By Zuleyma Rivera, LMSW
You’ve probably heard of the “fight or flight” response. This is how your body reacts to danger to help you survive. Your heart beats faster. Your lungs take in more oxygen. Your muscles become tense so you’re ready to spring into action. This is all to get you ready to either fight back or run away from the danger.
All of this is done automatically, outside of your control.
But calling our stress response system “fight or flight” actually leaves out a third, just as common and normal response to danger: freeze.
What is the freeze response?
Just like fight or flight, freezing is an automatic, involuntary response to a threat. In a split second, the brain decides that freezing (rather than fighting or running away) is the best way to survive what’s happening. Sometimes when they freeze, people dissociate and feel like they’re watching themselves from outside their own body. Or, their body may go rigid or limp, so they can’t move.
When someone freezes, their body is trying to protect them. Freezing is an evolutionary survival tactic, similar to when an animal plays dead. It’s not a conscious decision, but something out of anyone’s control. It doesn’t matter if you’re trained in self-defense, or bigger or stronger than your attacker. Anyone can freeze.
Why does it matter?
Even though freezing is a common response to trauma, it’s not as well-known as fight or flight. And that’s a big problem. It means that people who freeze in the moment often blame themselves for what happened: “Why didn’t I fight back?” “Why didn’t I run away?”
When they blame themselves, victims are often less likely to talk about their experience, which makes it less likely that they’ll get the help and support they need.
These consequences fall especially hard on survivors of sexual assault. They question whether it was “really” sexual assault, since they didn’t fight back, or push their attacker’s hands away, or say no.
If they choose to talk about their experience, survivors can face these same victim-blaming questions from others. It’s important to understand that having their experience denied can be a trauma all on its own. After all, sexual assault involves an extreme loss of power and control. When someone denies that terrifying reality, they’re taking power away from the survivor again. One of the most important things we can do to support survivors is believe and validate them.
So what does this have to do with me?
It’s scary to think that there are times when we don’t have control over our bodies and what happens to us. But ignoring that reality only sets us and the people we love up for guilt and self-blame. I’ve talked before about how victim-blaming often comes from a place of fear and pain—pain that something horrible happened to someone we care about, pain that there’s nothing we could have done to stop it.
Understanding the freeze response can help survivors who experienced it let go of self-blame and guilt, talk about what happened, and begin to heal. It can help the people around survivors provide support instead of victim-blaming. It could help first responders and our legal system handle cases of sexual assault in a way that actually supports and affirms survivors.
If someone tells you about sexual assault or another trauma, resist asking pointed questions like, “Did you tell him no?” or “Why did you…?” Instead, make sure they understand that what happened was not their fault. If they had a freeze response, make sure they understand that they had no control over their body’s reaction.
If you’ve frozen when you were in a scary situation, know that your response was your body trying to protect you.
Nothing is “wrong” with you. You could not control your body’s reaction. Again: what happened was not your fault. If you’re 10-22 years old and want to talk about what happened, stop by the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center for free, confidential counseling. You’ll be welcome.
Zuleyma Rivera, LMSW is a clinical social worker with a specialization in children, youth and families, and in treating trauma in adolescents. Zuleyma has worked in community-based preventative services agencies and outpatient substance use disorder clinics, and as a home-based family therapist and school-based clinician. She is currently an outpatient clinical social worker at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center in Manhattan.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 12,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.