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Freeze Trauma Responses

Trauma is a difficult experience that often results in lasting physical and psychological effects. In response to traumatic events, the body may activate a “fight or flight” response as an instinctive reaction to danger. However, not all trauma responses involve fighting or fleeing. In this blog post, we will discuss what trauma responses are and how they are developed.

What is a trauma response?

A trauma response is what the brain and the body do to ensure continued safety. You’ve heard of fight or flight but what about the lesser-known cousin of freeze? Of course, we can imagine freezing like playing dead in the wild to detract other predators, but freeze can be a very useful tool in modern life as well and most of the time we don’t even know we are doing it!

How are trauma responses developed?

The brain and the body are highly intelligent beings that have overcome many centuries of opposition. They certainly know a thing or two about how to survive and adapt. This is how trauma responses are developed. We experience something that threatens our safety like a wild animal. In a matter of seconds of seeing danger arising, our brains and bodies have already thought through all the options for getting out alive and are evaluating which one will work the best to deploy. This works in relationships as well. If we have experienced a perceived threat by someone or something, we instinctively think through various options as a means for continued survival. If something we try works, the brain and the body remember that success and will use it in future situations that may arise.

Why don’t fight or flight always work?

When you think about experiencing trauma, you may think this is a no-brainer–you would either get yourself out of there or do what you need to defend yourself. But what if doing nothing would work better? What if the perceived threat is a parent or romantic partner and getting away is not realistic at that moment for long-term safety and trying to stand up for yourself would just cause them to get more aggressive? Introducing freeze: otherwise known as camouflage. Our brains and bodies are constantly taking in information around us, learning about those around us, and in doing so learning how to survive those around us. We learn to put ourselves second, to make their favorite meal, or go along with their chosen activity. We learn that if they’re happy, then we’re safe.

What is the impact of using freeze as a trauma response?

Trauma comes in a variety of shapes and forms. When we think about what is trauma, we may think about physical or sexual violence, car accidents and domestic violence, but what about the person who thankfully has not experienced a particular event? They think about how they have been so fortunate in life and yet feel so emotionally dysregulated and dissatisfied with life. They begin to think ‘what is wrong with me?’ This is the impact that ongoing freeze trauma responses begin to have on someone enduring long-term emotional abuse. They have camouflaged so much to avoid the emotional upset that they have virtually lost their own identity and don’t know what they would be doing if they were not constantly trying to please someone else.

How do I take control of my life back?

Taking control back is essential for trauma survivors and their healing process. This looks different from person to person and should be a very independent and unique set of changes made. Processing your current relationships with a trained therapist can be a really good place to begin. Therapy will often explore relationships from your childhood first to identify when you learned this trauma response and then explore where you are still using this response in the present. The kinds of relationships we had as kids will often get repeated in our adult lives if this early trauma remains unprocessed. Just like any other disorder, untreated trauma will continue to manifest in ways that keep us ‘sick’ or stuck in our psychological nightmares.


About the Author

Jenna Scampton, LPC completed her Bachelor’s degree at Temple University majoring in psychology, and my Master’s degree at Chestnut Hill College in Clinical and Counseling Psychology. She is certified in Prolonged Exposure therapy through University of Penn, and is now in the process of EMDR certification via the EMDR Institute. Reach out to Jenna today for a 15 minute phone consultation.