In order to talk about how to come out of freeze, we need to first understand what it is, and why it comes on in the first place.
Freeze is one of our biological survival strategies. In the wild, the freeze response will only kick on once an organism has already tried, and failed, to defend itself with one of the other survival responses – fight and/or flight, which are governed by the Sympathetic Nervous System.
First an animal may attempt to run, then if it is caught it may attempt to fight, and if it cannot fight off it’s attacker, only then will the freeze response (governed by the Dorsal vagal Complex portion of the Parasympathetic Nervous System) kick in, in order to prepare the animal for death.
It does this by pausing all functions not immediately essential for survival, bringing the blood more into the core or the body to protect vital organs, lowering the heart rate, slowing the breath and making it more shallow, and numbing the entire system…all to keep the animal from feeling the pain of being eaten.
However, those big, high-energy fight/flight states are still humming away and available under the surface. If an antelope goes into this state, and then the lion gets distracted from it’s prey, say by a competing predator who wants its lunch, the antelope will sense that it has a window to escape and that flight response will immediately kick back in, enabling it to flee.
That’s how it works in the wild, but in human animals, who have the same nervous system physiology as the antelope and lion, but very different stressors, threats, and environmental conditions, it’s not so simple.
The bulk of our threats and trauma in western, industrialized society is not the obvious kind. Yes, there is plenty of outright abuse and violence that happens, but the vast majority of trauma in our culture is early/developmental trauma that results from situations that are chronically stressful, but not necessarily explosive or violent; situations that have become normalized and are not generally understood to be traumatic.
For example, in order to develop properly an infant needs present, attuned, well-regulated caregivers who are not themselves chronically stressed, and they need those caregivers, or at least one of them, to be present most of the time for around three years. This is not because of some idealistic notion, this is biological fact.
When an infant is born their nervous system and brain are far from complete in development. The infant needs care, attunement, close attention and minimal stress in order to properly develop the parts of it’s nervous system and brain responsible for healthy social engagement, empathy, and higher cognitive function.
The main system I’m talking about here is the Ventral Vagal Complex (VVC) — this portion of our autonomic nervous system comes in only minimally formed and is developed and myelinated after birth based off of the caregiver’s VVC, and it is this part of our nervous system that enables us to deal with and come down from stress in a healthy way, engage socially, and empathize with others. We cannot maximize our access to the Prefrontal Cortex — the part of our brain that lets us do things like meditate, create art, problem solve creatively, and think complex thoughts — without a healthy Ventral Vagal Complex.
Without at least one attuned, present, well-informed, and relatively unstressed caregiver that is around consistently for at least the first three years of life our VVC cannot form properly and so our entire system cannot develop to its maximum potential. And how many of us had parents like that? Our society is currently structured in a way that makes that almost impossible.
When an organism such as a human infant experiences this lack of proper care necessary for its development, when they are surrounded by parents and siblings that may be loving, but who are stressed and in survival mode, that baby’s nervous system will interpret this as a threat big enough to engage it’s more primitive survival mechanisms — which do come into the world active and fully functional.
This may mean the Sympathetic (fight/flight) system activates and you have a babe who is crying a lot, easily startled, colicky, rashy and generally upset.
And then, if the stress in the environment (meaning in the parents) is not resolved, if this threat to the infant’s development seems to be pervasive with no end in sight, eventually the little one’s system will learn to bypass fight/flight and go directly to that freeze, or shut-down response.
I know this may be hard to accept, but when we look at all the accumulated anecdotal evidence that I, my colleagues, and mentors have accumulated, along with the conclusions of the Polyvagal Theory and the Ace Study, as well as just a general understanding of stress physiology, and the ever increasing levels of mental, emotional, and physical problems in Industrialized society, it paints a very clear picture. Even a loving home, if it is a chronically stressful environment (meaning the majority of home environments in industrialized society), will over time become perceived by a developing nervous system as a mortal threat. If the mother is overly stressed during pregnancy, this maladaptive wiring can even be established in the womb.
There are many other kinds of experiences that can also lead to this kind of early/developmental trauma, experiences that are not recognized by most as trauma; things like circumcision or even life-saving surgeries as an infant or child, a parent being incarcerated or addicted, pressure to conform to societal or familial norms, witnessing conflict between caregivers with no resolution, and even inherited genetic predispositions from ancestors who were traumatized — all of these things can lead to early/developmental trauma.
When an infant is in this kind of situation its developing system will learn over time to skip right over the fight/flight responses and default to the freeze response, and when this happens, when the freeze response becomes the go-to option for the nervous system when dealing with stress, we end up living in what is called “functional freeze”.
