How The Freeze Response May Keep Injuring You
In my mind it is not a coincidence that we get war on the back of a two year pandemic. Without wanting to simplify things too much, we are all, to some level, under-resourced and not at our best these days. And that is only natural, given what we have been through. Wherever we find vulnerable situations in the world we are now more vulnerable than ever. Dr. Peter Levine shared some interesting thoughts about the relationship between war and trauma in his book “Waking the Tiger”, where he mused that not only war causes trauma, but trauma also causes war. So it makes sense to me that things are now kicking off like this.
By the way the same is true inside of our body! The instabilities and weaknesses in our body are far more likely to become painful or injured when we are under-resourced and in a state of stress or shock.
I don’t know about you, but lately I found myself tensely staring into space, not really feeling much in terms of sensations or emotions other than a general sense of dis-ease and unsafety. I realised that I had gone into a classic freeze response. It is a physiological, deeply instinctive survival reaction we share with animals. In fact it is the oldest survival reaction there is. Our earliest ancestors, the most simple onecellers, have been equipped with this important response to overwhelm and danger. This deeply instinctive response is also sometimes called an immobility response, meaning it literally makes us numb, brace and slows down physiological processes in our body like breathing, blood flow and our ability to think or heal.
The freeze response is important and very useful on many levels, yet it has gotten a bad rep in our modern world in which we strive for mindfulness and embodiment. Bracing our body and dissociating our consciousness from it and the world around us is not deemed a healthy thing to do. And certainly it is not something we want to be stuck in all our lives. The freeze response is a wonderful thing but it is only meant to take over in extreme situations for a short period of time.
Unfortunately some of us actually live in the freeze response and we do not even know it because it is our normality. And many of us experience the freeze response and the dissociation that comes with it far too often. As I experienced it so clearly in the presence of war in Europe I also experienced something else…
I consider myself an active person. Usually I go running 5k 3 times a week and I practise Pilates and somatic movement around 5 times a week. However all of a sudden my chronic fatigue ramped up and made me literally unable to run. It simply was too hard and I did not have the energy. Running for only a few minutes felt like the most exhausting hill climb and every muscle in my body was saying “NO THANK YOU!”
Every time I engaged in my usual challenging Pilates practice I came away with some kind of minor injury, aches and pains around my neck, inflammation in my upper back and a twisted pelvic bone causing lower back pain for several days.
Luckily I am able to rehabilitate such small injuries myself with gentle movements and stretches and they never last longer than a few days. But I also was plagued with migraines more often than normally. Curiously they also hit me mostly the day after a challenging Pilates session.
Please do not worry. I promise I am much better now since I really clocked what was happening. It was at that moment that I realised something was wrong because this kind of reaction to movement practice is very unusual for me. I hardly ever hurt myself.
So I stopped and reflected. I put all the symptomes together and considered what my body was telling me. I realised I was stuck in a freeze response. My nervous system had decided on this reaction in order to keep me safe from the external triggers. If I was an animal I would have probably just passed out in reaction to the news. I would have been floppy on the floor, deciding to lay low for a while.
Since I am not an animal I continued with my everyday life and tried to negotiate my deep physical desire to stop and just collapse. I obviously was not listening well enough to myself, because I still tried to run those 5k and I still challenged myself in the studio. Why did it suddenly injure myself? – Because my whole body was in a bracing pattern that I was then fighting against. This meant it all cost me more energy and my bracing muscles had to work hard when their default was to brace.
I know that many of you too experience similar symptoms: Fatigue, exhaustion, dissociation from the body, injuries when trying to exercise…
When we do not realise that a freeze response may be the cause for most of this it can be extremely frustrating to experience it. We gather all the strength and motivation we have in order to become healthier and feel better, but when we do, our body thanks us with even more exhaustion and pain. It feels unfair and we become resentful of our body which just feels weak and incapable.
So this is when we need to pause and reflect on what is going on here because this can go on for a very long time, so long that we may start to believe that it is simply how we are.
Here is what you can do if you believe you are dealing with a freeze response:
1. Pause and come back to the here and now
Take a moment out from all the demands and expectations you have for yourself. Slow down and stop pushing. Take in your environment by slowly looking around, listening to the birds and feeling the ground beneath you. You may find that you are dissociated from your body, meaning you don’t feel anything or you even feel like you are looking at yourself from the outside. That’s okay and often comes with the freeze response. Be curious about your experience. Feel what your body is telling you, or if you can’t feel it, what does it look like to you from your external perspective?
2. Be kind and reassuring to yourself
It is easy to judge ourselves or to go back into pushing forward or looking for the solution. If you can, just stay with yourself for a moment with kindness and understanding. If you were a child, how would you support or reassure yourself right now?
3. Explore what movements your body says yes to
Here is the contradiction. While the body may say “no” to exercise, movement is actually a key to coming out of the freeze response. But the important bit is to not simply make it do things and not to push. We are very used to just pushing our body through exercise without really communicating and working with the body in the exercise. This is what causes us to keep hurting ourselves, because we are not listening to our body. On the contrary, we may have learned that unless exercise is very uncomfortable and difficult it is useless. Well, you know what I think about that….
So now is the time to perhaps just lie down on a yoga mat and continue to ground and settle and allow the ground to support you. From there, start from scratch without pushing for your goals. Explore some small movements that are not strenuous and let your body lead you. It will give you clear signals about what it is allowing and what it is fighting against. If you need some inspiration you may find this video helpful, in which I guide you through a 30 minute embodied movement exploration.
If you are not sure about exploring all this on your own, remember that I am available both on zoom and at my Leigh on Sea studio to help you reconnect with your body and find ways to move forward with a more harmonious relationship between body and mind.
Somatic Experiencing is a body-oriented approach to resolving trauma. It was developed by clinical psychologist Dr Peter Levine, the author of “Wakening the Tiger” and “In An Unspoken Voice”. Simply contact Kristin at The Body Matters on 01702 714968.