CPTSD – Why Do We Freeze Response?

  • Why did I freeze?
  • Why was I so paralysed?
  • Why did I have his “out-of-body” experience?
  • etc.

When people discuss responses to traumatic experiences they always talk about the fight/flight response, but not so often about to freeze response.

So let us look at the freeze response – what is actually happening in our brain? 

There is a brain area called the periaqueductal gray and that’s a bit like a danger detection centre.

For example, if you are walking along and there is a snake on the footpath, it takes less than 15 milliseconds for this information to go from your eyes – “see it” – till it reaches our danger detection centre =>  the periaqueductal gray. 

So this is a super fast process.

Which is really important to protect ourselves. So the second this danger detection centre detects this danger, it initiates physiological changes that result in the release of adrenaline and cortisol for example. This starts the fight/flight mode so we can protect ourselves.

Adrenaline and cortisol make sure we have the energy to get our muscles mobilized to fight or flee.

The problem is when the traumatic experience is inescapable. Like in childhood when our abusers were much larger and stronger than us…

So very soon we realized that there is actually no escape possible. I can’t help myself. I can’t protect myself. These sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

All this and on top of it all the physical pain that comes with being assaulted…

Then the periaqueductal gray initiates that switch from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system.

Which means, instead of the fight/flight response (sympathetic), we enter shut down mode (parasympathetic) and everything slow down:

  • our heart rate slows down
  • our breath becomes shallow and slows down
  • our metabolism slows down

With this switch, there are also different chemicals released like endorphins.

Endorphins can act a bit like painkillers.

The freeze response is the last resort that our body has to protect itself. When there is nothing else possible => This is a bit like a shutdown.

The freeze response is one of the strongest predictor if someone will develop PTSD after a traumatic experience or not.

This has a very significant impact. I think it’s important for us to actually understand that there is a physiological reason there. I know sometimes I can kind of geek out about the science behind this, as I’m a researcher in the medical field 🙂

But I believe it’s important that we all know a little bit about what’s happening in our brain, so that we can let go of some of that unjustified blame, guilt and shame. 

Freezing is NOT a sign of weakness.

We can see now, from brain scans on people who have had traumatic experiences that, for example, the activity patterns of the periaqueductal gray have changed. Even long after the traumatic incidence. 

This constant alertness and state of hypervigilance about detecting danger has changed the activity of our periaqueductal gray.

Similarly, if you spend a lot of time numb and disconnected, it shows changes in activity patterns.

I encourage you to read Dr. Daniel Amen’s books, because it really highlights that

  1. yes, trauma affects brain activity
  2. there are physiological reasons for our symptoms
  3. even more important: our brain has tremendous capacity to change even in adulthood

Our traumatic experiences are the cause of our current problems and there is a physiological reason for our symptoms – >

As we can see from brain scans, which are showing all these changes in brain activity patterns.

Yes, there is scientific proof! No, we are not being weak or difficult to get people’s attention etc…  

However, our brain has tremendous capacity to change. Yes, we have scientific proof for this too 🙂 So never give up!!!

For more information on CPTSD and other issues visit our YouTube Channel

If you need support or would like to connect with like-minded people join our Private and Closed online Facebook Group for Child Abuse Survivors and those with CPTSD. Click here to join

The Memoir You Will Bear Witness is available on Amazon in Kindle and Paperback

2 comments

  1. Hi Erin thank you so much to your contribution to childhood trauma.
    I read about the freeze response,
    Which I have used pbut Wen it’s something u can’t do anything about, paying bills I don’t have the means to pay so I need to go a few places for help, I don’t as soon as I know it’s hopeless I panic and become dispondant.
    At the moment I’m bring evicted but 6mnths after moving in I started struggling to breath, the landlords man and wife after me beggin for the repairs to be done, and nothing it’s in court.
    They both attacked me and my mum in court I froze, and I freeze all the time and tend not to go out the solicitor doesn’t understand this at all. But if they will attack me in s court setting they won’t think twice. I seem like the bad person I have to keep saying, we r here becoz if them, ppl r falling for their lies manipulation tactics and they r passive aggressive. They called behind my solicitors back wud I except an offer to get out and to think it over, she called tonight really sickly asking was I taking the offer, I said no she said my family r suffering coz yur not paying rent. She has no intention of taking on board I’m I’ll. He had called me a mental case everything he is a bully I’m terrified what is the best info for me to print out to explain this to my solicitor and the judges if the degree in which this impacts every aspect of a person’s life

    • Hi Janis. I understand what you mean about freezing. It’s an awful feeling and so often those around you don’t under what is happening to you. Good luck for the Court Case. I am sure that is very stressful. Believe that you can get through. All the best Erin

I would love to hear from you so please leave a comment. All feedback is much appreciated. Thank you. Erin

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