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When the Rabbit-in-the-Headlights is you

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

Disassociation, freeze and 'stuck-ness'

You know that feeling. There's something you need to respond to - a decision, that smiling date, your boss - and you just freeze. Paralysed, you can't breathe, you can't speak or even think. Your mind has gone blank. It's like you've been possessed or the pause button has been hit and in that moment there's simply nothing you can do about it. It can really rock the self-confidence as we inwardly cry "what just happened?" or worse, "what if it happens again?"

This frustrating, involuntary response has its roots in our evolution. Picture a predator, it is close by. You quickly assess and decide that this threat is too close to run away from and too big for you to fight. Your only choice is to become very still and hope that this predator won't notice you. You hold your breath, attempting to blend in to the scenery and wait for it to pass by.

This is the freeze response and it's triggered by a part of your brain called the amygdala (ah-MIG-da-la). Named for its almond shape, there is one on the left side of the brain and one on the right. These cute, matching-pair grey-matters are a part of the brain's emotional processing system. The amygdala assesses information from the senses and helps to create memories based upon strong negative and positive emotions. It specialises in processing fearful emotions and threat detection.

When the amygdala perceives a threat it triggers a response and 'hijacks' the higher regions of the brain where we do our logical, ration thinking. It takes over the body's functions, stimulating the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, elevating the heart rate and dilating the pupils. The skin becomes cold, sweaty or pale and the breath is held or restricted.

It is at this point that the amygdala decides which response to choose to best deal with the situation at hand. If the amygdala assesses that we can take on the threat, it goes in to the fight response; picture the puffed out chest, heavy breathing, standing tall. Or if it assesses that we can make a get-away, it chooses the flight response. If you watch someone in flight mode, you'll likely see them physically up like a meercat, looking for the exits. If fight or flight are not an option because the threat is too big, too close or too overwhelming, then freeze kicks in.

In addition to the stress hormones already flooding the system, endogenous opioids - a sort of ‘homemade heroin’ - enters the system. The endogenous opioids create a protective numbing of the body and mind in the face of what is perceived to be inevitable harm. Becoming immobile helps to prevents further injury and allows the body the best chance to survive and recover. You might describe a person in freeze as having a 'thousand-yard stare', or being a bit vacant or confused.

Once the external threat has resolved, our system quickly re-sets.

Only sometimes it doesn't.

Some people stay in this state of hyper-arousal for extended periods, most often due to trauma or chronic stress.

A nervous system operating on extended high alert cannot give the immune, digestive or reproductive systems the adequate time and attention they require for optimal function. This leads to a multitude of issues including bloating, frequent colds & flu, irritable bowel, food sensitivities, infertility, PMS, reproductive disorders, insomnia, cognitive issues and poor stress tolerance. These symptoms have a flow on effect and impact our work performance, personal relationships and further still our communities. People who are sick and stressed simply don't have the resources to support themselves and others to thrive.

In clinic I am able to provide great relief by identifying and treating those suffering with chronic and acute amygdala freeze response. It is a deeply uncomfortable state to exist in for any length of time. A moment of 'a-ha' recognition lights up when I ask "are you feeling stuck or paralysed, like you're 'a rabbit-in-the-headlights' and frozen, do you feel disassociated?" to a client showing amygdala freeze activation.

With kinesiology techniques I have the ability to isolate the exact trigger and find the ideal technique to reset the amygdala. Over the years I've supported many people to recognise and to address their personal freeze triggers. It is a privilege to witness people come back to themselves, back to the present and to logical thought. It is like they've walked out of a fog and they can begin to actively respond to life again. When the amygdala is deactivated, our values guide our decisions, problem-solving is available and the imagination can be activated to begin to consider new possibilities. It is here that true growth begins.

If this post resonates with you and you'd like to explore whether amygdala freeze is an issue for you can arrange an online or face-to-face kinesiology consultation here.

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