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Freeze response

Many survivors of sexual abuse go into a ‘freeze state’ whilst the abuse is taking place, as a way of surviving. As we look back on what happened, it is easy to feel a lot of guilt or shame for freezing and not doing more to protect ourselves by fighting back or running away.

It is therefore often a great help to people to be reminded that freezing is completely out of your control.

What is freeze response?

When faced with traumatic threat, if neither escape nor fighting are possible, our bodies choose a third option: to freeze. In this state the victim of trauma enters an altered reality. Time slows down and there is no fear or pain. In this state, if harm or death do occur, the pain is not felt as intensely. And this freeze response can increase chances of survival if the attacker thinks the person is dead.

The nervous system responses of fight, flight and freeze are automatic survival actions. We do not choose them. Therefore if you have experienced freeze response that is because freezing was the best way your body knew to protect you from the trauma of what was not your fault. You did well to survive. Now it is time to heal.

The courage to be me

We highly recommend this cartoon story, which explains with insight and simplicity what happens inside your brain as a result of sexual abuse and illustrates freeze response.

Understanding the science behind freeze response

We’ve put together the following document to explain in more scientific detail why and how freeze response happens.

Download 'The science behind freeze response'

'Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma'

Sometimes the ‘freeze’ response can become a well worn coping mechanism that survivors fall back into whenever they feel stressed or anxious. It can undermine your capacity to engage in life in an ongoing way and express your full potential. It can make you feel numb and distant. Peter A. Levine with Ann Frederick wrote a great book about healing from this that it might help you to read.

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