home. about us. interact. act now. articles. events. books. training. links.

by Sandra Sunfire

This writing is based on a talk that I presented at the First Person Plural open meeting in London October 4th 2003. I am a full member of FPP and a member of the steering group. I speak as someone who has survived severe childhood abuse with dissociation and who began to look into current research into the effects of trauma on the neuroendocrine and immune system when my physical health collapsed. I believe that my current and growing understanding which I have been able to act on with the support of other people, has been crucial to the rejuvenation of my health on all levels of my being. I have also trained in a body centred form of psychotherapy, Post Reichian Therapy which I now practice and informs my understanding of bodymind (a term apparently first coined by Dianne Connely speaking from a Chinese medical perspective). I am currently training in Hakomi Experiential Method which brings together a body centred approach with mindfulness.

I want to speak about the freeze response as a natural response of a living organism to an inescapable threat and it’s connection to dissociation and also to touch on moving towards “unfreezing”.

Much of what I speak of is based on the work of Peter Levine who has practiced what he calls a “naturalistic approach” to healing trauma for the past 28 years or so. He says in “Waking the Tiger ~ Healing Trauma” which he wrote with Ann Frederick, “Increasingly I became convinced that the instinctual repertoire of the human organism includes a deep biological knowing, which given the opportunity to do so, can and will guide the process of healing trauma.” As Levine sees it “the roots of trauma lie in our instinctual physiology. As a result, it is through our bodies as well as our minds that we discover healing.”

Levine says that “Post traumatic symptoms, the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, are incomplete physiological responses suspended by fear, that require discharge and completion….. If the discharge process is repeatedly disturbed (i.e. by ongoing abuse) each successive state of shock will last longer” - this is a freeze response.

Levine’s Ethological Model

“The orientating reflexes” When an animal is under threat, it instinctually goes into a whole repertory of automatic responses, mediated by primitive structures within the nervous system, which unfold in different directions in different circumstances. As soon as an animal senses a threat it attempts to orient to the threat. First it goes into an arrest state. Then it tries to locate the threat to a specific location. If it can't locate the threat the arrest state continues and can become a locked circuit where the animal is constantly searching in an arrested state (this can become chronic hyper-vigilance). When it locates the threat it will move toward the threat to try to evaluate the level of danger. Once the threat has been localised and evaluated, if it is determined that the threat is sufficiently great, the animal prepares for flight, by turning away from the threat and searching for a safe place or looking for a path of escape. Then the animal will run and hide.

If the animal determines that the threat may be overcome or that there’s a compelling reason to, it prepares to fight (the fight/flight response was initially described by Dr Hans Selye and is the response that most people have heard of).

Shock Reflexes

If fight/flight defences fail (ie if the animal cannot fight off or escape the attack) then the animal will go into a second line of passive defences, the shock reflexes. The shock reflexes serve important survival functions. First the animal freezes in a state of “tonic immobility” of which there are two types: a “frozen stiff” mode and a “waxy flexibility” mode (whereby a limb can move but stays where it is moved to like modelling clay). This freezing is a “playing dead” that is a successful survival strategy. It not only serves the individual but may allow time for other animals to escape. Simultaneously the animal goes into an analgesic response, into a dissociated state when pain is not experienced, but there is a keen, altered state of awareness of what is happening. Robert Scaer MD who has written “The Body Bears The Burden - Trauma, Dissociation and Disease” says “Dissociation very probably constitutes a major element in the freeze response, and people who report symptoms of shock and numbness after a traumatic event and exhibit symptoms of dissociation, are actually in the freeze response at the time.”

Because lower brain stem activity takes over, there may also be a disconnection with rational, higher brain thinking, which is connected with the loss of memory often associated with shock events. One common experience of shock victims is the sense of “did it really happen or did I make it up”. This is partly because of the discontinuous states of consciousness which results in confusion and dislocation of different aspects of the shock event.

The memory may be broken up into unconnected images, body sensations or a vague auric sense that “something happened”.

Robert Scaer tells us that Nijenhuis, Van der Linden, and Sinhaven have drawn “a parallel between animal defensive traits that are triggered by severe life threat, such as freezing, and the characteristics of dissociative states in patients with major dissociation”. The neuroendocrinologist Bessel Van der Kolk has postulated that the freeze/numbing response in animals exposed to prolonged severe and inescapable stress may be analogous to dissociation in humans exposed to trauma and that dissociation maybe mediated by endogenous opiates (opiates that are created within the body itself). The work of van der Kolk in researching into trauma and it’s effects has influenced my understanding greatly. He identifies immobilisation as being crucial to the development of trauma. Like beauty, trauma is in the eye of the beholder. What may traumatise one individual or group, community of people, may not have that effect on others. Traumatic experience is by its nature overwhelming and induces a physiological stress


In the freeze state in animals there are increased levels of metabolic and neurochemical energy despite the immobility. If the animal survives there will be “somatic and autonomic responses including trembling, perspiring and deep breathing”. Peter Levine tells us that “humans tend not to dissipate this energy, possibly through acculturated social restraint or neocortical inhibition, resulting in the storage of arousal based energy”. In circumstances such as repeated instances of abuse and/or when someone who has suffered this abuse and does not receive the support they need afterwards, the discharge of this energy is prohibited. This is what leads to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and possibly dissociative disorders.

