Your question: Why do I freeze when I’m scared?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. Through this article I would like to explain the origin of the freezing sensation that is common during anxiety and fear.

Fear is a primary emotion that is inevitable and necessary, as it has an evolutionary origin related to alerting you that there is a real or imaginary threat that puts you in danger and demands an action. This action may vary, since each person experiences fear differently. Just as not all people show joy and sadness in the same way, the same happens with fear, each person has a unique way of showing it.

In general, fear is associated with physical and emotional reactions. These include sweating, tachycardia, stomach pain, headache, preoccupation, nervousness and emotional sensitivity. A common reaction to fear is to freeze. It can be annoying for many people since freezing involves several things, among these, the feeling that fear prevents you from acting, suffocates you in stress and anxiety, and in general, deprives you of giving an accurate response.

First I would like to clarify that being paralyzed by fear is a common response that has its origin in human evolution, and therefore, it is not something bad or negative. However, it can be annoying for those who suffer from it, and if it interferes with your daily life, it is necessary to address it, seeking to reduce the fear in your life and the associated reactions.

Why do you feel like you can’t move when you are afraid?

First, it is necessary to understand how fear acts in your body. The amygdala, located at the back of the skull, is a part of the brain that is in charge of regulating your emotions, including fear. The amygdala is attentive to the stimuli you constantly receive, and sends a warning signal to your body when it encounters a stimulus that it finds frightening or dangerous (1).

By sending this signal, the amygdala causes your body to enter a momentary state of shock in which physical and psychological reactions begin to appear. In fear you may feel that the threat will harm you and you worry about your physical and emotional safety, you also start to react physically by sweating and having tachycardia.

When the heart rate accelerates, increasing the flow of oxygen to the major muscles, the sensation of freezing appears. Freezing is related to fear, and is part of the physical responses that the amygdala executes when it encounters a frightening stimulus.

Freezing then is an active defensive response to fear, it implies an attentional immobility in which physical activity is momentarily paralyzed, your joints may feel heavier and the pain threshold decreases. Also, being frozen by fear, you feel that it is hard to breathe and your mind goes blank. You are still conscious, frightened by the stressful situation, but you cannot react physically to flee from the threat.

In what situations can you freeze with fear?

In any fearful situation, whether small or large, people may feel that they freeze with fear. You must understand that fear is subjective, so for each person what is scary will be different. The feeling of freezing during fear can occur in different scenarios:

  • Before an important exam.
  • A robbery or assault.
  • A traffic accident.
  • The news that something bad happened to a loved one.
  • A work supervision.
  • A terrifying animal.

Why can’t you Fight or flight when you are afraid?

People have different ways of reacting to fear and none is better or “braver” than another. You often hear about the fight or flight response to a feared stimulus (2). People have to react either by facing the feared threat or by running away from it. If we take a robbery as an example, someone could either confront the robber or run away from the scene, and in both situations a negative consequence to this natural and impulsive reaction is likely to be suffered.

Paralyzing is another equally valid reaction to fear. It even has a biological origin, as your ancestors were paralyzed in the presence of threatening animals, understanding that going unnoticed by the creatures was safer than confronting them or running away(3). So no, no one is “cowardly” or “brave” for reacting in a specific way to fear, since these reactions are uncontrollable and spontaneous.

What can you do?

Jacobson’s relaxation technique (4) is a useful technique that you can implement to deal with fear and in general, and regulate the frozen feeling that comes with it, as it works with the whole body and focuses on decreasing the unpleasant sensations associated with fear and panic attacks. This technique is done lying down, in a quiet environment and with your eyes closed. It consists in that from your feet to your head, you focus your attention on a part of your body, making slow movements, tensing and releasing the tension.

For example in your feet, you make slow circular movements, tense them and then release the tension. Then you do the same with your legs, and so on until you reach your head. It will take as long as you feel necessary, but it lasts approximately 10 to 20 minutes. This technique will help you to have better control over your body, regulating the feeling of fear and anxiety, and helping you to feel more mobile and free when you experience a frightening situation.

Exercise before sleep

Stressful or traumatic events that have occurred during the night have close associations with night fright. If you have suffered a burglary or home invasion, if you received tragic news or if you saw first-hand a frightening event at night, you may feel fear in the nights following the traumatic event, even years after you experienced it. This happens because your brain now associates the night with a period of worry, violence and terror.

In my experience…

The sensation of freezing during panic is common, and is harmless to your body and mind. Although it can be unpleasant, there are strategies you can implement, remembering first that this reaction has a purpose in your body, and does not have to define you or mean anything related to your personality.

Remember that you have the ability to improve your psychological state, even if during moments of anxiety or depression you feel hopeless. You can always make small changes that will pay off in the long run. The fact that you are contacting me to seek professional attention in psychological counseling is already a step, and I recognize and applaud you for that. You are already doing something and wanting to change always leads you in the right direction.

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