The “freeze” fear response in religious trauma

As promised, today we are talking about how the freeze trauma response can show up in religious trauma. If you missed the previous posts, you can learn about the fawn trauma response here and the freeze response as it relates to the pandemic and politics here.

The summarized version of the freeze response is that it is a way of coping with frightening or dangerous situations by “freezing” (like an animal collapsing or playing dead) which in our modern day often looks like dissociation, numbness, feeling spaced out or checked out, and general detachment from life. Ready? Read on!

Freeze Response and Religious Trauma

The freeze response may occur in a religious context when people feel stuck or trapped in a harmful situation and they don’t see viable options before them to get out or find safety. This could be anything from sexual, narcissistic, financial, or emotional abuse being perpetrated on church members, to simple faith deconstruction like questioning whether hell is real in a system where this is prohibited.

The common thread is that believers are part of a demanding, high-control system that insists on all the pieces locking into place in order to form a coherent worldview. This controlling system is carefully crafted: Pastors and parents must always be trusted and viewed as good; the church must be seen as infallible (i.e. always correct) in its teachings (this is disguised by churches saying the Bible is infallible but in reality, they believe their interpretation of the Bible is infallible); questioning the system is prohibited.

If the available options in such a system are presented as a dichotomy of either 1) stay and ignore your gut instincts and your questions, or 2) leave and upend your entire belief system and possibly lose your salvation, well, it’s no wonder many of us have found ourselves in freeze responses.

For many of us, our beliefs were changing to the point where we knew we no longer fit into the church communities we were part of – and often those communities were actually unsafe, whether due to abuse or because they rejected vital aspects of ourselves. But we feel stuck. Frozen.

Other responses to dangerous situations felt unavailable: We were too afraid to flee – this faith was all we knew! – and we often knew better than to ‘fight,’ or talk/debate with people about our changing beliefs. Evangelicals are well-known for coming around doubting family and friends in a caring-and-concerned way to try and convince us of the things *we once knew* and bring us back into the fold. They often seem to think it was lack of study and devotion, when oftentimes it was the exact opposite – it’s just we came to conclusions that weren’t allowed.

So instead, we often hide what we’re thinking and believing and drag ourselves to church anyway, going through the motions until we figure out something to do. I don’t know what this was like for you, but Sunday afternoons after mornings like that, I was exhausted. Emotionally spent, grumpy, distressed, wanting to just check out, and the general “yucky” feeling. Hmm… reminds me a bit of a mild freeze response.

Then when I got to the point of often not going to church at all, I remember numerous Sunday mornings of literally feeling frozen as I left my apartment technically in time to drive to church, wondering if I would walk to my car or walk to the coffee shop next door to try and journal. I’d have the sensation of splitting inside: do I force myself to go? Or can I run back indoors, hide under the covers, and wait for the hour to pass? All this distress about a simple choice of what to do on Sunday mornings! Trauma shows up in weird ways – but I’m sure many of you have stories like this too.

Of course, this is all the more challenging when you are still in a situation where it’s not so easy to “hide.” Perhaps you still live with family who expect the same church involvement and beliefs you always had. Perhaps you are deeply involved in your church community, whether as a layperson, or on worship team, or Sunday school teacher. You might even be the pastor. All of these things make it extraordinarily difficult to extricate yourself from a situation you know you no longer belong in.

The freeze response would absolutely make sense in a situation like this. But where do we go from here?

Approaching Healing

I spent a long time with what felt like a shutdown spiritual life, mired in guilt for not doing my old church habits and unsure what new life-encouraging ones felt available to me. (Ok, so perhaps that sentence shouldn’t only be in past tense). How can we heal?

  • First: recognize how you feel and allow yourself to be there. So you’re feeling stuck, frozen, shut down, checked out, numb. Especially if you’re still in a triggering or re-traumatizing environment (e.g. a church/home where you know you don’t fit anymore but haven’t been able to leave yet): be gentle with yourself. You will find a way out. You will be happy and safe, eventually. Being upset about your instinctual responses won’t actually help you, but being kind to yourself will.
  • Next: Physical ways of releasing energy to move through the freeze state can work wonders. You might feel silly, but try dancing, wiggling, shaking out your arms and legs, or other ways of getting energy to move through your body again. You might also try grounding exercises. Maybe yoga, stretching, some focused breathing, a walk outside. You could try a meditation app like Calm. Notice how feelings come and go. Even numbness will come and go (detachment often bothers my clients more than sadness, but all of it is temporary). The only constant is change, right?
  • Finally: Find little places of hope. What are the things, small as they might seem, that are life-giving to you? A deconstruction community on Instagram? Might you browse communities of faith, or communities of non-faith, online? Can you share your heart with a trusted friend, even across distance? What if you thought of each day as an experiment, instead of be-all end-all decisions about where your future is going? This might grant you some freedom to explore the things you need to explore. Maybe today you will try something new – or maybe today you will tend to yourself gently, quietly – which also might be trying something new.

I’m reading a soon-to-be-released book by Gareth Higgins called “How Not To Be Afraid” and he talks about choosing a different response to scary situations other than our typical flight, fight, freeze responses. He talks about creating a new story, a new narrative, in a new, supportive community. I love this idea! Before we can do that, we have to believe it is possible. Many people who are deconstructing faith are afraid there is nothing life-giving or hopeful on the other side. It’s not true. Deconstructing my childhood faith was one of the most life-giving, shame-releasing, freeing things I had ever done.

Of course, as a therapist myself, I also highly recommend seeking out some professional help if you are struggling, or if you just want support. It can feel especially challenging for people who have experienced religious trauma or whose deconstruction is a big part of their story to find a good therapist fit. Finding someone who understands and works well with trauma is key, but if you can find someone who also understands controlling faith systems or faith deconstruction, this can really help provide a feeling of being understood. Don’t be shy about interviewing your therapist to see if you guys are a good match. You are important and you deserve to be understood. Plus, now that Telehealth has been normalized thanks to Covid, many of us are able to provide services to anyone in the state(s) we are licensed in, so you may have more choices than you used to!

Hang in there. You’ve got this. Don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you want to, as well!

Cover photo by Mike Kotsch on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “The “freeze” fear response in religious trauma

  1. Oh my. I see myself here. Four years ago. The frozen part. The retraumatizing part caused by staying until I knew what to do and gave myself permission to do it. The expectations of family. Whew! I’ve come a long way in those four years. Grateful.


    1. I’m glad that you made it through to the other side and gave yourself permission to do what you knew you needed to! And I think it can be helpful to reflect back and realize what we’ve been through on our journey and put some words to it. Best wishes!


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