Beyond Fight or Flight: Complex PTSD Freeze Response

What the Complex PTSD Freeze Response Resembles in Nature - The Squirrel

Am I the only one whose path to C-PSTD recovery started with discovering the Complex PTSD freeze response?

She hid around corners and she hid under beds
She killed it with kisses and from it, she fled
With every bubble, she sank with a drink
And washed it away down the kitchen sink

Florence and the Machine – Dog Days Are Over

When it comes to public awareness of trauma responses, fight or flight is a well-known phrase that describes the body’s instinctive reaction to danger.

Yet, there is another, often overlooked response that occurs within the depths of the mind: the freeze response.

Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) brings to light this invisible battle that takes place within the minds of its sufferers.

Unlike fight or flight, the freeze response manifests as a state of immobility, where the body and mind essentially shut down in order to cope with overwhelming trauma.

This response can be triggered by a wide range of experiences, from physical or sexual abuse to intense emotional distress.

While fight and flight are more visible and easily understood, freeze is a silent but equally significant aspect of trauma responses.

Understanding and addressing the freeze response is crucial for those living with C-PTSD, as it can affect various aspects of their daily lives.

From relationships to work and overall well-being, the invisible battle of freeze response plays a profound role in shaping the experiences of people with C-PTSD.

In this article, we come to grips with the complexities of the freeze response, exploring its origins, effects, and ways to overcome its grip.

By shedding light on this often overlooked aspect of trauma, we strive to foster greater empathy and understanding for those with C-PTSD.

Understanding Complex PTSD and the Freeze Response

What is Complex PTSD Infographic - courtesy Complex PTSD Help

Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) is a condition that arises from prolonged exposure to traumatic events, such as physical or sexual abuse, severe neglect, or ongoing emotional distress.

Unlike other forms of PTSD, C-PTSD is characterized by a wide range of symptoms that can significantly impact a person’s daily life.

One aspect of C-PTSD that often goes unnoticed is the freeze response, a state of immobility that the mind and body enter as a way of coping with overwhelming trauma.

Here’s how Pete Walker, author of From Surviving to Thriving, describes the Freeze Response:

The freeze response, also known as the camouflage response, often triggers the individual into hiding, isolating and eschewing human contact as much as possible.

This type can be so frozen in retreat mode that it seems as if their starter button is stuck in the “off” position.

It is usually the most profoundly abandoned child – “the lost child” – who is forced to “choose” and habituate to the freeze response (the most primitive of the 4Fs).

Unable to successfully employ fight, flight or fawn responses, the freeze type’s defenses develop around classical dissociation, which allows him to disconnect from experiencing his abandonment pain, and protects him from risky social interactions – any of which might trigger feelings of being re-abandoned.

Freeze types often present as ADD; they seek refuge and comfort in prolonged bouts of sleep, daydreaming, wishing and right brain-dominant activities like TV, computer and video games.

They master the art of changing the internal channel whenever inner experience becomes uncomfortable.

When they are especially traumatized or triggered, they may exhibit a schizoid-like detachment from ordinary reality.

Pete Walker – 4 F’s Typology

The freeze response is a survival mechanism deeply rooted in our evolutionary biology.

When faced with a threat, our bodies instinctively prepare for action.

While fight or flight responses are relatively well-known, the freeze response operates on a different level.

It is a state of paralysis, where the mind and body essentially shut down in order to protect itself from further harm.

The Fight or Flight Response vs. the Freeze Response

Understanding the differences between fight or flight and freeze response is crucial in comprehending the complexities of C-PTSD.

Fight or flight responses involve active engagement with the threat, either through confrontation or escape.

These responses are visible and easily understood by others.

On the other hand, the freeze response is a silent battle that takes place within the mind, often leaving individuals feeling trapped and helpless.

While fight or flight responses are aimed at physical survival, the freeze response is a psychological survival strategy.

It may manifest as a feeling of being stuck, numb, or disconnected from oneself and the surrounding environment.

This immobilization can persist long after the initial traumatic event, affecting various aspects of a person’s life.

How to Get Out of Freeze Response | CPTSD Books

What the Human Freeze Response Resembles in Nature – The Squirrel

Like the squirrel in the video above, our body shifts its energy towards survival functions, such as reducing heart rate and blood pressure.

This state of immobility is believed to be an adaptive response, as it decreases the likelihood of further harm.

