Frozen with fear (A comprehensive review)

Frozen with fear
JuanitaHFNE

Juanita Agboola is the editor in chief of HFNE and an expert in mental health online. She has been writing about online behaviour, mental health and psychology issues since 2012. All Guides are reviewed by our editorial team which constitutes various clinical psychologists, PhD and PsyD colleagues.

In the following review, the reader will be able to learn what characterizes frozen with fear, some warning signs, and finally some basic ideas about what should be done on these occasions. 

Frozen with fear (A comprehensive review)

Frozen with fear

Frozen with fear is a possible automatic response to a threatening or identity-threatening stimulus. In a certain way, it is paradoxical that, in the face of a situation of danger and threat, the response that is the order of the day is to stay still, paralyzed, and do nothing. 

In the following guide, we will explore this issue in detail and try to understand why it happens this way. After all, especially when it comes to automatic responses, our minds and brains are prepared in a generic way that is often the most adaptive. 

Fight or flight! How frozen with fear?

As mentioned, frozen with fear seems to be the worst response to danger. On the other hand, we find a classic and well-known fight or flight response. In the face of danger, say, a wild animal that for some reason arrived in our neighborhood, these two options seem very adaptive. 

If we see that there is some way to fight this animal, that will be our answer. All this assessment at the mental level we do in microseconds and we are not even fully aware of it. It’s something that’s there to be displayed as a standard response to danger. 

Frozen with fear (A comprehensive review)

On the other hand, on other occasions, when our possibilities are minimal or it is the most convenient, we may decide to run as far away as possible. Run, run, run! That will be our answer, and at some point, we will hopefully find a safe place to hide from danger. 

These answers are highly familiar, even to other non-human animals. It is likely that all of us, at some point in our lives, have witnessed a dangerous situation where these two answers were the only ones available. In such scenarios, all that matters is that we can save our lives, hence the urgency and automaticity of the response. 

Personality and automatic responses

When we speak of automatic responses, even in the context of frozen with fear, we must mention another element of functioning: personality. Personality refers to those traits, or tendencies to action, that predominates in us in a more or less stable way through time and the contexts where we move. 

People have individual differences in the level at which a given trait characterizes them. For example, let’s take the trait of extroversion, how much I tend to externalize what I feel, what I think and to “show off to the world”. People are largely characterized by this trait and tend to be less inwardly mobile, and also tend to take more risks and enjoy highly social activities. 

On the other hand, if we take the trait of introversion, the tendency is the opposite. Those who are highly characterized by this trait are more likely to be risk-takers, may be methodical, and enjoy activities that involve little exposure to others. 

When we talk about frozen with fear, we can associate these personality traits with some of the possible automatic responses. For example, the fighting response when in danger may be more likely to be exhibited by a person who is highly characterized by the extroversion trait. 

Such a person will be more willing to take the risk of facing the dangerous situation that is presenting itself at the time. 

On the other hand, the flight response might be more easily exhibited by a person who is less characterized by extroversion, and more by the introversion trait. In such a case, the flight response is more in line with the unwillingness to take risks and a greater sense of prevention of one’s identity. 

Frozen with fear: what’s the matter with me?

In this context, you may be asking yourself, what’s the point of the frozen with the fear response, in a context of danger? 

The information has been found to suggest that this response makes more sense than we might have imagined. To begin with, this frozen with the fear response is associated with the expression of a basic and universal emotion: surprise. Let’s try to think and remember a moment when we were surprised, imprisoned by that emotion that also feels like an adrenaline rush, but it is common for our body to remain still. 

When something takes us by surprise, we don’t know what to do. It was literally an unexpected event, so we had no or little preparation for it. It is normal that we do not have in our repertoire of actions an answer for that which we do not expect to find. 

To be assaulted in the street, for example, even though we know that it is something possible and that it happens from time to time to other people, is something that would take us by surprise. We do not expect it to happen and we do not plan what we will do in such a case among other things, because we do not know how the situation will be, in what context, where, etc. 

Frozen with fear (A comprehensive review)

On many occasions, the frozen with the fear response is an extension of the emotion of surprise. Thus, we could describe a hypothetical situation in this way: an unexpected event occurs (a robbery), the person is surprised because it is something that was not within his range of possibilities, his whole body experiences the emotion of surprise and all his cognitive resources are spent trying to discern the situation and determine what it is. 

