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The freeze response: Our primitive reaction to danger

Many believe that our first reaction to stress or impending danger is the fight-or-flight response. But before we take flight or fight, we need some time to assess the situation and decide what the best course of action would be- whether to fight or to run away.

This results in what is known as 'the freeze response' and is experienced when we face a stressful or fearful situation. 

The body becomes still as if we're riveted to the spot. Breathing becomes shallow, to the point that one may hold their breath for some time. The duration of this freeze response may range from a few milliseconds to a few seconds depending on the gravity of the situation and the time it takes for us to assess it and decide the best course of action.

Note that after freezing we may sometimes not be able to decide between fight and flight but continue in our frozen state because this is the best that we can do to ensure our survival. In other words, we freeze to just freeze.

The origins of the freeze response

Millions of years ago, our ancestors had to be on a constant watch for predators in order to ensure their survival. One of the survival strategies that humans and many other mammals developed was to freeze in the face of danger. Any movement could possibly attract the attention of a predator which would invariably reduce their chances of survival.

Besides making sure that they minimized motion as much as possible, the freeze response allowed our ancestors to assess the situation fully and choose the best course of action. Animal watchers know that when some mammals cannot escape danger from a predator, they feign death by lying motionless and even breathless. The predator thinks they're dead and ignores them.

This is because most feline predators are programmed by the ‘chase, trip and kill’ mechanism of catching their prey. If you've seen any of those tiger-chasing-deer shows you might have noticed that the big cats often ignore motionless preys. 

Some experts believe that they do this because a lack of motion could signal illness. So the lions and tigers avoid still preys in order not to contract any illness but prefer healthy, agile and running food.

This short clip by Nature video demonstrates the freeze response in a mouse when presented with a threat:

Before I turn this post into an Animal Planet episode, let’s move on and look at some examples of the freeze response in our modern life…

Examples of the freeze response in humans

The freeze response has been passed on from the primitive man to modern man and remains with us today as our first line of defense against a perceived threat or danger. We use the expression ‘frozen with fear’ frequently in our day-to-day lives.

If you've been to those animal shows or circuses, where they let loose a lion or a tiger on stage you might have noticed that people in the first two or three rows become motionless and avoid any unnecessary movements or gestures. 

Though they may look amused or relaxed on the outside, actually they're frozen with fear on the inside because of being too near to a dangerous animal.

A similar kind of behavior is displayed by some people who first appear for a job interview. They just sit still in their chair with a blank expression as if they were some kind of a marble statue. Their breathing becomes shallow and almost undetectable. When the interview is over and they leave the room, they might breathe a huge sigh of relief, to release the pent-up tension.

You may have a socially anxious friend who's totally calm and relaxed in private but suddenly becomes stiff in social situations. It's a subconscious attempt to avoid any 'mistake' that would bring unnecessary attention or cause public humiliation.

During the many tragic and unfortunate school shootings that have been happening in recent times, it was observed that many children escaped death by lying still and faking death. All top-notch soldiers know that this is a very useful survival tactic.

Victims of abuse often freeze when they're in the presence of their abusers or people who resemble them like they did when they were actually abused. Many such victims, when they obtain counseling to get a relief from their traumatic symptoms, feel guilty and ashamed for not being able to do anything and simply freezing when they were being abused.

Freezing was the best option their unconscious mind could think of at that time so it's really not their fault that they simply froze and did nothing. The unconscious mind does its own calculations. Maybe it thought that the abuse could be more severe had they decided to fight or flight, against the wishes of the abuser.

Our behavior is influenced to a great extent by the unconscious weighing of potential benefits and risks of a course of action in a given situation. (see Why we do what we do and not what we don't do)

A common freeze response that we all experience is when we're calmly dining and playing poker with our buddies in the middle of the night and there is an unexpected knock on the door. Everybody suddenly becomes motionless, as if some supernatural entity pressed a 'pause' button on its remote control to halt our actions.

Everybody's dead still, making sure they're not drawing any attention to themselves and gathering all the possible information and carefully tracking the movements of the 'predator' outside.

One guy musters enough courage to break out of the freeze response and goes to check out the mysterious visitor, his heart beating fast, preparing to fight the 'predator' or run far, far away from it. 

He opens the door, mumbles something to the stranger and turns to his friends with an incongruous calm and smile, “Guys it's Ben, my neighbor. He heard our laughing and shouting and wants to join in on the fun." 

Everybody resumes their respective activities as if the supernatural entity again pressed the 'play' button on its remote.

Well, let’s just hope that our life is not just some TV show watched by a one-horned demon.


Adaptionist perspectives on the acute stress response spectrum

Facing freeze: Social threat induces bodily freeze in humans

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