“The detection of a person as safe or dangerous triggers neurobiologically determined pro-social or defensive behaviours.Even though we may not always be aware of danger on a cognitive level, on a neurophysiological level, our body has already started a sequence of neural processes that would facilitate adaptive defense behaviours such as fight, flight or freeze. ”
― Stephen W. Porges, The Polyvagal Theory Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation
Freeze Response to Stress
There was an abrupt disconnect during the escalating emergency surrounding Jenna. It trapped her in a muffled silence, where everything else went on without her, and she froze. It had happened to her before, but never on her job as a paramedic. She had made sure of that, taking light volumes of sedatives that eased her usually anxious mind.
Someone was screaming her name. The voice bounced off the cold walls of her mind, muffled and drawn. Her hands were shaking. It was the only thing she could see. Her fingers, a supple glow and vivid contrast to the young man lying pale and limp against the white bed.
“Jenna!” Her mind snapped, and she rejoined the present. Loud alarms screamed from the surrounding machines. She was one of the two paramedics on that ambulance. This was an emergency. The teenager convulsing in the bed before her needed to be stabilized, now and not later. He was writhing, limbs flailing, cracking the stretcher underneath him, despite being restrained by her colleague.
“What’s wrong with you, Jenna! You just zoned out!” Her coworker and paramedic friend screamed.
Jenna had always known something was wrong with the world out there. Something wrong with its loud and demanding personalities that she avoided. But that question made her switch perspective. Maybe the problem wasn’t out there, perhaps the problem was within her. She loved her work more than anything. She was always primed in her white uniform, reciting every procedure mentally in her mind before arriving on scene. And then, suddenly, like a released spring, her mind started disassociating and freezing during urgent work situations.
It terrified her.
She stayed up that night with her knees drawn to her chin, her mind unraveling, replaying the horror that had unfolded in that ambulance. The disappointment on her coworker’s face remained with her, as she went over and over in her mind. The disgust and confusion in their faces etched in hard lines. She sat staring at her thoughts jutting out crazily in all directions. Her pale face stared at the wall as her doctor took her blood pressure. “I will put you on six weeks stress leave. First responders can suffer from symptoms of PTSD. I know of a ranch with horses run by a Registered Psychiatric Nurse and it would be the perfect therapy for you.” She wrote the note for the stress leave and the name of the ranch, and gave Jenna a caring smile touching her shoulder. Relief washed over her, as she needed time to heal. Jenna went home and quickly packed her riding clothes to spend one month at Chrome Heart Ranch to work with the Wise Women on Horseback program.
The Dorsal Parasympathetic Response
This is a primal response that keeps us frozen to survive when we feel death could happen. We have this response to keep ourselves alive until we can fight or flee again. This response also has the potential to have us feel disconnected, hopeless and spaced out. Heart rate and breathing might also decrease. Some people may not speak, have a constriction in the throat, or crawl into bed not wanting to move.
The freeze response is your coping mechanism when an event in front of you overwhelms you and it paralyzes you with fear. In seconds you know that you can either defeat the frightening event or run from it, but if not the experience can send the person into a state of freeze which can be full collapse,dissociation, or a more partial freeze such as an inability to think clearly or access words or emotions, or to move parts of the body. This can be momentary or short term.
When stress is very great, the sympathetic nervous system automatically goes to our primal fight-or-flight response. It can happen in response to the threat or the perception of a threat. Either fighting or fleeing can resolve the stress. If neither is possible nor successful, the sympathetic arousal can get so extreme that it is too much for the body to handle, leading to a state of a freeze response.
Some of my clients, have had extended freeze episodes after a traumatic event. An unwanted trigger or reminiscing over a painful event had led some to shut down sometimes for months at a time. Therapy, however, helps the nervous system regain its healthy balance and with help from a professional, climb out of the state of being disconnected. This trust-based compassionate relationship builds inner strength, and gradually resets the nervous system and helps regain a feeling of safety.
“Practice self-compassion and experience the priceless feeling of emotional safety.” Amy Leigh Mercree, The Compassion Revolution: 30 Days of Living from the Heart