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Navigating the Freeze Response in Trauma Recovery

Updated: Jun 17



The journey of trauma recovery is never straightforward. For some, the most significant hurdle can be overcoming the freeze response. This deeply ingrained survival mechanism, once functioning to protect in moments of extreme stress, can become a persistent and subtle barrier to healing.


The freeze response is probably the least understood of the four stress responses [fight, flight, freeze and fawn] and often shows up in the most unexpected ways. It's not always the dramatic, paralyzing stillness that many associate with trauma. Instead, it manifests subtly in daily life. One might find themselves zoning out in a moment of feeling triggered and during difficult conversations, feeling disconnected from surroundings, struggling to make decisions and even just becoming more and more quiet. These moments of immobilization is the bodies way of dealing with the overwhelming emotions and memories that still linger beneath the surface yet are remembered clearly by the nervous system.


One of the most challenging aspects of the freeze response is its unpredictability, especially in the presence of empathetic individuals. While empathy is often seen as a healing force for so many, for someone who has suffered emotoinal neglect, it could be a double-edged sword. Being with someone who shows great empathy, who truly listens and cares, often triggers the freeze response. The emotional intensity of feeling truly seen and understood can be overwhelming. It's as if the nervous system, finely tuned to detect threat, can't differentiate between the safety of empathy and the danger associated with past traumas.


"I feared having feelings and feeling deeply because I knew it could lead to immobilization, a state where my body would shut down to protect me from overwhelming emotions. This fear of empathy, while protective, also kept me from connecting with others and myself in meaningful ways. Recognizing this pattern was a crucial step in my healing process".


Understanding why empathy can trigger the freeze response is essential. According to Dr. Bessel van der Kolk in "The Body Keeps the Score," trauma survivors often experience hypersensitivity to emotions. This hypersensitivity can make the presence of empathetic individuals overwhelming, as their compassion can flood the nervous system with intense emotions that are difficult to process. The empathy, while well-intentioned can lead to a freeze response as a form of self-protection.


However, realizing this fear and understanding its roots can be incredibly liberating. It allows for a more nuanced approach to healing, one that acknowledges the need for safety and gradual exposure to empathy. This is where right-to-right brain communication and exteroception can play a vital role.


Right-to-right brain communication refers to the non-verbal, emotional exchange that occurs between individuals also known as co-regulation. It is the way we connect through tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. This form of communication can help create a sense of safety and connection without overwhelming verbal content. Dr. Daniel Siegel, in his work on interpersonal neurobiology, emphasizes the importance of attuned communication in fostering emotional regulation and healing.


In my practice and own recovery, I learned that grounding bio-feedback communication was a more effective tool for me than empathy alone. Grounding helps individuals reconnect to the present moment and physical connecting with what feels stable, reduces the likelihood of being overwhelmed. Techniques like focusing on the external environment, possibly an appropriate breathing exercise, bilateral stimulation, mindful movements, feeling the weight of the body on the chair, or describing surroundings in detail can become essential practices.


Dr. Stephen Porges' Polyvagal Theory explains how grounding activities can stimulate balance within the nervous system, promoting a shift from a state of immobilization to one of social engagement and safety. By engaging in these practices, one can slowly teach the nervous systems that it is safe to be here.


Another critical aspect of recovery is working with therapists who understand the nuances of the freeze response and who use techniques to help reconnect with my body and the present moment. Instead of pushing to explore traumatic memories too quickly, they encourage movement at the clients own pace, ensuring a felt sense of safety and sense of inner control.


In time when a client has put into practice effective tools to help them regain control of their nervous system states, Peter Levine, a pioneer in trauma therapy, emphasizes the importance of allowing the body to complete the actions it was unable to during the traumatic event. This completion can help discharge the pent-up and stored energy that fuels the freeze response.





Overcoming the freeze response is a gradual process. It requires patience, self-compassion, and a deep understanding of the body's signals. Learning to establish a quality of inner listen to the "felt sense," a concept introduced by Eugene Gendlin. The felt sense is a bodily awareness that encompasses everything you feel and know about a situation, communicated all at once rather than detail by detail. By tuning into the nervous system and this inner wisdom, one can better pace their healing and understand their own needs and the needs and boundaries of others.


For anyone struggling with the freeze response, it's important to remember that healing is possible. It requires creating a safe space for yourself, both physically and emotionally, and finding supportive individuals who understand the complexities of trauma. This awareness can all play a crucial role in moving past the immobilization and into a place of greater resilience and emotional flexibility.


As Tara Brach eloquently states, "Presence is not some exotic state that we need to search for or manufacture. In the simplest terms, it is the felt sense of wakefulness, openness, and tenderness that arises when we are fully here and now with our experience." By cultivating this presence, we can begin to reclaim our lives from the grip of the freeze response and move towards a more empowered and connected existence.


Conclusion

While empathy is a powerful tool in many therapeutic settings, it can sometimes be contraindicated for individuals experiencing the freeze response. How one communicates, and reorientates the nervous system is an effective prepatory approach for feeling safe to feel. By understanding and applying trauma informed principles, caregivers and therapists can help individuals recognize the subtleties of the freeze response and help them overcome the freeze state, promoting nervous system regulation and emotional resilience.


More Resources can be found within The RISE Programs https://www.handsoftimehealing.com/courses



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