Then, given the complete novelty of the situation, the person feels a terrible fear and is paralyzed, frozen with fear. That is their automatic response. Within their repertoire nothing is available, and the frozen with fear response appears even before they fight or flee. 

As can be expected, with such a combination of factors, the most adaptive response ends up being frozen with fear. In the situation in the example, a robbery, there may not be as much danger, as the intention of the robber is only to take something from the victim and run away. Thus, the frozen with the fear response is adaptive and the integrity of the person is preserved. 

Frozen with fear: playing dead

Since we are talking about automatic responses and their adaptability in any given situation, it is worth mentioning another type of response similar to freezing in the face of fear. This is “pretending to be dead”. This response, like others we have mentioned, can also be seen in other non-human animals. 

This response makes sense to the extent that we may be so trapped and helpless, so caught up in the situation, that all that is left is to pretend to be dead and hope the danger will go away. 

Let’s take an example, we have gone for a walk with some friends to a forest near the city, and the night has come, we need to organize a place to camp, so that it is possible to continue the journey the next day, with the light of day. 

In the middle of the night, we moved away a bit to find privacy and, for some reason we never expected (since that forest has been designated as a completely safe place to camp), we came across a huge bear. This animal roars at the sight of us and all the friends decide to run away. So there is only one person left in danger. 

The situation is very threatening. There is no way to run away, the bear is too close and our chances of fighting are nil. This animal is huge and, if we wanted to, it could hurt us very easily. So, to our surprise, we remain paralyzed, quiet, and being on the ground we pretend to be dead. 

Our eyes are closed, we don’t make any noise or movement, and in that way the bear calms down and loses interest in us. It is in this sense that the response of being frozen in fear, and even pretending to be dead, is tremendously adaptive. All of this happens automatically, without our conscious control. 

Under circumstances like these, our brain takes over and executes all the actions necessary for our integrity to be preserved. Everything happens very quickly and almost without our being aware of it. 

Frozen with fear: the benefits 

The automatic response of being paralyzed by fear has been widely studied, and it has been suggested that it may even have psychological benefits in terms of live processing of the traumatic event. 

It has been reported in the past that some people, whose reactions have been to being paralyzed by danger, report having little or no memory of the event that occurred and that it was highly traumatic. This, in terms of processing the event and activating it on an emotional level, can help the psychological damage to be greatly reduced. 

Frozen with fear (A comprehensive review)

Let’s take an example of a mugging or a rape. In these cases, the fact that the person “shuts down” temporarily, can help their attentional systems, those that are responsible for encoding the information of the world and enter our minds, are temporarily disabled and thus the person does not process what is happening to him. 

The event is so threatening, so terrifying, that the emotional response leads the person to a state of intense emotion where some of their systems are not functional, and this prevents or at least diminishes the coding of the event, preventing the appearance of serious sequelae in the person. 

Conclusion 

Frozen with fear, at first glance, may seem like a non-adaptive response to a dangerous situation. Because we intuitively think that the best thing to do in a dangerous situation is to do something about it, either run away or fight what is threatening us. 

However, it has been shown that under certain circumstances the reaction of being frozen in the face of danger is very adaptive and may, in fact, prevent the person from having any subsequent serious psychological sequelae as a result of processing the traumatic event. 

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about frozen with fear

Why do some people freeze when scared?

In some cases, when people are paralyzed by fear, what happens is that the cerebellum has given an order for all movement to be canceled in the face of a dangerous situation. Under certain circumstances, not all, this can be more adaptive than fighting or running away.

Is the freeze response parasympathetic?

Freezing is activated under certain dangerous circumstances. Particularly under threat, both the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are activated simultaneously and only if the parasympathetic system predominates is the freeze response defensive. 

What causes the freeze response?

The freeze response occurs in a threatening or dangerous situation and is a response to a specific stimulus. 

Why do we gasp when scared?

This response is most likely given in order to take in an extra amount of oxygen and be prepared for an eventual response. 

What happens in your body when you get scared?

When a person gets scared, a series of events occur that trigger the body automatically and prepare it for an adaptive response. 


Recommended resources

  1. Dare: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks Fast
  2. Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic, and Worry
  3. Explaining the Fight or Flight Response [Clean]

References

  1. Frozen with fear: Conditioned suppression in a virtual reality model of human anxiety.
  2. Freezing Behavior (Science direct overview)
  3. New Research on the Psychology of Fear

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