Freezing is a common response that many people go through experiencing traumatic events. It is the brain’s way of protecting itself from the attack.
Common questions I’ve heard directed towards sexual assault victims were, “Why didn’t you fight back?” “Why didn’t you scream or shout?” “Why didn’t you make any noise?” “Why didn’t you call for help?” Many times, the victims say they froze, they felt at a loss, they felt time stopped, and many other variations of these phrases. I believe them because that’s what precisely what I did.
My Own Sexual Harassment Story
I froze when an independent musician, who was well known in the San Francisco indie music scene, masturbated in front of me in my dorm room because he couldn’t “control” himself because I was so “hot.” I was in a state of shock, and I remember crying because I was overwhelmed by everything going on.
What is Freezing?
Why do sexual assault or sexual harassment victims freeze when they are being assaulted or harassed? According to Dr. Martin Anthony, a Ryerson University psychology professor and author of The Anti-Anxiety Book, “freezing is a common response to a threat that we see in other mammals, in fact, not just humans.” He added, “Some people would argue that… people shouldn’t even talk about ‘fight or flight.’ They should talk about ‘fight, flight, or freezing.’
Safe Mode and Not-Safe Mode
The human nervous system has two modes: ‘safe mode’ and ‘not-safe mode.’ In safe mode, the brain is calm, and the person can perform daily chores and functions normally. When a person enters the ‘not-safe mode,’ the brain reacts by shutting down its non-essential parts. This is the part of the fight-flight-freeze mechanism that allows the person to survive the threat. When a person enters the ‘not-safe’ mode, they lose access to several brain structures that can help them with reason and abstract thought, being present with one’s own body and mind, planning, and vocalizing.
Freezing is Not Consent
Freezing is a useful tool that mammals have used for thousands of years to avoid an attack. Unfortunately, victims of sexual assault or harassment still experience freeze for the same purpose. Sadly, many people read freezing as consent, which it’s not.
Symptoms of Freezing
Here are signs of freezing:
- A person’s thoughts get cloudy, or the mind goes blank.
- A person feels panicky without a sense of direction.
- Feelings of hopelessness and feeling trapped.
- A strong desire to get out of the situation or make something stop but you don’t know how.
- Feelings that any action you take might make the situation worse and it seems better to do nothing.
- Freezing is much more likely if a person has experienced trauma before.
Different Types of Freezing
There are three different types of freezing, detection freezing, shocked freezing, no-good- choices freezing.
In sexual assaults and sexual harassments, there is often a crucial moment when the attack is detected, and the brain and body instantly and automatically enter a different state. This stage is detection freezing. It lasts only up to a few seconds when everything stops and everything changes. An example would be when someone is telling a story, and they say, “I froze for a second.”
Shocked freezing usually comes after detection freezing, and it is a continuation of the brain resetting itself and is a massive amplification of it. It is different from detection freezing because it lasts more than just a few seconds and people may feel shocked, dumbfounded, their mind utterly blank, and at a loss for words and action. In this second stage, there are more brain processes. People who go through this phase say that “It made no sense,” “It just didn’t compute,” “I couldn’t even think,” or “I had no idea what to do.”
In this form of freezing, a person’s brain is literally not coming up with any behavior options to choose from, let alone execute.
Research suggests that the strength and length of the shocked freeze state depend on how much the hormone and neurotransmitter norepinephrine the defense circuitry has released in the brain regions that generate thoughts and behaviors.
The no-good-choices freezing happens when the impaired prefrontal cortex leaves many people with thinking that’s been reduced to extreme lose-lose options, to “choices,” that are no real choices at all. It is the third form and often the final phase of freezing during a sexual assault, severe sexual harassment, and other experiences of violence and trauma. People often refer to themselves as being “frozen.”
How to Help Someone Who Has Been Sexually Assaulted
or Sexually Harassed
Here are some ways to help someone who has been sexually assaulted or sexually harassed.
- Instead of asking victims of sexual assault or sexual harassment “Why didn’t you……?” say “you did what you needed to survive.” Use validating, non-victim-blaming language.
- If you know someone who has been a victim of sexual assault or sexual harassment, educate them about how freeze is a survival mechanism. It may help them reduce their guilt, shame, and personal responsibility.
- Teach others about victim-blaming language.
- Start conversations about enthusiastic consent and use it in your intimate relationships.
My Own Experience
I’ve been through sexual assault, and sexual harassment and I have experienced freezing. I went through self-loathing, self-hatred, low self-esteem because I kept on rewinding the ways I could have stopped those experiences. I still do rewinds, but it’s not as much as I did in the past. Researching and understanding freezing has helped me understand that I froze because my brain and my body was protecting me from attacks that were happening. From this perspective, it makes me appreciate my resiliency.