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What You Know About Your Body’s Response To Danger Is Probably Wrong

Here’s the full story of what happens to your body in the face of peril.
by Carrie M. King | May 31 2018

You already know how your body reacts in the face of danger, right? Your body floods with adrenaline and gets you ready to either fight off the threat or to run for your life. Well, while “fight or flight” isn’t wrong, it’s also not the whole story.

You need to add another f-word: freeze.


Think about it. Sometimes fighting or fleeing simply won’t save you. Sometimes, your body’s only means of protecting itself is to freeze stock-still. We’re aware of this reaction within the animal world, but for some reason, less likely to see it as valid for humans.

Emily Nagoski, author of the bestselling Come As You Are, a scientific analysis of factors that affect women’s sexual experience — and a blisteringly good read — recently told Caitlin Schiller the following during an interview on Simplify:

“…[Freeze is what] people experience — especially under life-threatening circumstances — when you feel trapped, that you have no way out. You’re not fast enough to run, you’re not big enough and strong enough to fight. Women tend to experience it under a lot of circumstances, but especially [during] sexual assault.”

Publicizing the freeze response could be a game-changer for how we view survivors of sexual assault, and how they deal with their own conflicting emotions in the wake of that trauma. As Nagoski put it, “If we all knew that freeze is a normal, healthy biological stress response, then nobody would ever wonder, “Well, why didn’t you fight? Why didn’t you kick? Why didn’t you punch? Why didn’t you run?” It’s because freeze kicked in. Because your brain was totally sure that your best hope of surviving this life-threatening situation was to shut down, play dead and wait either for it to end, or for somebody to come and rescue you.”

While that thought is horrifically sad, it’s also reassuring for many women who have bodies that freeze when they’re under threat. Annoyingly, it’s my go-to response in moments of peril. You know in the movies when a woman petrifies in the path of an oncoming truck? Yeah, that’s me. My partner calls this reaction “The Possum.”

Luckily, I’ve never been in a situation where my freeze response has been called into question. But many people have. And many people have been subjected to character assassinations and severe mental anguish because society is ill-informed about healthy stress responses.

We inhabit a world that is coded for a particular type of man, and as such, it means that women’s typical reactions, and those of men who don’t fit the standard mold, are often cast as inferior. If Nagoski’s book is here to reassure you of anything, it’s that there’s nothing inferior about you.

Men are normal. Women are normal. Non-binary people are normal. And your normality may not look like your friend’s normality, but that doesn’t make it any less valid or beautiful or true.

To find out more about your body’s natural reactions, I’d highly recommend getting your mitts on Come As You Are. It not only delves into problems women face regarding their sexual response, but also into the completely normal chemical, physical, and emotional reactions that happen inside our skins as we muddle through this planet we ended up on.

And next time you possum in the face of danger, don’t feel bad about it. Understand that your body is trying to save your life.

You can listen to Nagoski’s full Simplify interview here.

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