Are we Stuck in Freeze Mode?What are the options other than freeze?
Fear, anxiety, panic, overwhelm - these feelings may be primitive, but they can override higher and more evolved brain functions instantly and with ease. In fact, that is exactly what they evolved to do. Fear is not a sign of weakness, it’s a highly evolved sense that has enabled human beings to become the dominant species on the planet, by surviving and growing in number. But the noise of modern industrial society has increased faster than we can evolve and, to our nervous systems, danger or threat feels like it lurks behind every corner.
This piece will explain some of the process behind freeze in a simple to understand way, as well as some clever suggestions for how to change this.
It seems that human beings are essentially hardwired for stress and anxiety. From an evolutionary biological perspective people who were too relaxed or laid-back didn’t survive to pass on their genes. A healthy amount of caution or paranoia makes some people more risk-averse and therefore more likely to survive and procreate (1).
So these early humans who survived and are the blueprint for all of us today, had an enhanced level of threat perception which enabled them to survive and thrive in a dangerous world.
Take home point - what we call ‘anxiety’ has its roots in sensory perception and can be a superpower if we use it correctly.
So far so good.
But as we have exchanged wolves and bears for smartphones and algorithms, our primordial threat perception has not kept pace with societal change. And as our threat perception mechanism is unable to distinguish between physical threats and mental stress, our senses perceive we are in constant danger – this is the state of hypervigilance, literally excessive alertness (1).
When our amazing threat perception mechanism feels uneasy, we cannot feel safe. And let’s be clear - FEELING SAFE IS ABSOLUTE GROUND ZERO to be able to be happy or calm. If we don’t feel safe, then short-term survival thinking and behavior becomes the norm, and short term thinking leads to poor quality decisions that are not concerned about future consequences. This is how we can easily get caught in a vicious circle of stress and anxiety. But humans have the ability to think and feel past this survival response.
When our super power of threat perception is activated, the choices tend to be flight, fight or freeze (freak and fawn are sub categories that are sometimes discussed). And in modern life, because the perception of threat is seldom, if ever, matched by an actual physical danger, there is a mismatch that induces a serious uptick in stress levels - we become highly activated, but with nothing to run from, fight against or freeze and play dead / hope it leaves us alone are common defaults.
But fear is a feeling - we feel it in our bodies, we don’t think fear - so how to communicate directly with the threat perception mechanism of the hypervigilant mind, how do we communicate feelings without words?
Well, it turns out we all have an exquisitely evolved built-in sense already - the sense of vibration. Very likely, this was the first sense, before we had eyes or ears, and would have enabled us to communicate with the world around us. Neurologists now feel we probably have over 30 senses, many more than the Aristolean five.
Neuroscientist Seth Horowitz observes: “There are plenty of blind animals; there are plenty of animals with a very limited sense of smell; some animals have very limited touch perception and some a limited sense of taste. But one thing you never find is deaf animals. Sound is simply vibration and is anywhere there is energy and matter, which on our planet is everywhere” (5). The ability to hear is universal and is the only sense that is always on (as composer Tom Middleton put it, “We don’t have ear lids”).
We can hear zero decibels, an air pressure wave that moves the ear drum by only 0.00000001 mm. “There is no such thing as silence” said composer John Cage, his most famous piece, ‘4’33’, consisting of a pianist sitting at a piano (or indeed an entire orchestra) not playing anything for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.
German anatomist Friedrich S Merkle (in 1875) classified structures now called Merkle cells, the first touch cells, saucer shaped cells within the skin. These cells are capable of responding to touch as light as 1/500th of a mm in pressure (6).
There has been a Vagus Nerve in mammals for hundreds of millions of years, and what we can call a human brain for perhaps only around a million years. Therefore, sense of safety and perception of the world around us through vibration data is more deeply hardwired into our systems than any other sense (2).
How to Unfreeze:
Human beings have found ways to make their chest vibrate, hum and resonate for thousands of years, by making sounds including humming, oming, chant and special breathing techniques (3).
It’s reasonable to say that all growth and progress comes from venturing outside of our comfort zone. But you don’t want to leap outside of your comfort zone or you are likely just to feel quickly overwhelmed and need to rush back to safety. Go slowly, and pendulate and titrate, as we say in trauma therapy circles. What this means is to commit to only a small act, to venture just a bit into discomfort. Just far enough to be ‘survivable’ should the worst happen. When you allow yourself a minor discomfort, a small challenge, and you survive it, this increases the radius of your comfort zone and the level of personal safety you are able to feel (4). Consider the image of a fox leaving its burrow - it will poke out just its nose and taste the air for sometime before venturing a bit further and then out.
I will elaborate on the important concept of antifragility in a subsequent post.
Exercise: The Glissando Hum!
This is a great way to activate your chest and all the associated structures inside it, have fun with it and let me know how you get on.
Technically, a glissando is a continuous slide upwards or downwards between two sung notes, but please don’t worry about musical ability! Humming is a fantastically effective and enjoyable way to naturally produce low frequency resonance using the chest, using the sound produced by your vocal chords and amplifying this using the thoracic space, the air in and around your chest and above the diaphragm. Hum a note that feels easy and natural to you, start high or low and hum-slide from this note to the same note one octave/scale up or down (don’t worry too much about the exact notes). Do this a number of times, holding the end note for as long as you can without strain. Do this daily, as often as you like, playing with pulling the hum lower into your chest and lengthening the resonant hum without strain.
- Sensate® Somacoustics: A New Wave for Stress Management. Volume I (internal company document).
- Persinger, M. A. (2013). Infrasound, human health, and adaptation: an integrative overview of recondite hazards in a complex environment. Natural Hazards (Dordrecht), 70(1), 501-525.
- Ariizumi, M., & Okada, A. (1983). Effect of whole body vibration. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, 52(1), 15-19.
- Oroszi, T., Geerts, E., de Boer, S. F., Schoemaker, R. G., van der Zee, E. A., & Nyakas, C. (2021). Whole Body Vibration Improves Spatial Memory, Anxiety-Like Behavior, and Motor Performance in Aged Male and Female Rats. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 13, 801828. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnagi.2021.801828
- The Universal Sense – How Hearing Shapes the Mind. Seth Horowitz, 2021.
- Sentient: What Animals Reveal About Our Senses. Jackie Higgins, 2021.