This week was the lecture on the biology of emotion. This is two hours devoted to attachment, the stress response, and the basic emotions.

I do a thing where at the end of each class students write down one important thing they learned. And a LOT of students said the bit about the stress response was really important, and then I also got an email this week from someone asking why no one ever told her about tonic immobility, which is a characteristic of the stress response that folks don’t learn about. So I think it’s a good idea to write a blog post about it.

What DO people learn about? Generally I find that people learn about “fight or flight,” the body’s response to a perceived threat in the environment, preparing the organism to beat the shit out of that threat or else run like hell. Generally I find people are surprised to hear about “freeze,” where your body responds to a perceived threat by shutting down or locking up. (In some places, it gets called the “fright” response, and sometimes “freeze” is used to describe the alerting and vigilance the precedes flight/fight/etc.)

Basically it goes like this:

You notice a potential threat in the environment and your body floods with adrenaline and cortisol and things, which prepares your various organ systems to cope with that threat.

And your body does a fast assessment of that threat.

If it determines that this is a threat that it can cope with best by trying to escape, you get FLIGHT, which we experience as fear… and anxiety and worry and concern and all the emotions we cluster generally as different intensities of fear.

If your body determines that this is a threat it can cope with best by trying to conquer it, you get FIGHT, which we experience as anger. And rage. And irritation or annoyance… all the diverse intensities of anger.

If – and this is the one you don’t hear about – your body assess the threat decides its best option is to shut down, wait for the threat to pass or wait for a solution to come from outside the situation, then you get freeze. We might experience freeze as numbness or as feeling “stunned” or overwhelmed, and in the long term we can experience it as depression.

For the central nervous system nerds out there, fight and flight are sympathetic nervous system and freeze is parasympathetic. For the non-CNS nerds, fight and flight are like slamming your foot on the gas pedal. Freeze is slamming on the brakes.

One of the stressors that actives fight/flight/freeze is sexual assault (though not just sexual assault) and may survivors wonder what went wrong with their bodies; why didn’t they fight back? why couldn’t they run or kick or even scream? Answer: nothing went wrong with your body, everything went right. Your body decided that its best hope for survival was to shut down, freeze. And it worked. You did survive. How do I know you survived? Because here you are, reading this.

A difficulty with freeze, apart from the cultural non-recognition or devaluing of it as a survival mechanism, is that it leaves all this adrenaline-mediated stress to go stale in your CNS. Animals in the wild, as discussed by Peter Levine and Robert Sopolsky, freeze as a last ditch effort to convince a predator they’re already dead; the predator loses interest or goes to get its cubs to feed, and the animal does an extraordinary thing:

It shakes. Trembles. Sighs. And gets up to trot away. It’s finishing the activation process, purging the residue.

Now, freeze in humans is more complex than in gazelles and gorillas, but one of the issues we have is that very often we don’t get the opportunity to complete that process. Our powerful prefrontal cortices are really good at inhibition, keeping the brakes on.

So. Freeze. It’s a thing. If you’ve experienced freeze, your job is to gently ease your foot off the brakes, let the stress response finish (this will feel weird and if you have an emotion dismissing background it might take some practice to get used to the idea that it’s okay to allow this stuff to happen). It takes time. You’ve got time. Okay.