The “freeze” trauma response from the pandemic and politics

We have officially reached the anniversary of Covid being declared a pandemic. *FYI, I just looked up an article to verify what happened last year on March 11 and felt my chest and throat tighten just from the memories. If you’ve been feeling out of sorts this week, recognize this anniversary might be part of it, and offer yourself some grace.*

If, over the past year (or more) you have found yourself numb, detached, checked out, unmotivated, and in a word, frozen: then this post is for you. We will explore how the numerous stressors of the past year might have caused a freeze trauma response in our bodies.

Three weeks ago we visited the concept of trauma and looked specifically at the fawn, or the please / appease, trauma response. If you missed that post and are not yet familiar with how and why trauma manifests in the body, I suggest you go back and read that post first. Today we are going to take a look at the freeze trauma response. We will look at it in a few different contexts: the pandemic shutdowns, our current political climate, and (of course!) religious trauma. Part One (today’s post) is about the pandemic and politics. Look for Part Two next week!

The Freeze Response

The freeze response is, in animal terms, the response of getting as still as possible and playing dead until the threat has passed. For humans in the modern world, this looks more like zoning out, numbness, exhaustion and fatigue, detachment, lack of caring, even dissociation. I won’t get too much into the weeds with polyvagal theory (here’s a Counseling Today article if you’re curious), but the freeze response occurs when the fight or flight response (which engages the sympathetic nervous system and acts like an accelerant) just won’t cut it and the body essentially goes into shutdown mode. Shutdown is like slamming on the brakes in a car. To get out of the freeze response, or shutdown mode, you often need to get activated to fight-or-flight mode (which is more energetic) and then you can transition over to the more positive and productive social engagement system once a feeling of safety is established.

Pandemic and the Freeze Response

Let’s first think about how the freeze response is showing up during the pandemic. As I did last article on the please / appease response, I’m riffing off of something Brian Peck said on Phil Drysdale’s podcast: the idea that when we were asked to stay home as our way of fighting this “war” against COVID-19, that didn’t necessarily make us feel safe. Rather, it could actually trigger a freeze response, which is difficult for humans to cope with.

We were told there was a dangerous situation in the world, but most of us could not actively go out to fight it, and we didn’t know how to run or protect ourselves from it (especially in the early days – remember what life was like a year ago? Which is like a lifetime ago? We had no idea what was safe.). By being told to stay at home combined with overall fear of the virus, plus the symbolic “shutdown” of the economy on top of everything, many people’s systems shifted into a freeze response. We felt helpless, lost, frozen. If people lost jobs or a significant amount of hours, the problem would naturally be even worse.

There is only so much sitting around and waiting we can do. Nervous energy often gets translated to frenetic cleaning and organizing of the house, taking up a new hobby, etc. But this nervously productive energy can run out too soon, or maybe wasn’t even there to start with. You probably saw the memes that I did about not being hard on yourself if the only thing you accomplished during your stay-at-home orders was… staying at home. Our bodies can’t comprehend the meaning of staying and hiding for so long. It’s okay to have just gotten by during the pandemic. It’s good enough.

Side note: I wonder if this was part of the energy behind the racial justice / Black Lives Matter movements this summer. The Freeze response, as I said above, needs to get translated to a fight-or-flight energy in order to reach the positive, social response (if you make it that far). That’s what the marches and protests were! I bet that, aside from people having a lot more time on their hands to be tuned in to social media and ready to get out on the streets, people were desperately needing an outlet for the stored up energy. And they wanted to break out of the numb, dissociative state of freeze response, and were enabled to do so by a cause they wanted to fight for.

Political Climate and the Freeze Response

You all know I am the kind of person who found 2016-2020 very upsetting and disturbing. I find that even now, when I read too much of the news, I still can feel that spinning-out-of-control helpless feeling. (Though I am very happy about the American Rescue Plan just passed!) Things seem so bad, and I don’t know how we will ever find our way out. Why are so many Republicans following a narcissist? Why is our country so sharply divided into two different realities that listen to completely different news sources (if we can call them both “news”…)? Why do people make such terrible choices that I disapprove of? Will things ever be sane again? WHY DO I WORRY ABOUT THIS SO MUCH?

I worry about this so much because it has created a terrible feeling of unsafety! The hardest thing about it is, I believe, the fact that there is so little we can do.

Cue the freeze response. I can’t really do anything to stop the situation. I can’t fix our sensationalized media coverage, I can’t fix social media algorithms, I can’t kick OAN off the air. I can’t prevent Trump from speaking at CPAC and I can’t do anything about Josh Hawley or Ted Cruz or Marjorie Taylor Greene. I can’t raise the minimum wage and I can’t prevent small businesses from shutting down (though I do my best to support a couple of our local ones). Some days I just want to crawl into a hole and emerge in five, ten years… maybe once Gen Z is all of legal voting age?

Ugh. What’s a woman to do??

Well, if I decide that freaking out or feeling hopeless is not actually helping me, I might look for little places of hope. I donate money to causes I believe in, especially causes that actually help people (Together Rising and Embracing Equity are a couple I like but there’s so many good ones out there). I vote and participate in our democracy. I try to stay informed. But when I feel overwhelmed, I try to remember to back off. Sometimes I find I’m doing it to myself – listening to news or podcasts that make me anxious or doomsday-ish, and then I need to remember I have the choice to turn that off. And sometimes, maybe the best thing is to crawl into your hole (or bed) for the evening and wait for the next morning. Sometimes things look different with that new perspective, and I realize the end of the world still hasn’t happened yet and we’re somehow making it, bit by bit.

Remember the freeze response is a survival mechanism (even on the days it feels unhelpful). Even though our brains can try to grasp understandings about vaccines and viruses and social distancing and masks and viral mutations and yada yada, our bodies (nervous systems) won’t necessarily be on board. Hopefully we are coming out of the pandemic woods, even though the political woods seem quite uncertain at this point. Be gentle with yourself. Be patient with yourself. Today was enough, and tomorrow is another chance.

Even though we think we can see the end of the pandemic on the horizon, you might find yourself feeling inexplicably sad, angry, stressed, anxious, or still “frozen.” Trauma anniversaries, as I alluded to at the beginning, are a thing. Even when we are not conscious of them, annual reminders of scary or dangerous events still show up in our nervous system’s memory. One way I’m dealing with this stress is by being discerning with my media intake. I am deliberately avoiding TV shows that feel out of control, scary, or threatening, because this feels too real (buh-bye, Designated Survivor). Instead, I watch stuff where the main characters feel trustworthy, capable, and likable (hello, Madam Secretary). It’s a small comfort but it matters. What patterns and habits can you establish that bring you a sense of safety and security? Can you reach out for help if you need it?

Catch me next week for more information on the freeze response and religious trauma!

Cover image by Girl with red hat on Unsplash

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