WE ALL KNOW FLIGHT-OR-FIGHT BUT WHAT ABOUT FREEZE?
When it comes to anxiety, we have all heard about the flight-or-fight response. Our mind perceives a situation as dangerous and we prepare physically and mentally to respond. Our heart begins to beat faster, our bodies may get hotter or even colder, our eyes dilate and our breathing speeds up.
You could be in the office, gym or even at home when you feel that surge of panic beginning to make its appearance.
You may find that you often try to run away from that feeling.
Maybe making your way to the bathroom or outside for some fresh air.
On the other hand, you could feel the urge to fight the uncomfortable sensations by practicing mindfulness, taking your attention away from the panic and continuing with your day.
But what happens when you don’t feel the instinct to do either?
What if you are left unable to remove yourself from the situation or even fight the fear.
This is called the freeze response — it’s actually part of the flight-or-fight group, but just a lesser-known component.
I have only experienced this once in my life.
I was at home having a vigorous panic attack one evening. Nothing could pacify me. Fresh air was always my number one thing that helped, if I could just have some time outside and take deep breaths, it was the fastest way to calm down.
However, I physically felt as though I couldn’t get off the sofa I was sat on.
My sister placed a chair by the window and I couldn’t find it in me to get up and take literally 2 steps to the chair.
“I can’t do it,” I said.
This had never happened before but for the first time, I felt paralyzed in my own body and mind.
I feared everyone around me and my thoughts which were usually running around in my mind, became numb.
I couldn’t make sense of anything and all I could do was let my body and mind go through whatever it was that they needed. This was one of the longest times it had taken me to overcome a panic attack, purely because I felt like there was nothing I could do to help.
It had to come to its own natural end.
If you have ever found yourself in this situation, I know it can definitely be more daunting to experience when compared to the other stress responses.
Awareness has a big part to play in this. The freeze response does not have the same wider acknowledgement as the flight-fight system do.
This can be scary because we firstly don’t entirely know what it is that we are going through, then we can begin to feel like we don’t know how to cope and that can leave us to believing that we have not been pro-active in helping ourselves in this situation. We may feel weak, stuck and disappointed in the way we have handled ourselves.
What’s really important to remember is that just like the fight-flight response, the freeze response is completely automated.
You are not able to exert any control over what your body and mind are choosing to do.
This in itself can be a worrying thought but after I had overcome that particular panic attack, I found comfort in the fact that my mind was able to get through this on its own.
I wasn’t forcing any breathing techniques, trying to move my body or fight anything.
My mind had to do what it had to and I believe that by not ‘entertaining’ the anxiety is what helped it to subside on its own.
Think of it like a small child who is playing up because they want attention but if you ignore their behaviour, then they themselves learn that their actions won’t give them their desired outcome. This is kind of what’s happening during the freeze response — you remain still and don’t provoke the anxiety.
So, if you ever find yourself in this situation, I know it is easier said than done but try to accept what is happening in that very moment.
Try to go with the stillness that you are faced with.
There is no guilt or shame to be felt if you believe that you didn’t act or react accordingly — trust your body and mind to take over and know that this moment will pass.