This article is intended for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment, or advice.
Do you sometimes wish to connect with others, but feel too afraid? Maybe you fear looking silly, and being judged makes you freeze up, unsure of what to say or do. You might find yourself awkwardly smiling or stuttering, which feeds into your negative thoughts. You feel even more anxious, and ashamed of being perceived as socially awkward. In many of us, these behaviors could possibly signify something deeper – a rooted trauma response called freezing. Could your “socially awkward” behavior actually mean that part of you is still trapped in a past event? Let’s explore this idea further.
When we’re young, we’re vulnerable and easily scared. If we encounter a situation that overwhelms us, like being yelled at or threatened by an adult, our brain goes into survival mode. Evolution wired our brains, when faced with danger, to either fight our opponent or run. But, what if our opponent is too strong to fight? What if they’re too fast and catch us running? When we’re stuck between these two options, the only way to survive is to freeze. A 2017 study suggests that this response may “function as a time for the brain to decide how to respond to the threat”.
Later on, the vulnerable child has grown up, and the scary adult is gone. But the fear of danger is still here, and you may become hypervigilant in social situations. Instead of enjoying the conversation, you’re on the lookout – carefully paying attention to their exact words, their gaze, the tone of their voice. On the outside, you may look tense and uninterested, but, as clinical psychologist Dr. Nathan Greene wrote for Healthline, this could actually be a freeze response which gives your brain time to scan the environment for signs of danger.
Close Your Eyes
When you freeze, it can be difficult and intimidating to make eye contact with the person you’re talking to. You might feel like they’re looking right through you, seeing all your flaws and weaknesses. So you look away, down at the ground, or off to the side. This can be your body’s way to reduce the perceived threat of social interaction. A 2014 study showed that in those with PTSD, direct gaze activates the innate alert system. So by avoiding eye contact you may disengage from the social situation, and feel less vulnerable in return.
A 2004 study shows that stuttering may be a freeze response too. It seems that those who stutter in nervous social situations show a reduced heart rate, just like what happens during a freeze response. It can happen when you need to voice your opinion, confront somebody or simply pick up a telephone. The fear of being judged or attacked may be so great and immobilizing it makes you stumble over your sentences, or feel unable to even utter a word.
Finally, freezing up can make you socially withdraw too, which others may interpret as being disinterested or overly shy. But as licenced psychotherapist Pete Walker wrote, the freeze response “often triggers the individual into hiding, isolating, and eschewing human contact as much as possible.” This retreat mode, as he calls it, might offer you some comfort because you know if you’re not hanging out, no one can hurt you in any way.
Do you see some of these signs in yourself? Share your story in the comments if you’re comfortable! If you’d like to learn what you can do to get out of a freeze response, check out the link below. We know it must be difficult to go through this, but we hope this video ensured you that you’re never alone! Thanks for reading, take care!
For additional information and resources on how to address and manage freeze responses, we encourage you to watch the following video:
This resource is provided by a licensed therapist Emma McAdam who explains practical strategies and techniques for managing and overcoming freeze responses. Please note that this resource is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment, and we encourage you to seek support from a qualified mental health provider if needed.
Alm, P. A. (2004). Stuttering, emotions, and heart rate during anticipatory anxiety: A critical review. Journal of Fluency Disorders, 29(2), 123–133. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jfludis.2004.02.001
Greene, N., PsyD. (2021, August 26). The Beginner’s Guide to Trauma Responses. Healthline Media. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/fight-flight-freeze-fawn#freeze
Pete Walker, M.A. psychotherapy. (n.d.). Retrieved May 9, 2023, from https://pete-walker.com/fourFs_TraumaTypologyComplexPTSD.htm
Roelofs, K. (2017). Freeze for action: Neurobiological mechanisms in animal and human freezing. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 372(1718), 20160206. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2016.0206
Steuwe, C., Daniels, J. K., Frewen, P. A., Densmore, M., Pannasch, S., Beblo, T., Reiss, J., & Lanius, R. A. (2014). Effect of direct eye contact in PTSD related to interpersonal trauma: An fMRI study of activation of an innate alarm system. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nss105