By Lisa Meuser.
A question was sent to me:
“I feel I’ve often confused and conflated the two: What is the difference between stillness and frozenness? What is the difference between peace and playing dead?”
I love this question! While there may be a simple response to this question, there’s also a lot going on in this conflation. I’m going to give it a shot, knowing there is so much to say on this deep and rich topic.
Humans need support
All of us have likely experienced a frozen state at some point in our early childhoods. Whenever we experience overwhelm as young beings, going into a frozen state would be a valid, normal physiological experience based on brain chemistry and our inability to process at such an early developmental phase.
Many of us have seen what happens when a bird flies into a window: we think the bird is dead, only to find it “coming back to life” after a quick shake, and then fly off.
When animals experience that frozen state they instinctually know how to “shake themselves” out of that frozen or stunned state. Pretty simple.
It’s a little more complicated for young unresourced human beings. We are the only species that requires loving and attentive care well into our teenage years (and beyond – our brains don’t fully develop until we’re 23) if we are to grow up to be healthy human beings. So while we may have the ability to shake off a frozen state, we also need nurturing, support and safe environments.
If, while growing up, we didn’t have adults around to help us process frozen states, or if we had adults who drove us into those frozen states, we likely never learned how to process frozen states in a healthy, functional way, and so we lost that inherent resource. As such, we adapt, but we stay a little frozen as the brain chemicals that were initially released get pushed down into our system, never fully released out of our systems. Meanwhile, not having our emotional needs taken care of starts to create mayhem for our psyches. After all, humans are coded to want to feel good, comfortable and loved, and it is confusing and often scary for us when we don’t.
Adapting to dysfunction, the new norm
When we live in environments where there is unpredictability or chaos (which may show through manifestations of parental conflict or negligence, emotional or physical) we adapt by staying partially frozen, vigilant, and/or on guard, even when things are “fine,” because we intuitively know “it’s just a matter of time” until chaos re-occurs. After a while we get used to being in this state – it becomes our new normal, and we get used to disconnecting, and/or numbing out as a way to cope.
If we are living in challenging, chaotic situations or circumstances with a lot of conflict and/or highs and lows (fight or flight energy), we may even like numbing out and find comfort with it, particularly when compared to the alternative. It may even start to mimic a sense of stillness, peace, or calmness when compared to the overwhelm of fight or flight.
Said another way, in this state of disconnection we’ve partially shut down, which can feel like relief from the alternative highs and lows of mania or dismay, or the chemical response of fight or flight energy. It makes sense that we might prefer to feel nothing, than discomfort, pain, or terror.
This state may become our refuge, our safest place, our new norm. It no longer feels like a frozen state because by this point we’ve learned quite well to disconnect from our bodies, and live in our minds. We escape, using our minds, into a world of daydreaming, fantasy, reading, thinking, or some kind of social or entertainment media source. We may also use food, drugs, or other coping activities such as porn as a way to escape. Sometimes we turn to meditation practices that teach us how to go “up and out” of our bodies.
It’s all a perfect escape from the highs and the lows, as well as the frozen underpinnings in our system, and a way we can feel some control in an environment that is very much out of our control. Keep in mind, we’re coded to want to feel good, and we’ll do whatever it takes to experience this.
As if out of a deep slumber
What I’m describing is not something rare. In my experience, most human beings are functioning or have functioned in this way in overt or covert ways. Even if we lived in somewhat healthy households, our culture expects and pushes people towards numbing out, and caters to people who are in various states of disconnect. Generally speaking we are a species that is starving for connection, living in a culture that by its very nature functions through disconnection. It’s no wonder that we often feel like hamsters on a hamster wheel.
Many will live their lives continuing to adapt to this numbed out state. But for others, a sense of internal oppression grows in such a way that the numbness itself becomes confronting. This may happen when one is quite young, or much later in life.
