Getting out of the 'freeze state'

In the face of perceived threats, the human body responds instinctively through a complex interplay of neurobiological processes. This response is commonly known as the 'fight, flight, or freeze' response, representing three distinct strategies for coping with danger. While fight and flight are more readily recognisable, the freeze response is equally crucial and, at times, less understood.


Flight, fight, or freeze

The fight, flight, or freeze response is deeply ingrained in our evolutionary history. When confronted with a potential threat, the body activates the sympathetic nervous system, triggering a cascade of physiological changes designed to enhance survival.


This response prepares the individual to confront the threat directly. It involves heightened alertness, increased heart rate, and a surge of adrenaline, empowering the person to stand their ground and engage with the danger.


Flight involves a rapid mobilisation of energy to escape from the threat. Heart rate increases, muscles tense, and the body is primed for swift and agile movement, enabling the individual to flee from the perceived danger.


The freeze response is marked by a sudden, involuntary immobilisation. In this state, the body may become tense, breathing shallow, and the individual may experience a sense of dissociation. This instinctual reaction can be adaptive, as stillness might be perceived as a strategy to avoid detection by a potential predator.

Understanding the freeze response

The freeze response is not a sign of weakness; rather, it is a survival strategy deeply embedded in our biology. While fight and flight are geared towards active engagement, freezing can be a defensive mechanism. It may occur when the perceived threat is overwhelming, and the individual feels unable to escape or confront the danger effectively.

In daily life, the freeze state manifests as a profound sense of immobilisation and emotional paralysis in response to stress or perceived threats. Individuals experiencing the freeze response may appear physically tense, with limited movement, and may struggle to make decisions or take action.

Mentally, there might be a sense of detachment, difficulty concentrating, and a feeling of being emotionally overwhelmed. Socially, someone in a freeze state may withdraw, becoming unresponsive or distant, as the body and mind instinctively seek safety through stillness. Recognising these signs can be essential in addressing and navigating the freeze response in everyday situations.

Getting out of the freeze state: Strategies for recovery

Navigating the freeze response involves acknowledging its presence and adopting strategies to return the body and mind to a state of safety. Here are some techniques that may help individuals move out of a freeze state:

  • Grounding techniques: Engage the senses to reconnect with the present moment. Focusing on the breath, feeling the ground beneath your feet, or touching a textured object can help anchor you in the here and now.
  • Slow, deep breathing: Consciously slowing down and deepening your breath can signal to the body that the threat has passed. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: Systematically tense and then release muscle groups, starting from the toes and working up to the head. This can help release physical tension associated with the freeze response.
  • Mindfulness and self-compassion: Cultivate mindfulness by observing your thoughts and feelings without judgment. Self-compassion practices can provide a gentle and understanding perspective, fostering a sense of safety.
  • Seeking support: Connect with others for emotional support. Sharing your experience with a trusted friend, family member, or mental health professional can be an essential step in overcoming the freeze response.

Recognising the freeze response as a valid survival instinct and employing these strategies can contribute to a more adaptive and resilient response to stress and perceived threats. As with any aspect of mental health, individual experiences may vary, and seeking professional guidance can be beneficial in developing personalised coping strategies.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Twickenham TW1 & Richmond TW9
Written by Natasha Kelly, BA (Hons) MBACP
Twickenham TW1 & Richmond TW9

Natasha is a counsellor based in London and online. Her passion lies in helping individuals build meaningful connections and foster strong rapport. With a deep understanding of human emotions and interpersonal dynamics, she has worked as a primary school teacher and as a freelance writer on mental health.

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