And this is most of us. Most of us in industrialized society are living with some degree of early/developmental trauma and an embedded freeze response.
This can show up in many ways – a lack of purpose, inability to speak our truth or even know what that is, tendency to put others’ needs before our own or feeling that we are responsible for other’s emotions, lethargy, collapse in the posture, a tendency to isolate, depression and more.
It can also show up in ways that look very different – the ability to perform at a very high level in business or sports or other very demanding fields like music or dance, or a tendency to seek out high-risk behaviours that flood the system with adrenaline. These show up when the person’s system has learned to not feel the effect of the demands placed on it necessary to perform at such a level, or because performing at a high level, or engaging in high-risk activities is the only way for them to feel anything at all. These folks can do very well in life for a time, but eventually there is always a crash, usually involving heart attack, stroke, cancer, or some form of autoimmune condition.
We cannot sustainably live with these high-energy survival states humming away in our system, the cost is too high, and eventually we will end up paying it. So, it is crucially important to understand how to come out of freeze, and part of doing that means understanding what is waiting on the other side – which are those big fight/flight energies.
Remember the order in which survival energies activate – first is fight/flight, then if that is not successful, freeze. This means that underneath an embedded freeze response there is always a big charge waiting to get out, and that’s the charge that holds our life energy, once we let it out of its box.
A lot of somatic work involves developing the capacity to simply be with the sensations and emotions of the survival responses, and this works very well with the fight/flight responses – there are many ways to channel those energies, and it’s also totally possible to get to the point where one can simply let them move through the system in the form of pure sensation. But it’s more complex with the freeze response.
We can’t just sit with the sensations of freeze and hope to get very far because remember, the freeze response is meant to prepare us for death; it is not an active state, but one of numbing, dissociating, and withdrawal. If we just sit with that we will tend to just spiral further down into more of the same. We need to get at the active, mobilizing force of fight/flight underneath.
Here’s the thing though, the emotional experience of those fight/flight states, which often stem from a very young age when we didn’t have any ability to understand or verbalize our experience, are generally ones of terror and rage. Terror is the emotional ‘fuel’ meant to power our ability to run away. Rage is the fuel meant to power our ability to fight.
These emotions can be quite overwhelming, in fact they were overwhelming – that’s why the freeze came on in the first place, to protect us from that intensity, so it’s very important to understand why these feelings are there, what they are, and how we can work with them.
I think the first thing to really take in is that, fundamentally, the terror and/or rage are not actually terror and/or rage. Let me explain.
These strong emotions are the frozen faces that the fight/flight activation is wearing, because these were the emotional experiences that were happening at the time of the overwhelming experience(s).
But at the root – these emotions are just masks that the energy itself is wearing, and that energy is your life energy. It’s good stuff. It wants to come home to you, but it has been wrapped in these boxes of strong emotions that have felt historically overwhelming. This is why we need to work at the Sympathetic level to change these things – that’s where the juice is.
But first we need to help those big energies find their way out from under the big lid of freeze.
So it starts with not avoiding the freeze and the feelings of hopelessness, despair, dissociation, and numbness that may be there, but also not just simply sitting in those experiences either. We need the middle ground of feeling it, and being curious about the felt experience of it (not the thoughts!) – what does it feel like in your body? If you can maintain a strong internal witness that is able to observe and understand this state, this can create enough internal safety for something else to happen.
Remember that antelope – it only came out of freeze and into the fight/flight underneath once it sensed the safety caused by the lion’s distraction. Our system is the same, only our threats were not usually a lion, but usually things far more subtle.
Most often, our threats were threats of absence, the threat of something that we needed to develop properly – our caregivers attuned, empathic, unstressed attention and presence – not being there. So in order to work with these states, we need to learn how to be that for ourselves. We have to learn how to be that attuned, empathic, caring witness to our own experience.
*NOTE – I will explain HOW to learn to do that, as well as other practices I’m about to mention, at the end of this article.
Once we have learned how to be our own internal witness, we can then start exploring and see if we can start to notice something else in the body.
Peter Levine, the inventor of one of the modalities I practice called Somatic Experiencing, calls the practice of moving one’s attention between two different things, ‘Pendulation’. So we need to learn how to do this, and then Pendulate between the sensations of the freeze state, and something else. This something else could be an area of the body that feels less freezy, or more alive, or it could be the external environment granted it is safe, or it could even be an image that represents aliveness or mobility in some way.
Pendulation gets energy moving, it starts opening up the box of freeze so that we can get at those boxes of rage and/or terror underneath, which in turn hold the life energy that we need to integrate back into our system.
In terms of how moving our attention gets the energy in the body moving, as far as I know we do not currently have the scientific instruments capable of explaining this precisely in Western terms.
