Updated: Dec 15, 2022
One of the tricky bits of being with a client is recognizing when the client is calm, or if they are actually in the freeze response. Both responses appear as stillness and quietness, but the neurological experience is actually very different. Calm comes from a place of self-awareness and connection to the body. You are grounded and in the present moment. The ventral vagal part of the para-sympathetic nervous system is engaged, so you can connect to others.
Freeze is an entirely different experience in the body. Although it looks from the outside that the person is calm because they are still, what is actually happening inside is that they have gone into ‘tonic immobility’, in response to danger signals. These may be danger signals in the present moment, or may be ‘triggers’ from a past trauma. Neurologically, the client has gone from the calm-and-connect ventral vagal, through the sympathetic fight or flight, to the dorsal vagal freeze.
A key word that someone may use is that they feel ‘stuck’. What is important to remember, though, is that underneath that ‘stuck’ feeling are all the sympathetic responses – anxiety, fear, panic, or anger and rage – which are what is actually stuck. And, in order to come out of freeze, we may encounter those emotions in the deactivation of the freeze response.
It is tragic, but true, that people can live their entire lives in a ‘functional freeze’ state. This is usually the result of trauma early in one’s life, when the child couldn’t fight or flee so their body made the very smart choice to shut down. But what is a brilliant strategy in the moment can result in someone living their life unable to feel emotions and really connect with others.
How do we help someone come out of a freeze response? Although this can be a fairly long and nuanced process for someone who has lived in functional freeze, we begin by creating a sense of safety for the person. And, we need to create the possibility of connection to others. Safety and connection are what the body needs to sense in order to begin to ‘thaw’ that stuck feeling.
This is where we begin in sessions with my horses, creating the sense of safety with the horse and the possibility of connection. It always touches me to watch how my horses sense when the client is afraid and how gentle they can then be with that person. As I posted in a recent Instagram post,
I have been learning more about the freeze response from my horse Diva. As I have written about her before, because she had a big trauma at some point prior to me buying her, her tendency is to go straight into a freeze response. Freeze has become her body’s default when something scares her. This showed up again this week when I began a new training piece with her.
You can clearly see her go into the freeze response and how she comes out. The most important thing to note is I take away the dressage whip when she goes into freeze. This creates the safety she needs to reconnect with me. Conventional horsemanship may suggest that, if the horse goes into flight mode, you keep the dressage whip in place until she ‘gives’. This is only inviting freeze (or a fight!). Trauma-informed horsemanship suggests that we bring the horse back to a place of safety and connection before we try again. At least in this video with Diva, that seems to work.
We are building more capacity in her nervous system every time she successfully comes out of the freeze response and reconnects to me. In less than 10 minutes, she figured out that the whip wasn’t scary when it was placed on her body. From this place, I should now be able to incorporate the whip into our training, without causing her alarm. Next step – to teach her to move away from the tap-tap of the whip on her hip or hind leg!