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By Emma Sloan


It can be difficult to describe anxiety that doesn’t come as a cyclone; anxiety that, rather than heart palpitations and waves of vertigo, instead locks your muscles in place. Slows your breathing. Dries your palms to dust.

For me, my anxiety turns me into a deer in headlights. A situation will shock me into stillness, and, against my will, I’ll feel my teeth clench–feel my breath lodged in my breastbone–until it’s over. Only then will my field of vision fill out again, and I’ll release a lungful of air I hadn’t realised I was holding.

Why? Frustrated with myself, I scoured books and medical journals for answers. Do I have such little self-esteem that I can’t step up and set boundaries in the moment?

The answer, it turned out, lay in stress responses.


The different types of stress responses—and their impact on your anxiety  

The “freeze response” is the third of four bodily reactions to stress–the others being “fight”, “flight”, and “fawn”, respectively.

The freeze response is, according to experts in the field of psychology, more common for those that experience fear in response to certain stressors. This typically stems from childhood: when, as a child, you found yourself unable to confront perceived danger, it instead incites what’s called a “panic response.” Like deer, this panic response can make our bodies go numb or prone in the face of significant stress.

Other common indicators of the freeze response include, but are not limited to:

People who suffer from the freeze response also tend to deal with fawning, which includes people-pleasing behaviours to de-escalate perceived conflict. Those who froze as a response as children may develop a tendency towards disassociation, anxiety, or even panic disorder as a response to triggering events that resemble childhood trauma.


The importance of self-reflection and self-forgiveness 

Giving yourself grace, as I’ve now learned, is the hardest part of working through any stress response–but also the most crucial.

For others who deal with freezing as a response to stress, professionals recommend the following grounding techniques:

According to many experts, physical reengagement of the body is the most effective way to work through a freeze response: stamping one’s feet, crossing arms, tapping one’s own shoulders, or even “shaking off” the feeling can help yourself feel grounded enough to take the reins of your anxiety.

Another popular practice comes from psychologist Judson Brewer, which has been dubbed RAIN:

While handling stress will always be a work in progress for many of us, that doesn’t mean that we have to berate ourselves for how we may have handled things in the past. Every day is a new opportunity to respect–and understand ourselves–more.


Emma Sloan is an essayist, fiction writer, and poet. Her works have been featured in publications such as Alopecia UK, The Huffington Post, Elephant Journal, and Her Umbrella Magazine.

The views expressed by the contributor are not necessarily those of Anxiety UK, nor can we guarantee the accuracy of the information provided. If you would like to write a blog for AUK please email [email protected] for more information.

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