide a means for survivors to pursue financial compensation against the persons responsible for violent crimes against them. At the same time, they can serve as a crucial pathway for recouping the costs associated with long-term care and treatment. Since a civil lawsuit places the survivor at the center of the case (as opposed to as a witness in a criminal lawsuit), it can help empower them to speak up about their trauma and hold their abuser accountable for their wrongdoings.

Edwards Henderson is responsible for securing some of the largest sexual abuse settlements in U.S. history, including a $71 million settlement for a rape survivor. Our firm has helped many regain their voices, even against the most formidable opponents who have caused them harm. 

Sexual abuse, assault, and other forms of violence and negligence break our trust and faith in a functional society. They take up significant mental and emotional space long after the event, and leave survivors to pick up the pieces. Many survivors feel responsible for their trauma and blame themselves for responding a certain way. It is important to note that no matter what, sexual violence is not a survivor’s fault. 

At Edwards Henderson, our lawyers offer empathetic and top-tier legal representation to provide survivors with closure and resources. We specialize in handling sensitive lawsuits and leveraging our collective experience to help survivors get their voice back. 

Are you ready to share your story? Contact our law firm for a free and confidential case review. 

Article Sources

  1. The Science of Self-Soothing

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