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Frozen (A New Take on Fight or Flight)

A couple posts ago, I wrote about a neat and very effective new tactic I just learned for healing stress.

Oddly, I learned about this technique, called “completing the cycle,” in a book called “Come As You Are:  the Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life” by Dr. Emily Nagoski.

As I’ve kept reading, I’ve kept learning more surprising new things. In fact, I just finished a section that describes how  our ancient reptilian limbic brains prefer to deal with stress.

I have always believed that when animals (human or non-human) feel threatened, our ancient limbic brain gives us two options: fight or flight.

But according to lots of science and Dr. Nagoski’s book, we actually get three options: fight, flight, or FREEZE.

This makes a lot of sense….so much sense that I can’t believe I didn’t learn about this until age 45.

It also makes sense because I am now realizing that freezing is one of my threat-detection specialities.

Freezing is what baby deer do when they hear a nearby rustling in the grass (hoping that if the hungry predator does spy them, it will think “oh look a dead baby deer – that is not what I had in mind for lunch today”).

For that matter, freezing is what adult deer do when caught in a set of car headlights….and likely for similar reasons.

Freezing is what my baby turtle, Malti, does whenever a shadow changes the light around her.

And freezing is what I do in nearly any context when I am startled out of whatever it was I was doing before the startling occurred.

For many of the memories I am now working towards completing, my threat-response option of choice has been to freeze. I have played dead. I have pretended I was part of the scenery (no matter how little I may have actually blended in).

I have dissociated my mind and frozen my body, a good trick that left the predator talking to empty air, however much I may have appeared to still be standing there.


In the case of really traumatic memories, I have frozen so well that I literally forgot about certain events (such as being molested by a teen male babysitter when I was six). It had taken several years of thawing and the sudden onset of disturbing dreams to prompt me to remember that that was me, and that that really happened.

Then I have had to work to complete the cycle, healing the stress, the fear, the anger, the twin unmet desires to flee and fight, the lack of trust in male human beings and in female human beings and most of all in myself – all of it.

Happily, today I am not aware of any of those “big” memories that have not been completed and healed.

But there are still lots of smaller frozen incidents waiting their turn in the ice cube tray for a thaw, a completion, a healing and a safe and happy permanent retirement.

What is most interesting is how understanding that I have three, not two, threat-response options is helping me with both my important human and my equally important non-human relationships.

For example, in another great book I just finished called “Zoobiquity,” the authors talk about why it is so important to avoid making direct eye contact with a wild animal that has been captured (whether for first aid, research or other reasons).

If I decide to make direct eye contact, the animal might die from a condition called “contact myopathy.”

What happens is this:

  • I make eye contact in an attempt to bond with the wild animal and convey the information that I am safe, trustworthy, caring, not a threat.
  • The wild animal receives a message, but not the one I was trying to send, because in the animal’s wild world, direct eye contact typically means, “Wow I’m starving, you look delicious, let’s have lunch!”
  • So I can frighten the wild animal literally death if I make direct eye contact.
  • Whoops. Good intentions, not so good results.

Sometimes when I go back to a memory to identify whether I fought, fled or froze, I also realize I may have misunderstood what was actually occurring in that situation.

In other words, I got contact myopathy when what the other person was trying to transmit was care and concern, guidance, help, something not dangerous.

And I can look back on other memories and see where I gave someone (or something) contact myopathy when I was trying to be kind or helpful or supportive, or something else not dangerous.

The memories I am working on now caused stress for all kinds of reasons, including all of the above. And I am now increasingly more able to spot myself when I am fleeing, fighting or freezing, identify which option I’ve selected and sometimes even stop so I can complete the cycle right then and there rather than having to come back and do it later!

Today’s Takeaway: Did you know that our “fight-or-flight” response actually includes freezing as well? Have you ever felt literally frozen by a person or situation (like once when I was little and my mom saw a snake while we were out in the backyard and I froze so hard with fear I felt like I was running in slow motion towards the house!)? Have you ever frozen to the point where you have an unresolved situation or relationship or memory that just won’t leave you in peace? If so, what helps you heal when this occurs?

Frozen (A New Take on Fight or Flight)

Shannon Cutts

Parrot, tortoise & box turtle mama. Writer. Author. Mentor. Champion of all people (and things) recovered and recovering.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2020). Frozen (A New Take on Fight or Flight). Psych Central. Retrieved on June 2, 2020, from


Last updated: 30 Mar 2020
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