However, in Eastern terms, where they recognize that the highest form of science and technology is consciousness itself, it is easily explained by the fact that we are forms of Embodied Consciousness.
There is no separation between body and mind, so where there is stagnation in the body there is stagnation in consciousness, which is why we often won’t remember certain traumatic events until the frozen areas of the body that are holding them are opened up and moving a bit.
Likewise, we may awaken, and get flow going in the body, by moving the consciousness, and when we get the energy moving those boxes of rage or terror that are holding our life energy become more accessible. Then, once that Sympathetic (fight/flight) energy starts to surface we need to follow our impulse as to how that strong experience wants to express.
As I said earlier, an experienced practitioner of this work can often just allow these sensations to just move through the system without doing much of anything, and this can feel like vibrating, trembling, shaking, pulsing, electricity, or some other similar kind of experience. But learning to just allow that takes practice, and sometimes, because that energy has been stuck for so long, we need to ACT in some way to get it moving.
There are a lot of cathartic practices out there that focus solely on this aspect of trauma healing without understanding the complexities of freeze and the necessity of education and safety. Modalities like Bioenergetics, TRE, Primal Scream therapy, and others – that try to force mobilization of this Sympathetic energy without understanding the level of refinement necessary to allow these big energies to move safely, and in a way that the experience can be integrated. For more on this, see this past article.
It’s true that the Sympathetic energy will often want to be expressed and play out through the body in some way, often is some way associated with fighting or fleeing, and there’s nothing wrong with the motions of hitting or running, or with working with the sounds of screaming, shouting, or other strong expression. The thing that makes cathartic practices ineffective and potentially re-traumatizing is there is generally NO emphasis on creating internal safety first, or on staying connected to the felt sense of the body, or of titrating the experience (meaning doing little bits at a time).
Like I said, eventually it is possible to just let the Sympathetic energy do it’s thing, to act at a subtle level without necessarily making sounds, expressions, or moving, but very often, especially early on in the work, that energy does want to DO the things it wasn’t able to do, and SAY the things it wasn’t able to say.
But, our energy has often been frozen in these boxes for so long that we have to help it out by going slowly, and staying connected to the felt sense in the body. We wouldn’t ask someone who has been laying in bed for a year to suddenly get up and run a marathon, and that’s what cathartic practices ask of the system in many ways.
So see what happens if you follow your impulses, but do so slowly, subtly.
Yes, scream, shout, yell, hit, run, smash, destroy! Whatever. But do it slowly. Mindfully. Stay in touch with your inner witness. Use your imagination. Don’t get consumed in the expression such that you lose touch with the felt sense in the body.
And remember that fundamentally this work is not so much about ‘releasing’ the energy, it is about reclaiming the energy, by releasing it from its somatic boxes of frozen emotion and sensation, and that’s a process that cannot happen all at once. The nervous system that these energies run through is incredibly complex and it can only integrate so much change at once.
For more tools to help you do this, I recommend reading this past article, and this one.
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Everything I have just described is meant as an overview to help you understand how to come out of freeze and into flow, but this article on it’s own will not be enough for most people to actually do the work. For that, you need a comprehensive education, the practical tools necessary to help you learn to develop your own inner witness and work with the sensations and emotions of survival energy, and it can be very helpful to have good support as well.
The best way to get these things is to start with Irene Lyon’s 21-Day Nervous system Tuneup. Yes, she’s my wife, but I can truly say with no bias, that her 21 day program is the best way to get started. I can confidently say this because I have trained extensively in these modalities and while I have many gifted colleagues, I also know how relatively few truly qualified practitioners are out there. In comparison to the numbers of people who need to do this work, qualified practitioners are like a drop in the ocean, and there are a couple reasons for this.
For one, the somatic modalities I practice, namely Somatic Experiencing (developed by Peter Levine), and Somatic Practice (developed by Kathy Kain) are relatively new, and so there just aren’t that many practitioners yet in total. Out of those who have trained there are many good ones to be sure, but unfortunately I have encountered a lot more who really don’t understand this work, view it only as some kind of somatic ‘add-on’ to their existing mind-based toolset, and/or who are either unwilling or unable to give their clients the kind of comprehensive education necessary to really do this work successfully. If you can find a good private practitioner of these modalities then that’s awesome, but without first really understanding the work it can be hard to even know what to look for.
So please, if you want to do this work, give yourself the gift of a solid foundation by starting with the 21-Day Nervous System Tuneup. For the price of about two private sessions you will get the thorough education, practical tools, and community support necessary to get you well on your way, and this will also make you much more informed about what to look for in a private practitioner should you then decide to go that route.