You are curled up in bed, about to fall asleep, when suddenly, you hear a thud coming from the darkness of the hall. It could just be your precocious cat, or your roommate stumbling to the washroom. But after an evening of watching Halloween horror films, you find yourself paralyzed with terror.
Your heart feels as though it is about to explode. Your throat is too dry to eke out a scream. Your thoughts race through worst-case scenarios. If there really is a homicidal, chainsaw-wielding maniac prowling through your home, the logical response would probably be to either make a break for the window or reach for your baseball bat. But you … Simply. Cannot. Move.
Most of us are familiar with the fight-or-flight response to threats, in which the body revs itself up to either run away or take action. But whether prompted by a bump in the night, a cupboard full of spiders or a sudden case of stage fright, fear can trigger a bizarre, alternative response: freezing up.
“It is called a fight-or-flee response, but freezing is part of that too,” says Sheila Woody, associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia. “It’s not a multiple choice of two items, fighting or fleeing. It really has three items: fight, flee or freeze.”
Freezing is perhaps not as well understood because it tends to be less common, Woody says. At first glance, it may also seem a poor mechanism for survival. If you were being chased by a bear, the last thing you would want to do is stop in your tracks and let the beast ravage you.
Yet freezing – quite literally, like a deer caught in headlights – is a natural response in animals. Many species are believed to do this instinctively to avoid provoking their predators, which probably explains why humans do it too. Consider how several survivors of the 2011 Norway massacre played dead, remaining absolutely still to avoid gunman Anders Breivik. According to most accounts, those who feigned death during that attack did so as a conscious decision, rather than by impulse.
But the body is a weird thing. It is tough to predict how it will respond in a panic situation, and freezing can occur at the most inopportune times.
Toronto “courage coach” Billy Anderson, founder of Made You Think Coaching, says he has had clients freeze up at work when they were challenged by intimidating co-workers or bosses. Once, while leading a high ropes course, which involves climbing a suspended obstacle course, he witnessed a client suddenly become glued to the spot and start trembling uncontrollably after reaching less than a metre off the ground. And even Anderson himself, a thrill-seeker who has skydived 100 times, admits he once succumbed to paralyzing fear when a bull charged at him during the Running of the Bulls in Spain. It was not the best reaction. “He ran into me at full speed and sent me flying,” Anderson says.
The thing about fear is that it does not involve an elaborate thinking process. The amygdala, the part of the brain that initiates the fear response, reacts automatically; there is no time to think through the most appropriate reaction to a threat, nor even to decipher whether the situation actually warrants panic.
“It’s a very fast response, which is designed to keep us alive,” Woody explains. “If you’re going to err, you might as well err on interpreting the threat as something that’s real and responding to it and then think about it later.”
How to deal with paralyzing fear
You’re frozen with fear. Now what? We asked experts for their advice:
Prepare with practice. The best way to deal with paralyzing fear is to take preparatory measures, says psychiatrist Jacques Bradwejn, dean of the faculty of medicine at the University of Ottawa. The more you practise at keeping a clear mind, the less likely your anxieties will overwhelm you, he says. After all, it is not for nothing that firefighters, pilots, police officers and other high-stress professionals run through simulations to practise keeping calm and to exercise the appropriate reflexes. Meditation also helps people maintain equanimity.
Don’t avoid the things that make you afraid. Fear breeds more fear, whereas gradual exposure to your phobias desensitizes you to them over time. “Here is the paradox: If you don’t practise, then once you’re in the situation, it’s too late,” Bradwejn says.
Count to 10 – or rather, 10 minutes. If you do find yourself in full-blown freak-out mode, know that paralyzing fear quickly subsides on its own, lasting only about two to 10 minutes, says psychology professor Sheila Woody. It may leave you feeling shaky for some time afterward, “but the screaming panic part is quite short.” After the panic crests, it may be possible to access the rational part of the brain again.
Think objectively. Courage coach Billy Anderson advises people to identify and assess what it is they are actually afraid of. Usually, in cases of performance anxiety, fear of heights or other more benign threats, people will come to realize they are not in any real imminent danger. Rather, he explains, “a fear is an assumption about something that might happen.”
Consider the positive side. To gather the pluck to push forward, Anderson suggests considering the possible opportunities of facing your fears, whether it is a chance to prove yourself or to test how courageous you are. “Courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s [when] you feel it and you go ahead anyway,” Anderson says. “Courage can’t exist without fear.”