Pretty much everyone is well aware of the flight or fight response. Whenever humans encounter a dangerous situation, their sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear. Adrenaline is dumped into our bloodstreams, our senses are heightened, our reflexes quicken, and we become relatively immune to the sensation of pain. Then we make a decision. Depending on what we’re dealing with, we either fight what is threatening us, or we run from it.
However, there is another aspect of this fear response that isn’t talked about as much. It should really be called the “fight, flight, or freeze” response because there’s a good chance that you’ll freeze under pressure rather than act. It’s not uncommon for people to do absolutely nothing when something or someone is threatening them, and it’s a response that you can’t really control. When it happens, it’s like being paralyzed.
At first glance, it sounds like a cruel joke, courtesy of evolution, and is often seen as a sign of personal weakness. In reality, it is neither of those things, though it is a natural biological response to danger that can be beneficial in certain circumstances. Just as we evolved to have an extreme physical reaction to danger that includes fighting or running away, we have evolved to involuntarily stop moving in certain situations, and there are a few reasons why we do this.
One is that when we freeze under pressure, our senses are just as heightened as they would be if we were running or fighting. We freeze to assess the situation before we act. We also freeze in the presence of predators, which is a kind of defense mechanism. If an animal or person is stalking us, by freezing we aren’t making sounds and we aren’t giving away our position.
And finally, humans freeze in situations where they perceive a threat that appears to be too strong for us to fight or run away from. The brain enters a dissociative state that can’t process the environment when you feel like your situation is absolutely hopeless. In this state, you can’t really hear or see what’s around you, and you can’t feel what’s happening to you. Your brain basically forces you to play dead, so that whatever is trying to hurt you will hopefully give up, and so that your psyche is protected from physical and emotional trauma.
Of course, this response isn’t always helpful. A classic example that is found in nature, is how deer often respond to seeing the headlights of oncoming traffic. They freeze when they obviously should run or retreat. Likewise, your brain isn’t a perfect judge of dangerous situations. Sometimes you can freeze when it would be smarter to run or fight (or if you have anxiety or PTSD, you might freeze under totally harmless circumstances). You can get stuck in that mental state, unable to act on avoidable danger.
As for how to overcome this biological response, it’s not an easy task. You don’t really control when you freeze, and your options for slipping out of this state are pretty limited. The only technique scientists have discovered, is taking deep, controlled breaths.