Playing Dead: A Physical Response to Stress Besides Fight or Flight

Monday, February 24, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Anxiety

I occasionally come across cases of misdiagnosis due to a misunderstanding of anxiety responses. Some are convinced that they have a seizure disorder, others believe they have a nerve issue that causes paralysis.

But, anxiety is not all about running from a tiger or beating the crap out of an alligator. Humans have another trick up their collective sleeve: the freeze response. This is caused when something tells the brain that the threat is too big to run from or fight off, essentially that there is no hope except to play dead.  

If only playing dead worked with kids at five o'clock in the morning. If it did, they wouldn't poke me in the eye until I make breakfast. 

But I digress.

Individuals who experience the freeze response may have a parasympathetic nervous system that is more easily triggered into this state due to chemical makeup. While both fight/flight and freeze responses evolved as self-defense measures, these two branches of defense look and feel very different.

The Fight or Flight Anxiety Response:

  • Blood pumped into the large muscles of the legs and arms, preparing to fight or run
  • Tunnel vision to better focus on attacker
  • Racing heart to improve blood circulation
  • Muscle tension as the body prepares to act
  • Elimination of bowels/bladder or vomiting to avoid wasting energy on digestion. This is also know as the biological basis for the phrase "You scared the shit out of me!"
  • Shortness of breath as respiration increases in preparation for action
  • Trembling or shaking due to the redistribution of blood 
  • Scary or intrusive thoughts

Freezing in Response to Stress:

  • Temporary inability to speak, like being unable to talk when you get up to give a speech, or being unable to answer a question when called upon in class
  • Longer term trouble talking or inability to move despite awareness of surroundings. Many experience this state in bed when awoken from a dream, but it can happen during the day as well.
  • Fainting (no better way to play dead)
  • Lack of pain during the event (to make sure you keep playing dead until the predator releases you and you can run away)
  • Loss of memory after the event due to altered cognitive function; this allowed our ancestors to avoid maladaptive trauma responses later on

In practice, these anxiety responses might look sort of like this:

Fight: "I'm so anxious, I could punch you in the mouth!" 
Flight:"I'm so anxious, I need to get the hell out of here!"
Freeze: (Laying on floor...can't move...)

The freeze response is sometimes credited with UFO abduction reports, where people find themselves laying in bed unable to speak and with a sense of foreboding as if there is a presence there with them. In these cases, tunnel vision may also be experienced as an offshoot of fight or flight. 

Good times. 

Alien life forms aside, understanding that both of these systems coexist can allow individuals to get proper diagnosis. Either way, I'd put my money on aliens letting me sleep longer than the kids.   

Related Posts: 

Topic-Relevant Resources

Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers
Primatologist/biologist Robert Sapolsky on stress and your brain. Good stuff.

From Panic to Power: Proven Techniques to Calm Your Anxieties, Conquer Your Fears, and Put You in Control of Your Life
Techniques for reducing anxiety and living a happier, healthier life.

Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation
New techniques for mindfully altering the wiring of your own brain, leading to increased happiness.

Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma: The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences
Dr. Peter Levine discusses the evolved processes that make us more susceptible to traumatic experiences and offers paths toward healing.

The Mindfulness Solution
Meditative and cognitive techniques for everyday use

When Panic Attacks
Detailed overview of cognitive behavioral techniques for changing negative thought patterns

Alien Landscape
Some things are too horrifying to understand let alone fix.