Fight, Flight, or Freeze
Most of us have heard of the fight or flight response when it comes to stressful situations. We either choose to fight back or run away, but when it comes to traumatic events such as sexual abuse or harassment a third response, freeze, is actually a far more common response. First, we need to examine the differences between the responses and the complexity of the freeze response.
Fight is a straightforward response, when faced with the stressor, it is fighting back. The brain alerts the body to swing the first punch, to grab something nearby and throw it at an attacker, or to kick someone really hard in the shins. The body is filled with adrenaline to give you that boost of energy, your pupils dilate to take in more of the situation, your heart beats faster, you might even start shaking. Nevertheless, the body is ready to make a move.
Flight is when your body, after taking all this information in and preparing the body, is ready to flee the situation. The brain has analyzed that this situation isn’t something you can handle even with that adrenaline boost and should look for a way out. Your body is still pumping all those hormones in order to help you flee the situation without any problems.
Freeze is as the name sounds, the body and brain freeze in the situation. The response can be further broken down into three stages. The first stage is Detection Freezing. During this period, the individual will analyze the situation and the brain will get ready to defend. The individual becomes physically frozen. This stage typically lasts for a few seconds.
The next stage is the network reset stage. This is when the brain completely stops what it was doing in order to prepare itself to receive new information and generate new options in order to overcome the threat at hand.
Lastly is the shocked freezing stage. The individual is frozen for longer, their brain goes blank as they’re in shock. They may become numb, feel physical stiffness or heaviness of limbs, they have a decreased heart rate, and restricted breathing.
As mentioned before, freezing the most common trauma response when it comes to sexual abuse or harassment. Individuals often state that they were unable to do anything in the moment because they were too shocked and frozen in order to process the situation further. Scientists theorize that one reason for this is because the brain is not equipped to handle trauma similar to that of abuse and harassment situations and so the brain has trouble processing and handling the situation altogether.
Trauma survivors often blame themselves for their inability to do nothing but freeze in the moment but freezing was one way that your brain and body tried to cope and comprehend the event. It’s important to remember that you are not to blame for how you responded to your traumatic event.