Thoughts such as: “Something seems to be missing,” “There’s got to be more than this,” “It feels like I’m suffocating,” and others, may start to weigh in, while at the same time a sense of restlessness and dissatisfaction with life may arise, perhaps accompanied by feelings of emptiness, or hopelessness. We may start to realize that we’re dumbed down, or numbed out, and all of a sudden life may start to feel really shitty. It’s as if that numbed out state stops being “ok” and instead it becomes distressing. Feelings of depression or anxiety may begin, get worse, or become unmanageable. We may try (more) things to increase our highs to overcome this state of dis-ease. “Drugs, sex and rock and roll” may be a few favorites, although all sorts of behaviors to boost pleasure brain chemistry might be experimented with to help us feel better.
We’re not designed to be perpetually frozen
Humans are designed to cope with stress, but we are not designed to have a constant input of stress. After a while, our bodies – having been reservoirs for repressed energies and experiences – can’t keep at it.
We want to feel good, comfortable, and loved. We can only endure the lack of these things for so long, and we can only sustain dysfunctional modes of trying to achieve this for so long. Our systems eventually start to crumble – psychologically, emotionally, physically, and/or spiritually.
People are often in this predicament when they reach out to me. Together, we gently, and slowly connect to what’s going on, and in the process people start to become more familiar and safe with their bodies.
Peace and stillness, not what you think it is
As one starts to come into their body, they often experience what I call a “melting” phase. The body starts to “come alive”, as the frozenness starts to melt. It may sound great, and sometimes it is! And sometimes it’s uncomfortable or even a little painful.
Think of a time when your hands or feet were so cold that when you put them in hot water they burned. When the body starts to defrost it can feel a little like that. The heart, for example, may start to burn as it opens, as it melts. My “therapist self” thinks of this as a good sign, but when it was happening to me I had a very different perspective! As with most of the healing process, it is useful to go slowly and gently, with accessibility to loving support.
When the discomfort and pain start to become safely familiar, another challenge can be a sense of boredom. Again, I think of this as good news, as it’s another step on the journey. But when it was happening to me the boredom felt like I was doing it wrong, or it would usher in restlessness or agitation that was really uncomfortable, and felt counterintuitive to what I thought I should be experiencing.
When we’re used to highs and lows, and/or when we’re used to being numb, being with what’s here feels so unfamiliar that the personality or ego mind can get rattled.
The personality or ego mind often does not like unfamiliar, newness, or ‘different’- so this process can be very counterintuitive, and we will talk ourselves out of it any chance we get.
It was important for me to learn how to gently, patiently and compassionately explore the restlessness and boredom, rather than act out because of the restlessness and boredom. Again, this is why it can be useful to have guidance, so that the mind does not sabotage the evolution that is taking place.
As we “hang in there”, we may be faced with a variety of challenges based on the concepts we have about what is supposed to happen when we “wake up” or experience healing. Personally, I was so used to highs and lows that I often had concepts and expectations of “big bang” moments, or “abiding peace”.
I limited myself immensely by holding onto grandiose and false ideas. I even drove away expressions of stillness and peace as I held onto ideas of what I should be experiencing. It was important for me to slowly and gently wade through the various ideas and expectations, supposed to’s, and shoulds as I connected with the thoughts I was having and the sensations I was experiencing. As those concepts shifted, so did my allowance and experiences of stillness and peace.
Getting to know ourselves
There often comes a time in the healing and waking up journey where, as self-awareness grows, we begin to have the ability to consciously interact with our brain chemistry. For me this was a huge movement into self-empowerment, and radically shifted my relationship with life itself. Prior to this I often felt swept away by states of being – particularly fear states. Learning about my brain chemistry was a big part in shifting out of powerlessness and into resourced agency.
We all respond to strong emotions differently as adults but the initial response originates in the amygdala. Some of us freeze, some people go into fight, some go into flee, and some go into feign/fawn. Regardless, that amygdala response causes the prefrontal cortex to be impacted in such a way that it temporarily stops functioning at full capacity. Long story short, this means that when we’re in a fear state, for example, we’re not thinking clearly. This is why, when in fight, flight, freeze or feign, we don’t make “good” decisions. This often leads us to do things we later regret. The sooner we detect that we are in an “amygdala response”, the faster we can “re-set” our brains and resume full functionality.
