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My client froze during their trauma and feels really ashamed of this. How do I help?

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

Freezing during a trauma is a common reaction – up to 70% of survivors report feeling frozen during a sexual assault, for example. Often this is an experience of extreme ‘fright‘ - rigid immobility, usually at the height of the fear response, experienced as a complete involuntary paralysis, and typically described as feeling “petrified” or “scared stiff”.

Freezing can also be experienced during ‘shutdown’, more commonly if the trauma is of long duration and/or in the context of captivity. Here, instead the person feels 'floppy' rather than rigid; too tired or weak to move, speak or think. Often this is accompanied with feeling distant, detached or unreal, alongside a sense of ‘mental defeat’ both during and after the trauma.

People who have experienced these reactions during traumas will often blame themselves for not responding differently. They may harbour beliefs that they could have prevented the trauma is they hadn’t frozen. They may blame themselves for not being strong enough to fight back, or may think that they somehow chose not to resist, rather than were physically unable to. They may believe others would have responded differently, and as such there is something wrong with them as a person. Occasionally they may even question whether, in some way, their freeze means they invited or accepted the trauma, or they communicated to the perpetrator by freezing that they consented to what was happening.

It can be helpful to normalise freezing as a common, well understood and entirely involuntary response to extreme danger, one which probably evolved to protect us from further harm. Many people will have heard of ‘fight-or-flight’, but may not know that the ‘fright’ response is also common in humans under extreme threat. This has parallels to behaviours seen in animals, such as the ‘rabbit in the headlights’ or the ‘mouse in the jaw of the cat’, which are instinctive reactions to danger rather than a conscious actions.

Psychoeducation about ‘tonic immobility’ and dissociation may be useful here. For example, Shauer & Elbert’s (2010) defence cascade model – freeze-fight-flight-fright-flag-faint - explains that, in the face of inescapable threat, after the initial upsurge of the 'fight-or-flight' reaction, we enter a phase they term ‘fright’ where we cannot move, even if we want to.

This response may have evolved in animals (including humans) as a way of ‘playing dead’ or appearing to submit, so that the predator either loosens its grip or loses interest in the chase, and so ends the attack. At this point, if escape does become possible, the nervous system will immediately switch back into ‘flight’ mode and take whatever action it needs to.

Freeze reactions help minimise further harm if we are trapped and injured, by preventing being hurt through struggling or fighting back, or eliciting even more violent responses from the assailant as a means to force submission. Freeze reactions in animals may also protect from being more injured by penetrating objects such as teeth or claws. Hence, freeze and shutdown are particularly common reactions in humans during penetrating traumas, like being stabbed, impaled or raped.

If ‘rigid’ freeze doesn’t work as a way of escaping the trauma, the next stages of the involuntary defence cascade are the ‘shutdown’ freeze reactions of ‘flag’ and ‘faint’. Rather than the rigid immobility and hyperarousal of the ‘fright’ phase, people instead feel increasingly ‘floppy’ and weak as their sympathetic nervous system shuts down, and the parasympathetic system takes over.

These responses arise more commonly in situations where escape is impossible, for example when the person trapped, restrained or weighed down; and where the trauma is inescapable and/or lasts a long time, including captivity traumas like torture. Here freeze serves not only as a way to minimise physical harm, but also the psychological harm of inescapable threat and pain.

In these phases, pulse and breathing slow, which may explain why we feel more distant and unreal, as well as drained and tired. Not unusually people can have ‘out of body’ experiences at this point, where they perceive themselves from the side or above, and feel detached from the pain and fear in the moment. They may also become numb to sensations including pain.

Alongside this can come the feeling of mental defeat, of losing one's sense of will and identity. Sometimes, the experience of intense shutdown can lead the person to question whether they are dying, or have indeed died at that moment. At the ‘faint’ point, people may begin to lose awareness altogether and/or lose consciousness.

Explaining all of this to our clients can be helpful if they are struggling to understand some of the responses they had during a trauma. Guided discovery techniques alongside these explanations can help loosen the belief that the client was somehow to blame if they froze. Examining cognitive biases such as superhuman standards and hindsight bias can be useful.

Sometimes, it can help to consider what might have arisen if they did not freeze as, in many cases, this could have led to more serious harm. Surveys can also be helpful, as they usually show that other people do not think the client was to blame if they froze, although be aware that some people who have not experienced similar traumas themselves have an unrealistic perceptions about how they may have behaved.

Sometimes, where freezing occurred during a sexual assault, clients believe that they somehow consented to sexual contact because they were unable to fight back or say ‘no’. If so, a conversation about the nature of consent can be helpful.

We frame consent as an active and ‘enthusiastic’ process, not the absence of resistance or a lack of refusal. When we ask clients how someone behaves when they want to have sex with another person, being frozen, silent, and non-participatory are not usually signs that they want sex. Similarly, ‘zooming out’ by imagining the scene from above or as a ‘fly on the wall’ and trying to impartially determine whether the client was a willing participant in the sexual encounter usually reveals the same conclusion: that they did not consent, let alone enthusiastically consent.

Lastly, if a client experienced dissociation during a trauma, or ‘freeze up’ when we try to update the trauma memory during reliving or narrative writing, we usually supplement verbal updates with movement. This helps show our clients that they can now move and helps update the memory at a physical and somato-sensory level, rather than just at the cognitive level.

Practice points:

Freezing is common during a trauma and can lead to guilt, shame and self-blame

Normalising this response and providing psychoeducation can be helpful in addressing distressing meanings associated with the experience of freezing

Guided discovery techniques such as examining cognitive biases, considering alternative outcomes and surveys can also loosen negative self-beliefs

If freezing occurred during a sexual assault and clients believe this conferred consent, techniques to access other perspectives can be useful

Updating trauma memories where peritraumatic dissociation and shutdown occurred should involve physical movement as well as verbal updates

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