When someone has experienced trauma, in particular repeated trauma, they learn to use specific trauma responses to help them survive their particular situation. While many waver between two or more, most people primarily use one trauma response. Many people raised by narcissistic parents primarily use the freeze response.
Freezing means much like the name implies, you freeze & are unable to handle the situation in a healthy way. Think of a deer on a highway during the night when a truck comes barreling towards him. He stands still, staring at the truck & unable to move to save himself. People can & do react the same way sometimes. Sadly, freezing often is a good choice when dealing with a narcissistic parent, because it reduces the likelihood of that parent turning even more abusive. Equally sadly though is this survival tactic doesn’t help when dealing with other people. In fact, often the lack of response of a victim is taken as consent, so the other, non-freezing person assumes whatever they said or did was acceptable to the freezing person.
As an example from my own life, as I’ve written about before, I lived with awful back pain for ten years. During a fight with my mother, she threw me into a wall. I felt my entire spine crack from my tailbone into my neck when I hit the wall & was in pain for ten years after. I saw several doctors, had over fifty x-rays & an MRI. I was told no injuries showed up on the x-rays or MRI. Every single person I saw with the exception of one chiropractor was convinced I was faking the pain. I should have stood up to all of them, but instead I quietly accepted their diagnoses. Between that & other people in my life who were convinced I was faking it, I wondered many times if they were right. By silently accepting people’s accusations of faking my pain, that only seemed to confirm their suspicions of me. It also made me wonder more & more if I really was faking my back problem or if something was truly wrong.
This happened all because I learned how to use the freeze response so well as a child.
If you have used it as well, you probably can relate to my story. Also like me, you probably dissociated often as a child & possibly still do to some degree, struggle with making decisions, & isolate yourself. You also probably come up with good responses hours or even days or weeks after a confrontation but can’t think during the confrontation.
While freezing may have helped you to survive the narcissist in your life, it doesn’t help you in other relationships. In fact, it is likely to hurt you instead of help you.
When in situations that trigger your freeze response, your best place to start is with prayer. God will help you & ground you so you can function in a healthier way. Also, please remind yourself that you are safe now. You don’t have to freeze to protect yourself. You have rights including the right to speak up for yourself & to protect yourself. You aren’t doing something bad by taking care of yourself. The other person in question isn’t the narcissist who would abuse you for taking care of yourself.
Also take a deep breath in & exhale slowly. It will help you to calm your body & mind very quickly, which will help you to figure out a better way to handle your situation.
Doing this will help you over time to reduce the frequency of the freeze trauma response & enable you to respond in a healthier way. It won’t happen overnight but it will happen. Hang in there!
6 responses to “The Four Trauma Responses: Freeze”
I’m so sorry you went through this, Cynthia. As I recall from reading your earlier posts about this altercation with your mother, you were not physically fighting with her. You were disagreeing, having a verbal argument, when she grabbed you in a fit of narcissistic rage and threw you into a wall. Being physically attacked in this way by your mother would hurt on every level, mentally and emotionally, as well as physically. As Bessel van der Kolk, MD, famously says in his book by the same title: The Body Keeps the Score.
I don’t understand why so many medical professionals like to accuse people of faking, when they can’t see an obvious cause for someone’s pain on a CT scan or an xray. They know that damaged nerves and other soft tissue injuries don’t show up on scans and xrays. But as a nurse and also as a patient, I have met too many egocentric medical professionals who would rather accuse a suffering patient of faking, than admit they don’t know everything.
The freeze response has been a lifesaver for me at times. But it has also been a problem for me in the past, when abusers took my silence and immobility as consent. I agree wholeheartedly with your advice to pray to God for guidance. To paraphrase a scripture from Ecclesiastes 3 in the old testament, to everything there is a season: a time to freeze and a time to fight or flee!
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Thank you ❤
Your memory is pretty close. I did push my mother aside when she tried to prevent me from leaving that night but not even really rough. She didn't fall or anything from my push. I knew better than to go that far. But, it was still enough to trigger the rage. You are so right about that.. that assault hurt on every possible level. I'm grateful to currently be sitting in the same room that happened in & not being devastated. The memory still hurts, probably always will, but it doesn't make me feel attacked all over again & I think that's as good as can be expected.
I think that is the case.. many egocentric & even narcissistic people in the medical field. I have a great deal of respect for those who have knowledge & compassion in the field, but so much disdain for those who have no compassion & there are many like that. They're why I don't see doctors often- too many bad experiences with people like that.
So very true! There is a time for everything, including a time to freeze. Also a time to fight or flee, or even fawn (next post).
Okay, I remember, now that you’ve refreshed my memory, lol. Still, there is no excuse for what she did when you tried to get around her in order to escape her verbal abuse.
It’s sad, how many people there are in the medical field who seem to only be in it for the money and prestige. When I was in nursing school, a group of my fellow students started calling themselves “Sisters of No Mercy.” They said it with pride and seemed to mean it, too. I have known some wonderful doctors and nurses, who are worth their weight in gold. But there are far too many of the other kind.
As you know, I am currently writing a memoir. The part I’m writing today, is about the psychiatrist who raped me when I was fifteen years old. Thank God he was caught and arrested for what he did to me and to others.
I’m glad you are going to write a post about the four “F” responses to trauma: Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn. That last one, Fawn, was coined by the author Pete Walker, MA, in his book COMPLEX PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, a guide and map for recovering from childhood trauma. I was thinking about “fawn” when I wrote my comment earlier, but I did not include it because I thought you might not know what I meant. I had forgotten that you have read Walker’s book.
I’m looking forward to your next post. ❤
No, there isn’t an excuse for what she did, especially since she started the whole fight. I tried avoiding it but she kept pushing until I snapped, then she was the victim. Typical narcissist game.
Wow.. Sisters Of No Mercy. Truly they were in the wrong field! It’s understandable that those in the field have to shut down emotions to some degree of course, but not to THAT degree!
Are you doing ok with writing about that? That’s got to be incredibly hard to write about. ((((hugs))))) Thank God he was caught for sure. No doubt he wouldn’t stop abusing unless he couldn’t.
I’m so glad Walker discussed fawning… I’ve always done it along with freezing but had no idea what it was until reading what he said about it. Suddenly so much made sense!
Thank you! ❤ I'll be making these posts into podcasts too in the future.. when I have a moment to breathe again… lol House stuff is taking up all my time right now.
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Sorry I didn’t see your comment until now. It’s been a day… hours on the phone with my precious stepdaughter who is going through a huge trial on her job, involving a narcissist boss. It’s bad enough, she’s getting a lawyer and suing.
Yes, it is hard, writing about that terrible trauma in my life. But enough time has passed, and I have had enough healing, that I am finally able to do it. With the help of the Lord, of course.
Thank you for being you, Cynthia. ❤❤
Don’t even worry about it! Been so preoccupied myself with house stuff & exhausted when not dealing with it, I wouldn’t have had a chance to respond earlier anyway
Thank God she has you to help her get through! Wishing her the best with that awful situation!
Good for you! Once you write it all out, you’ll find you’re healing even more. Writing things out is cathartic. Traumatic too in a sense because it seems even more real when you see it in black & white, but that also is validating.
You’re sweet. ❤ ❤
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