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.
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.
Have you ever experienced freezing? How long did it last?
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- Lies Your Brain Tells You: Why We Have Scary Thoughts
- 8 Anxiety Symptoms You've Probably Experienced (and why they are surprisingly necessary for survival)
- What Causes A Panic Attack? The Minimalist Guide To A Very Nervous System
- How Things Work: Your Limbic System and Anxiety
- How to Cope With Intrusive Thoughts: Introduction to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and the Cost Benefit Analysis
- How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Thought Replacement and Visual Substitution
- How to Deal With Fears, Phobias and Intrusive Thoughts: Exposure Therapy