Do You Freeze?
We Anxiety Sisters are all too familiar with the “fight or flight” response that gets activated by our sympathetic nervous systems when we perceive a threat (real or imagined). You know what I mean—the surge of adrenaline that runs through your body making your heart beat faster, your breathing get heavier, your body heat up, your muscles tense, etc. This revved up response occurs because your brain evaluates the danger and decides you are able to either stand up to it (fight) or get away quickly (flight). Essentially, your brain is priming your body to do battle or escape.
There is a third possibility, however, that gets much less attention both in scientific study and in popular culture: the freeze response, which occurs when your brain decides that you cannot overcome or outrun the threat you are facing. In this instance, your body goes completely still or “freezes.” Evolutionarily, freezing is the equivalent of “playing dead” so that a predator might lose interest.
Anxiety Sisters often report feeling paralyzed by anxiety—numb, unable to move, disabled. This is the freeze response which results from the brain’s split-second assessment that neither standing your ground nor fleeing will protect you from the imminent danger it perceives.
The freeze response provides 2 benefits for the anxiety sufferer: (1) it allows her to turn away from or block out a truly frightening experience which may be too traumatic to process, and (2) freezing causes the release of endorphins, which act as calming agents and pain relievers to enable the sufferer to more comfortably handle the ordeal.
Dissociating or “floating,” as we prefer to call it, is another example of the freeze response. Floating is the sensation of being outside our own bodies or, as some Anxiety Sisters have described it, watching ourselves “from above.” As terrifying as this sounds, it is actually quite a common anxiety symptom. Floating is the brain’s way of protecting us from a situation too anxiety-provoking to bear. Your brain literally leaves the scene until the perceived threat dissipates.
So what do you do if you find yourself in freeze mode or floating? The following are strategies based on the technique of grounding, which is using your five senses to bring your mind back to the present:
- Rub your hands together (generating heat and friction works so well)
- Splash cold water on your face (again, the temperature change is very effective)
- Suck on a peppermint candy (nasty as they are, Altoids are excellent grounders),
- Inhale a strong smell (Eucalyptus, Basil, Lavender, etc.)
- Tug on your hair (nothing brings your feet back to the ground quicker than a little physical discomfort!)
- Snap a rubber band against your wrist (the pain thing, again)
- Look at pictures of people/animals in your life.
- Stroke an object with a soft, soothing texture (Abs has a stuffed animal named Doug specifically for this purpose.) Worry stones are also great grounders.
- Listen to music with a strong beat, preferably through headphones. It’s hard to stay frozen when Eminem is in your ear!
- Knit, crochet, draw, color, etc. Using your hands to create is very grounding.
- Take an “Observer’s Walk”—a slow paced stroll during which you notice everything around you, including sounds, smells, temperature, etc.
- Talk to yourself: pick a mantra and say it over and over OUT LOUD (We like “This too shall pass,” “Be here now,” and “Just breathe”)
If you find yourself without props (this is why we recommend Spin Kits), you can do a simple, but very effective grounding exercise:
- Describe (talk to yourself) or write down 5 things you can see right now.
- Describe 4 things you can feel/touch right now.
- Describe 3 sounds you can hear right now.
- Describe 2 things you can smell right now.
- Describe 1 thing you can taste right now.
By the time you finish the last step, you will have distracted yourself from the anxiety and brought yourself back into the current moment.
If you have any other ways of managing your freeze response, please let us know so we can share it with the Sisterhood…
I work with Elementary school kids who have various behavioral diagnoses. Freezing occasionally may buy me a kick, punch or shove, but it does allow me time to react thoughtfully to the situation.
Kids wonder what’s up when they strike out and I react in a low key way. They see it as self-control. Weird, hunh?
Of course, I do need to ground myself afterward. I have the tools I need, and we all take a few moments to calm down when the crisis is over. Do I have a healthy fear of flying books and other dangers?
Yes, I do. I have to to be effective in my job. So far, it’s working. We have more in common than the students know.
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