Beneath A Cover Of Ice: Why We Freeze When Attacked
Has it happened to you? An aggressor confronts you, loud and angry. unleashing a torrent of venom into your face. Your head races - a sputter of indignation, defense, and combat - there's so much you want to say. So much you want to do.
Your heart out-pounds your head, and a surge of something you recognize but cannot label courses through you, locking your mouth into a silent gape, and rendering your limbs into cement. You are frozen. You freeze. You stand there and you take the abuse.
Then, afterward, you re-victimize yourself: "Why didn't I yell back?" Why didn't I run?" "Why didn't I fight?" You scroll through all the cutting, witty, and probably true things you could have said - the things you would have said, had you not froze in the face of the battle.
Why did you do that? Why do a lot of us do that?
Well, first understand that the human brain is a magnificent machine, and upon emerging into this big, bad, beautiful world it comes with two preconceived and non-negotiable jobs:
1. To protect its person, regardless of cost,
2. To feel good
And note that those jobs occur in that specific order. The brain will forgo pleasure to protect the body at all costs. In addition, it performs this duty so efficiently that, even when we are very young, before we even have access to language, the brain knows it has THREE PRIMARY METHODS to protect itself. It can fight, it can flight, or it can freeze.
Now, think of these three options as being on a tiny Rolodex, buried deep in your cranium, and consider that the brain, with access to all five senses, is able - within the very moment of danger, to decide, flicking through that Rolodex, lightning quick, which of the 'Fs' will be most effective as it deciphers the danger its in. Now carry it one step further, and reflect on a very young child who faces threats and danger regularly. Re-consider that the brain has the capacity, even pre-verbal, to choose the most effective option to protect the body: it can fight, flight, or freeze.
A child is very small. The brain knows this. It also knows that threats to the child are typically very big in proportion. As such, it rapid-fire flicks through it's Rolodex and asks: can it fight?
Well...no. It is not big enough to fight. The threat outweighs it, and looms over it. It would be hurt worse if they fought.
Fight, therefore, is not an option.
Can it flee?
Another 'No'; the brain is efficiently aware that, again, due to size and proportion, it simply would never win a footrace. Fleeing would be tantamount to even more danger so, in a cost-benefit analysis, flight is also not an option.
Can it freeze?
Aha. It can. It can grow very still - can even suspend its breath - and it can even detach itself from the moment, frozen and waiting for the storm to blow over, for the predator to just finish what he or she has started; the cost-benefit analysis again determining...what will hurt worse? Then deciding that freezing is the best protective measure (and in fact the only protective measure) it has left at its disposal.
But that's a child, you say. Why does this response continue to govern people well into adulthood, well into the territory where they can, ostensibly, fight or flee?
Now we're in the territory of muscle memory. The brain, having been exposed, and re-exposed, as a child, to threats and peril, will have encoded its best, most efficient response to said threats. And, like a well-trained soldier, it will rely on that method for the rest of its life.
Yes: the rest of its life.
Does that mean it can never fight or flee? Of course not. But what it does mean, is that it will always have a tendency to freeze in the face of danger first. It learned, from the time it was little, that this was the most effective protective measure it had in its repertoire. On its Rolodex, if you will.
From state to trait, and this is true for both men and women, by the way. So here let's make note: if you are a man who has been socialized (in Western culture, at any rate) that in order to be tough you have to fight to defend yourself...yet you've always had a tendency to freeze in the face of confrontation, then I implore you to reassess the inventory of turbulent experiences you had as a child. Did you have an aggressive father who railed on you, verbally or physically? A domineering mother who raged? Any authority figures - teachers, relatives, coaches, etc - who operated, to your efficient brain, as threats from whom you had to freeze in order to stay safe?
If so, I humbly ask you to get off that cross you've been persecuting yourself upon all of these years, chastising yourself for not "being a man". Because in those moments of peril, your brain was not a man - it was HU-man, and it executed the only viable option it had on its Rolodex. It protected you, and it did so with speed and efficiency, and after all of that repetitive exposure to danger and threats, it learned that freezing worked - and the proof is in the proverbial pudding: you are alive.
Thank your brain for being such a brave, clever soldier. Thank it for executing the best, and only, combat it had in the face of peril and grave danger. Re-assess the words 'coward' and 'failure' and, instead, consider the words 'hero' and 'efficient' and 'miraculously made'.
And perhaps take a little peace in knowing, understanding, that your brain - like everyone's brain - can and does do the very best it can, even against insurmountable odds.
NOTE: When I am not writing fiction, I am a deliver psycho-educational workshops and training on Adverse Childhood Experiences, Resiliency, Hope & Healing, and I am a national trainer of Violent Threat Risk Assessment for the North American Centre For Threat Assessment & Trauma Response
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