However, it can also lead to a range of physical and emotional effects that impact the lives of individuals with C-PTSD.

Common Triggers for the Freeze Response in Complex PTSD

The freeze response can be triggered by a variety of experiences, often related to the original traumatic event.

For individuals with C-PTSD, even seemingly harmless situations can activate this response due to the brain’s association with past trauma.

Common triggers include situations that remind them of the traumatic event, intense emotional distress, or feeling overwhelmed by a lack of control.

These triggers can be both external and internal.

External triggers may include certain smells, sounds, or visuals that are reminiscent of the traumatic event.

Internal triggers, on the other hand, are often linked to unresolved emotions, such as fear, shame, or helplessness.

It can happen anywhere at any time, which can be particularly difficult to manage at work or in social settings.

Identifying and understanding these triggers is vital in managing the freeze response and finding ways to regain control.

The Physical and Emotional Effects of the Freeze Response

The freeze response can have profound physical and emotional effects on individuals with C-PTSD.

Physically, it can lead to a range of symptoms, including muscle tension, headaches, digestive issues, and a weakened immune system.

Additionally, the freeze response can contribute to chronic pain conditions, as the body remains stuck in a state of tension and vigilance.

Emotionally, the freeze response can manifest as feelings of detachment, numbness, and a sense of being disconnected from oneself and others.

Individuals may experience difficulties in regulating their emotions, leading to mood swings, anxiety, and depression.

The freeze response can also affect cognitive functioning, impairing memory and concentration.

Coping Strategies for Dealing with the Freeze Response

While the freeze response may feel overwhelming, there are coping strategies that can help individuals with C-PTSD navigate through it.

One approach is grounding techniques, which involve bringing attention to the present moment and the sensations in the body.

Deep breathing exercises, mindfulness practices, and sensory stimulation can all aid in grounding and calming the nervous system.

Building a support network is another vital aspect of coping with the freeze response.

Connecting with understanding friends, family, or support groups can provide a sense of validation and reduce feelings of isolation.

Seeking professional help from trauma-informed therapists experienced in trauma treatment can also be beneficial, as they can provide guidance and support tailored to individual needs.

Complex PTSD | CPTSD Books We Recommend

Therapeutic Approaches to Addressing the Freeze Response in Complex PTSD

Therapeutic interventions play a crucial role in addressing the freeze response in C-PTSD.

Techniques such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Somatic Experiencing (SE), and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy focus on processing traumatic memories and releasing the freeze response from the body.

These approaches aim to help individuals regain a sense of safety, reconnect with their bodies, and develop new strategies for managing stress and triggers.

Trauma-focused therapy can also help individuals explore the underlying causes of the freeze response and develop healthier coping mechanisms.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) are commonly used approaches that focus on identifying and challenging negative thought patterns, building emotional regulation skills, and enhancing coping strategies.

Self-Care Practices to Support Healing from the Freeze Response

In addition to therapy, self-care practices can play a significant role in supporting healing from the freeze response.

Engaging in activities that promote relaxation, such as meditation, yoga, and gentle exercise, can help regulate the nervous system and reduce stress.

Prioritizing sleep, maintaining a balanced diet, and avoiding substances that can exacerbate symptoms are also essential for overall well-being.

Journaling can be a useful tool for processing emotions and gaining insights into the freeze response.

Writing down thoughts and feelings can help individuals make sense of their experiences and track patterns and triggers.

Engaging in creative outlets, such as art or music, can also provide a means of self-expression and emotional release.

Breaking the Cycle: Overcoming the Freeze Response in Complex PTSD

Overcoming the freeze response in C-PTSD is a journey that requires patience, self-compassion, and perseverance.

Healing is highly personal and it’s never a straight line to success.

Building a toolbox of coping strategies, engaging in therapy, and practicing self-care are all important steps in breaking the cycle of the freeze response.

Learning to recognize triggers, developing self-soothing techniques, and gradually exposing oneself to challenging situations can also help regain a sense of control and reduce the intensity of the freeze response.

Discovering, Diagnosing and Managing The Complex PTSD Freeze Response

The invisible battle of the freeze response in C-PTSD is often overshadowed by the more well-known fight or flight responses.

But it’s a significant aspect of trauma that profoundly affects the lives of many individuals with C-PTSD.

With the right support, therapeutic interventions, and self-care practices, healing from Complex PTSD become possible for those who rely the freeze response to protect them to their own detriment.


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