The Freeze Response: Understanding Why and Forgiving Yourself

The freeze response is a natural reaction to stress. We discuss why it happens, how to make it shorter, and the best way to move forward.
Danae Hudson
August 22, 2023
The Freeze Response: Understanding Why and Forgiving Yourself

I was driving in the Middle East, headed to a high school graduation, when I slammed on the brakes. There were fires, soldiers with guns, people screaming, Molotov cocktails and I was stuck. Completely frozen, I sat there and stared. My co-worker in the passenger seat gently said, “Danae, we can turn around here and go another way.” And I turned - but I don’t know what would have happened without her voice.

Four years later, I’m becoming a Krav Maga instructor and I’m surrounded by a group of women. I’m telling them it’s not their fault, but I can see in their eyes that they don’t believe me. They froze too and it changed their lives.

I understand. It’s taken me a long time to work through it and to forgive myself, little by little, for what my body did to try and help me all those times it decided to stop. If you’ve found yourself there too, this blog post is for you: to help you understand what your body was trying to do, how it works, and why you should give yourself compassion (which I know will be the hardest part).

The Freeze Response

When you experience a threat, whether it's physical or emotional, your body responds by releasing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones prepare you for the "fight or flight" response, which is a natural instinct to either fight the threat or run away from it. However, sometimes your body and brain believes this response isn't possible or safe, so your body may resort to freezing as a way to protect you.

Freezing is a survival mechanism that animals use in the wild when they're faced with a predator. By staying completely still, they can blend in with their surroundings and avoid detection. Humans have this same instinct, and your body can believe it’s the best option for you if you're in a dangerous or threatening situation. But even in non-life-threatening situations, your body may still resort to freezing as a way to cope with stress.

Freezing is not a conscious choice. It's a reflexive response that happens without our control. Freezing can happen for a variety of reasons. For some people, it may be a learned response from childhood experiences or trauma. For others, it may be a response to overwhelming fear or anxiety. Regardless of the reason, it's important to understand that freezing is a natural response to danger, and it's not your fault.

Freezing is not a personal failing. Freezing does not mean you wanted it. Freezing does not mean you are weak and it doesn’t mean you are helpless. Your body was trying to protect you, and that's something that we can try to be grateful for, even if our body chose the wrong response for us. It does not define you as a person.

How Do We Stop The Freeze Response?

Everytime a woman asks me how to stop freezing, it breaks my heart. I have been training in Krav Maga for over 7 years and there are moments when I still freeze. But what I tell them is that I’ve trained myself to freeze less. When my training partner takes me to the ground, instead of freezing for a full second, it’s only a quarter of a second now. The more I’ve trained, the more I’ve been able to cut down the time where I freeze. I understand this isn’t always an option, but even if you go to one self-defense class, you can always practice what you learn in the shower (all the instructors I know practice in there!). Even if it’s only five minutes a day, that’s five minutes of training your body and creating muscle memory.

Forgiveness, As Best We Can

I say as best we can because I know how hard I struggle with forgiveness myself. It’s easy to blame myself, even though I should be blaming the person who did this thing to me. But I can’t change his actions - only mine. And that often sets off an unhelpful and unhealthy shame spiral. The only person at fault for attacking you is the person who attacked you. There is nothing you should have done in the moment. And if you know better now, that doesn’t mean you should have known better in the past, but it can help your future.

Here are a few ways that you can work on forgiving your body and your mind:

Practice self-compassion: As much as you can, recognize that the freeze response is a natural reaction to danger, and that it's not your fault. Treat yourself with as much kindness and understanding as you would a friend or a loved one who trusted you with their vulnerability and trauma.

Seek support: I recommend therapy to everyone I meet! It’s been one of the biggest things to help me learn how to forgive myself and to remove as much shame as I can to my body’s response. My therapists have helped me process my feelings and develop strategies for coping with the aftermath of traumatic events in my life.

Learn grounding techniques: Grounding techniques can help you feel more in control of your body and your environment. They can also help you cope with feelings of anxiety or fear. Examples of grounding techniques include deep breathing, meditation, and visualization. I even teach visualization as a way to help women imagine themselves in a situation and winning. The women I’ve done this with have loved the feelings of calm they’ve experienced visualizing about things that often make them anxious.

Practice self-defense: Our goal at Valley Self-Defense is to help you feel confident when it comes to your safety, both mentally and physically. We will work with you at your own pace, give you choices in your self-defense journey, and can recognize when you have a traumatic response and help you work through it. Self-defense can help you feel more in control of your body, but also more control in situations life throws at you. 

I hope you can keep in mind that the freeze response is your body's natural reaction to stress. It is not a statement of who you are or who you can or will be. Recognizing and understanding freezing can help you learn to work with your reactions and find new ways to cope with difficult situations, moving you towards healing and even growth.

More than anything, I hope you can remember that you are not defined by your response to stress, and that you are worthy of love, care, and safety.

Over time, we've found a handful of tips to can help people cope with panic during class. You can use them with self-defense or in any part of your life where you experience panic attacks and anxiety.

If we say that exercise helps our mental health, we can't disconnect our feelings from it. This is why owner and instructor Danae Hudson cries on the mat during Krav Maga.

The body keeps the score when it comes to trauma. Krav Maga and self-defense has helped our instructor Danae when it comes to anxiety.

Krav Maga near me? There is! If you're looking for a Krav Maga class near you, Valley Self-Defense is a proud member of the International Krav Maga Federation with schools located across the United States. To find a school near you, visit the IKMF USA website.

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