PTSD 101: Fight, Flight & Freeze – Surviving a Freeze

I had a full-blown PTSD Freeze moment yesterday.  

I’ll be honest, it caught me off guard.  For the past month, I have not experienced any of the physical effects of my C-PTSD.  A change I contribute that to reaching the apex of my trauma work mid-December.  Physically I’ve felt the difference. I am no longer fighting night terrors or slugging through endless days dealing with the effects of chronic insomnia.  I feel my internal systems recalibrating after years of being in overdrive.  

I’m not actively engaged in trauma work, and I feel pretty healthy.  So this freeze yesterday was a unique experience for me.  I was much more mindful through the episode than ones in the past.  Don’t get me wrong, it was still a completely shit experience.  I was just slightly removed and able to better observe the entire phenomena.

When it was over, I realized that it could be broken down in a very similar manner to a DBT behavior chain.  This process can help you identify important patterns and build resilience against triggers. 

Vulnerability Factors

            When we talk about emotion regulation – vulnerability factors are ANYTHING that make you less likely to be the best, most amazing version of yourself.  This can be –

Physical: you have a headache, you didn’t sleep well the night before 
Relational: you’re fighting with your partner so you feel less confident in all interactions 
Intrapersonal: (self-talk) you’re late to work, so you spend the morning beating yourself up in your head

Be mindful of vulnerability factors. They can add up over the course of the day. The more psychological stress we are under from these, the closer trauma moves to the surface making you more VULNERABLE to triggers.

            Yesterday was not a great day in our house, so there were plenty of vulnerability factors at play.  My boyfriend had an interview today.  He found out Friday evening, which left him all weekend to be anxious about it.  Plus, I totally struggled with my depression this weekend, thanks to a migraine earlier in the week.  While I am incredibly grateful to have an effective medication that does eliminate the headaches, the side effect is usually a couple days of being pretty down afterwards.  It’s just part of the tradeoff.

            I had struggled with Z’s irritability throughout the day. Usually we are pretty in sync.  For the life of me yesterday, I couldn’t figure out what to do or say not to frustrate him. I had recognized that it was pulling up some childhood stuff.  I felt this tension a lot in my younger years.  I knew my main objective was not be a cause of more distress in my environment, but things were erratic enough that it seemed like no matter what I added fuel to the flames. 

The Trigger

In trauma work specifically, triggers can be sneaky to identify.  Often times we subconsciously connected the trigger to trauma but aren’t yet consciously aware of this.  For me, one of the tricks I’ve learned – when I have a strong emotional reaction to something that doesn’t really make sense based on the current situation, then it’s likely tied into my trauma.  

            We were in the bathroom talking. Out frustration Z said something along the lines of “I’m never allowed to get angry, so I just won’t be.”  He then forced a smile.  The disingenuousness of that smile was the trigger.  It literally turned my stomach.  There’s all this other stuff going around, but suddenly I know I am experiencing emotions that are directly related to my trauma work.

Emotion Label

            There are 8 primary emotions – anger, fear, sadness, joy, love, disgust, guilt, & shame. All emotions fall under one of these.  Most people are fairly skillful at identifying when they are experiencing a single emotion.  However, often times with trauma what we experience is a whole tangle of negative emotions.  We each have a specific trauma constellation, when you can separate and identify the emotions you gain power over them.

From months of doing this work – I have learned that I experience two emotions in tandem when I am triggered: Disgust and Terrified. A big aspect of my work was being able to recognize when I experience this cluster of emotions, I am hitting a trigger.  

Flooding & Freeze

We have all heard of fight / flight response.  The third response in this system is the freeze response.  Freeze is often the go-to response for those with C-PTSD.  If you were regularly placed in a situation you had to survive and fight/flight were not realistic options, your nervous system becomes predisposed to rely on freeze. 

            Within a second of experiencing the initial sensation of these emotions, I was engulfed in the flooding.  No longer a 30 year old woman with a Master’s degree in psychology who can clearly articulate what is happening.  I am frozen in a corner, crying and unable to verbally communicate.  I could very clearly articulate in my mind what is occurring, but in the freeze, the ability to come out of my internal world, to explain or connect it is not there.  I become too far removed.

            I also observed the feeling of the adrenaline/cortisol changes associated with this episode.  I felt the slam of energy coursing through me, even with my feet were frozen to the ground.  Even after I calmed my crying, it took a full hour to get my breath regulated.  I was exhausted and immediately ready to call it a night when it was all over. 

Aftereffects

            These events do not occur in a vacuum.  Thus, when it happens, it’s not only about surviving the moment but also being prepared for what may follow.

I cannot immediately tie that smile to an event in my abuse story.  What I have learned, is when I experience this intensity trigger/flooding, the memory will likely expose itself to me in the upcoming weeks.  It sucks, because the memories are always painful.  But I know that choosing to engage in the work, it’s what give me my power back. 

Taking an episode and breaking it down into these smaller aspects can be an incredibly helpful process.  For most of my trauma journey, life felt out of control.  I regained my control by facing my trauma head on.  

This freeze episode got me for a bit yesterday.  But it didn’t pull me down.  Being mindful throughout it, allowed me to understand the layers of it.  This episode was a reminder – even as far as I’ve come – I’m not 100% in control of the process.   I AM in control of the direction I am going in.  The path I have chosen is healing.  Thus I take each episode for what it is, an opportunity for learning and growth.  

Nothing is strong enough to derail me!!

How have you managed freeze response in your own trauma journey? Share your tips, tricks, love & support in the comment section below!

Much love,
Jamie

If you’re at the beginning of your trauma journey, I encourage you to head check out some of my other Trauma 101 posts. Before You Start Your Trauma Journey is a great starting place!

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Published by Jamie Schmidt, LPC

Just a human being on a journey of self discovery. Psychology + Spirit + Healing

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