We each have different strategies that come with different physiological responses, and it is helpful to notice how we individually react. As I was speaking about this with a couple last week we discovered that he went into fight mode. He was able to identify that he feels heat through his body as this is happening. She was able to identify that she goes into freeze, which is accompanied by a sense of “getting small.” It can be a powerful step in being able to identify our signature physiological responses. Now he knows that when he gets hot, to pause. Now she knows when she starts to feel small, to pause. They are learning to communicate with each other when they notice physiological stress or amygdala responses happening. This allows them to avoid harmful behaviors and support each other.
As they identify that need to “pause,” they can turn towards activities that will help their brains to re-set so their prefrontal cortexes can come back on line. We spoke about different things each person could do to help this re-set take place. Sue, for example, finds it useful to connect to slow, gentle breathing, while Mark finds it useful to get a breath of fresh air, or walk around in his yard.
Pausing is a vital step in changing patterning, and it becomes possible to make this choice as we become intimate and familiar with ourselves. This increased awareness provides fertile ground for experiencing deeper expressions of stillness and peace.
Including our bodies, slowly and safely, with conscious attention
This understanding our physiology/ brain chemistry is particularly relevant as we start to “melt.” Prior, we’d been disconnected from our bodies in such a way that we weren’t aware of a lot of the feelings or sensations throughout our body. After the “melting” starts, we start to feel more, sometimes for the first time in our lives. This can be uncomfortable, not because anything bad is happening, but because something new is happening, and we humans don’t always like new.
There’s reasons why many of us disconnected from our bodies, so it can take time for us to learn that it’s safe for us to include them now. Until we experience that safety, we may feel overwhelmed when we feel our bodies. It may remind us, subconsciously, of how we felt when we were very young and didn’t have the emotional support we needed to process big sensations and feelings.
The difference is that now we’re in adult bodies, in our safe homes, with far more resources and agency than we had as children. Part of this resourcing can come through learning about our brain chemistry, and in discovering how we can help ourselves when we are experiencing certain kinds of brain chemistry – mainly overwhelm, fear, or anger.
Getting to know stillness and peace through neutrality
An intricate part of my journey has been making friends with neutrality. Because I’ve been drawn to highs and lows, and because I have had so many false ideas about waking up and healing, I had to learn how to make friends with what I call neutrality – the space in between “good” and “bad.”
This has been profound for many of my clients as well. One shared:
“First I thought neutrality was nothing, and the place where I felt the trigger (in my body) was everything. And now I see the neutrality as something full, and “strong.”
I will be writing more about this topic in the future as it has been revelatory in my journey.
We can learn to experience sustainable peace
A lot is covered in this post. Here is a summary:
- Frozenness and playing dead are trauma responses.
- Our culture often plays into these trauma responses, in ways that further limit our well-being, by pushing us to feel good by numbing.
- Safely exploring trauma responses with support can help us to sustainably include our bodily experiences and expressions, instead of having to constantly disconnect and numb.
- Learning about our patterning and developing the awareness to slow down leads us to being able to make empowering choices.
- Peace and stillness can be experienced in increasing amounts as intimacy with self is practiced, as we learn that our bodies are safe to be with.
- True stillness and peace do not come from exclusion, shutting down, or escaping, but from allowance and inclusion.
- As the embodied journey deepens, stillness and peace can be known with increased sustainability.
In my journey, growing intimacy with self has allowed me to know support and love in such a way that stillness and peace are deeply and sustainably known in a way I could have never imagined.
There’s much left to be said as trauma, the psyche, and our culture weave an intricate web. I hope what I’ve shared will be helpful in a practical yet profound way on your journey of waking up and healing trauma. I would be honored to hear about your journey as you explore.
To read more about Lisa Meuser, click here.
 Frozen is one of the 4 stress “F responses”; Fight, Flight, Freeze, and the lesser known Faint/Fawn; that are normal parts of our physiology under certain circumstances. Unfortunately, they often become part of our everyday life due to less than ideal environmental circumstances.
 Over time, we may find that we find more familiarity and comfort in extreme highs and extreme lows, and angst comes in when we are experiencing a state of peace or stillness (or their mimicked frozenness). I’ll write more on this shortly.