Fight, Flight, or FREEZE Response: Health Implications

April 21, 2017

When I was researching the topic of stress for my book, Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey, I came across something very intriguing. Stress experts have now added the word “freeze” to the fight or flight stress response with respect to the fact that instead of fighting or fleeing, we might sometimes freeze (like a deer in headlights) in painful or traumatic situations. This is very intriguing to me as it relates to dystonia and other chronic conditions, especially those that involve pain.

The fight or flight stress response becomes activated when we believe there is a chance we can outfight or outrun real or perceived danger and stressful situations. The freeze response differs in that it gets activated due to an inability to take action (like a mouse trapped in a corner by a cat). One feels helpless to fight or flee the threatening, painful, or stressful experience so it freezes (e.g., the mouse plays dead until the cat loses interest and walks away).

During the freeze response, the body becomes both tense and paralyzed at the same time. The thoughts, sensations, and emotions of the stressful experience become suppressed or internalized, not only in the mind but in the tissues of the body. This is called somatic memory (body memory) and can have damaging effects if the event or trauma experienced is not processed in a healthy way.

As illustrated in the photo (which is more unsightly than I would have preferred so please forgive me), uncertainty, paralysis, powerlessness, and avoidance are characteristics used to describe the freeze response, the same words many of us use to describe how we often feel.

Think about the common symptoms of dystonia which include contractions, stiffness, and rigidity. Out of fear of worsening our symptoms, many of us live in “protection mode” where we consciously restrict our movements (to the best of our ability) to try and decrease pain and/or involuntary movements. This might be doing more harm than good.

Purposely restricting our movements, avoiding activities that may increase our symptoms, and holding ourselves in postures to prevent further pain and involuntary movements is similar to the freeze response. This adds more stress than already exists. If we don’t allow our bodies “be” in pain or move as it wishes, we keep ourselves stuck in crisis. While this sounds counter-intuitive, sometimes it helps to “go into” the pain.

What would happen if every once in a while we just allowed our symptoms to be what they were without mentally or physically trying to fight them? Easier said than done of course, but think about the possibility of just letting go and embracing the pain and involuntary movements, and letting the body rest and allow it to perhaps do some healing on its own? I don’t know for you, but when I just let myself go, I often feel better. When I fight my symptoms, physically or mentally, they get worse.

Since relaxation and healing are prevented when the freeze response remains active, if we get our intellectual brains out of way, we might be able to reduce our symptoms. It certainly merits consideration because when we are not in constant angst, the body is in better balance, making it more susceptible to healing.This is why positive thinking, relaxation and breathing exercises, TRE (Trauma Releasing Exercises), EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), Tai Chi, Qi Gong. yoga, massage, acupuncture, counseling/therapy, aerobic exercise, biofeedback, and many other therapies and practices, are so important because it is only when the body finds relaxation can it reverse the damaging effects of stress.


Tom Seaman is a Certified Professional Life Coach in the area of health and wellness, and author of the book, Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey, a comprehensive resource for anyone suffering with any life challenge. He is also a motivational speaker, chronic pain and dystonia awareness advocate, health blogger, and volunteers for the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation (DMRF) as a support group leader, for WEGO Health as a patient expert panelist, and is a member and writer for Chronic Illness Bloggers Network. To learn more about Tom’s coaching practice and get a copy of his book, visit Follow him on Twitter @Dystoniabook1 and Instagram.


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