Bessel points to the dorsal vagal system being involved in the freeze reaction, saying that this also prevents anything else coming into the mind, learning is prevented once this system is activated (this is a reason to avoid high levels of arousal).

He also found that the Broca’s area becomes deactivated in this freeze reaction, preventing the ability to talk and so in healing from trauma it is necessary to circumvent speech, to draw, to use movement - to move out of immobilisation which deprives a person of being in the world, of communication, of choice and the ability to imagine how things could in fact be different.

Being immobolised is a most uncomfortable place to be, I can vouch for that! I have also noticed how uncomfortable it is for others to be with, helplessness is often felt through the strong emotional impression of this wordless state.

Towards Unfreezing

   “Body sensation rather than the intense emotion is the key to healing trauma”,

   Peter Levine.

   “Our feelings and our bodies are like water flowing into water.

   We learn to swim with the energies of the (body) senses”,

   Tarthang Tulku.

   “The body is the shore on the ocean of being",

   A Sufi saying.

I use the phrase of moving towards unfreezing in the knowledge that I am just touching on a vast area of experience here. An experience which is as varied and personal to the individual as are the elements of what originally created the trauma and guided our responses to it. What is common to all of us in this area of experience, is the need to learn how to step down from overwhelm, how to not keep reactivating the freeze response.

Levine emphasises staying with the body which means staying with the now, the “felt sense” in the present.

If we listen to a piece of music now we would receive an impression of it rather than knowing what notes were played. Likewise bringing awareness to the “felt sense” (a phrase coined by Eugene Gendlin who developed Focussing) provides a key to healing the fragmentation of trauma, it gives us a unified experience.

“We don’t confront trauma directly... or we could find ourselves seized in it’s frightening grip”. Levine reflects on the myth of Medusa who Perseus sets out to conquer. Athena warns him not to look directly at the Gorgon. Listening to this wisdom he uses his shield to reflect Medusa’s image, rather than being turned to stone, immobilised by fear, he is able to cut off her head. “Likewise the solution to vanquishing trauma comes not through confronting it directly but by working with its reflection, mirrored in our instinctual responses”. If we access the instinctual processes we can use them as shields to become unfrozen and to heal. In the myth when Medusa is slain, two creatures emerge from her body ~ Pegasus the winged horse, symbol of the human body and its instinctual nature and also Chrysaor, a warrior with a golden sword, the sword of truth. The truth being that transformation through embodiment brings both grounding and the soaring of wings, the streaming of energy. Some years ago I had the clear insight that although my body was a “target”, the site of the battlefield of the trauma that I had experienced, it was also a gateway to freedom. A prison and escape route both. I had the sense that I needed to “reassociate”, to come into my body to end the dissociation and fragmentation, if I wanted to be free of my traumatic childhood, which was literally frozen in my bodymind.

One of the complications that can occur and that needs to be dealt with is the “overcoupling” (Peter Levine’s term), the strong association of fear (terror) with immobility and indeed with being in the body, with being embodied.

As someone who has suffered trauma moves out of immobility, overpowering surges of emotion are likely to arise and when these are not acted upon, enormous amounts of rage and terror will be re-experienced. I personally have also experienced excruciating pain, both physically and emotionally as I have resolved, unfrozen, some of the frozen parts of myself. To me its not dissimilar to thawing out frozen fingers in the cold, it really hurts as the numbing, the analgesic response wears off.

“Fear and the fear of violence to self and others reactivates the immobility, extending it, often indefinitely in the form of frozen terror. This is the vicious circle of trauma.” Levine states that “with full use of our highly developed ability to think and perceive, we can consciously move out of the trauma response.” As we all know this is not easy and is a gradual process that needs to be taken, one step at a time. In my experience it’s like trying to find the light switch in the dark in a house that is completely unfamiliar to you. It takes time to consciously learn the layout.

“The drive to complete the freezing response remains active no matter how long it has been in”. Use this drive, these natural instinctive responses, as an ally and a very potent one at that.

   “Canst though not minister to a mind diseased,

   Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,

   Raze out the written troubles of the brain

   And with some sweet oblivious antidote

   Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff

   Which weighs upon the heart?”

   Macbeth Act V scene iii

Of trauma Levine says, “of all the maladies that attack the human organism, trauma may ultimately be one that is recognised as beneficial. I say this because in the healing of trauma a transformation takes place ~ one that can improve the quality of life... While trauma can be hell on earth, trauma resolved is the gift of the gods ~ a heroic journey that belongs to each of us.”

Recommended Reading

Peter Levine and Ann Frederick: Waking The Tiger - Healing Trauma. North Atlantic Books, 1997.

Candace Pert: Molecules Of Emotion

Bessel Van der Kolk MD: The Body Keeps the Score: Memory and The Evolving Psychobiology of Post-traumatic Stress

(Havard Review Of Psychiatry 1994)

Bessel Van der Kolk, Alexander McFarlane, Lars Weisaeth: The Effects Of Overwhelming Experience On Mind, Body and Society (Adaptations to Trauma; The Psychobiology of PTSD)

Robert C Scaer MD: The Body Bears The Burden - Trauma, Dissociation and Disease

You are here: TAG > articles > trauma > the freeze response