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The Freeze Response in Trauma Therapy

Trauma is defined as an “emotional response to a terrible event.” However, trauma can present in ways beyond emotions. Those who have experienced traumatic events will likely report some form of a physical, somatic, response as well. This is a survival instinct! 

It has proven to be extremely helpful for individuals to understand the neuroscience of trauma.Those who have experienced trauma don’t just “fight or flight”; we know now know that when in the face of trauma, we can also “freeze or fawn.” The freeze response to trauma looks like feeling shut down and unable to move. This trauma response is very common in children, adolescents and survivors of sexual violence. During this response, both the sympathetic AND parasympathetic nervous systems are activated, unlike in the fight or flight response, which activates only the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system changes are meant to give us a better chance of survival by moving our internal energy away from the cortical, or thinking, areas of the brain and into our largest muscle groups to make us literally stronger and faster. By contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system changes do the opposite by relaxing our body and communicating to our brain that we are safe. 

These parasympathetic nervous system changes happen to be very often what therapy aims to achieve.

So, what happens when an individual who survived trauma with their freeze response now has their parasympathetic nervous system activated?

Well, It may very well feel traumatizing to them, which is the complete opposite of the therapy’s intent. HOWEVER, The good news is that in knowing this, we can work with it and change our methods. In those with the freeze response, moving actually signals to the body that the trauma has passed; therefore, physical exercise can feel healing and relaxing. Other evidence-based interventions that include movement and breathing work, such as yoga and qigong, can help one titrate over time into higher levels of parasympathetic arousal. 

If you identify as having had a freeze response to trauma, know that it was adaptive and helped you survive. Now, with effective therapy, you can learn how to use your body to help heal your brain. 

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