My daughter had to have a stranger perform the Heimlich on her this past Sunday at dinner. It was a terrifying few minutes that felt like hours. She had been talking with friends of ours and eating chips. Well, she laughed as she was chewing and a chip got lodged down. She could gasp in, but nothing could come out. I looked down at the table and saw her standing, hand to her throat and her face bright red.
“Matt, she’s choking.” I said.
Matt rushed to her and tried multiple things to help, but nothing was working. The restaurant was silent. I was on the other side of the table, hand to mouth, tears streaming and frozen in place. “Matt, you have to do the Heimlich!” I managed to call out.
That is when an angel (or stranger) stepped up and gave a few thrusts, and out came the chip — and a lot of vomit, if I’m being honest. It was a horrible and terrifying experience, and I still replay it occasionally in my head. Each time, I cry and get sick to my stomach.
As I review it, I realize I have a pattern of freezing anytime something bad is about to happen to my children. I can see when they are just about to slip, fall, walk into the street, etc., and in my head, I stop it immediately. In reality? I am normally about three to five seconds too late, because I always freeze.
In my effort to not shame myself and not always assume the worst, I decided to research the freeze response. I have always heard of “fight or flight,” but those aren’t my typical responses and I wanted to justify that it was OK.
Well, I found out a lot. It actually is “fight, flight or freeze,” and freezing has been instinctive to animals since the dawn of time. There are a lot of benefits to freezing. In nature, if you can’t fight your attacker or run away from them fast enough, freezing and pretending to be dead can be very effective in avoiding a predator. Most predators are triggered by the chase, so by playing dead, you do not incite their attack response.
Freezing also gives your brain time (typically milliseconds) to choose which is the best response: fight, or flight. Those moments you freeze, your brain is taking in the situation around you and calculating the best response.
I found out there are a lot of emotional benefits to freezing as well. According to Rachael Sharman in “Paralyzed with fear: why do we freeze when frightened?” “It’s also speculated that freezing might have psychological benefits. Many people who ‘freeze’ report little or no memory of the trauma. Consider how that might preserve your sanity or protect you from psychological harm.”
Another article I read, “Trauma and the Freeze Response: Good, Bad or Both?” states the following: “Consider situations in which, realistically, there’s no way you can defend yourself. You have neither the hormone-assisted strength to respond aggressively to the inimical force nor the anxiety-driven speed to free yourself from it. You feel utterly helpless: Neither fight nor flight is viable, and there’s no one on the scene to rescue you.
“Under such unnerving circumstances, ‘freezing up’ or ‘numbing out’ — dissociating from the here and now — is about the only and (in various instances) the best thing you can do. Being physically, mentally, and emotionally immobilized by your consternation permits you not to feel the harrowing enormity of what’s happening to you, which in your hyperaroused state might threaten your very sanity. In such instances, some of the chemicals you thereby secrete (i.e., endorphins) function as an analgesic, so the pain of injury (to your body or psyche) is experienced with far less intensity.”
This is where the real gut punch happened for me. The article continues on, saying: “So, for instance, a child who ‘froze’ during incidents of frightening family abuse is, as an adult, especially susceptible to experience the freezing reaction again. And sometimes the current stimulus for such retraumatization isn’t anything specific. It may simply emanate from being in a state of highly exacerbated stress, which itself serves as an unconscious reminder of the acute stress linked to the initial trauma.”
When I was little, my grandmother on my mom’s side lived with us. Both of my parents worked, and she watched me and my little brother. I do not remember
99 percent of my childhood. Barely anything has stuck. A lot of times, friends of mine will say, “Remember when …” and I just smile and laugh along, because if it was before high school, the answer is no, I do not remember. I do know, and my mom and aunt would back me up, that my grandmother was a deeply unhappy and bitter woman. I think as a child I received a lot of that unhappiness and bitterness. She needed an outlet, and there I was.
“But how do you know this if you can’t remember anything?” you may ask. I mean, I ask it all the time. I know this because I have found and read old diaries I kept as a child, and I talk about her in it. One entry that stuck with me, one that I wrote when I was 5 or 6, was: “Grandma told me she hated me again.”
Think on that. Most of you reading are adults. Imagine, as an adult, telling your child that you hate them. I mean, kids say it regularly to adults, but they do not know the power of the word yet. They are still testing it out; we, as adults, know just how hurtful and strong the word “hate” is. I mean, in our house, it is a four letter word. Maybe I said it first in a fit of rage and she just responded in kind. I get it: Kids can push buttons. But apparently it was such a regular occurrence that I simply wrote it as a daily event. I don’t think anything justifies an adult telling a child on a regular basis that they hate them.
This is where my shame grew and thrived, and most likely where I learned to freeze in response to stress. What other options does a child have? You can’t fight your way out, and if you live with the person, flight is not an option. My grandmother moved out of the house when I was in fourth grade. That was when I was finally able to tell my parents about what was happening. Granted, it came in the midst of an emotional breakdown, but my parents saw what happened and they helped me.
Much like then, I find there is hope for me now. I don’t want to be the parent who always freezes right when something bad is happening. I want to be able to spring into action and protect my children, whether by fight or by flight. The good news is that I am not forced to continue my freeze response, much as I was not forced to stay with my grandmother. According to Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D, “That way you can finally ‘put to rest’ what, at the time of its first occurrence, you weren’t able to. By combining psychology with basic principles of biophysics, what a large variety of trauma resolution methods make possible (e.g., Sensorimotor Processing, Somatic Experiencing, etc.) is the opportunity to release the residual tension (or internal energy) that was left unresolved even after the actual trauma was over.”
I have told my therapist this is something I really want to work on, and I am both excited and terrified by the upcoming journey. I am not sure how long it will take, but I know that I am committed to the process and will do anything to release the Freeze power over me.
If you are interested in reading the articles I mentioned, check out: