Why ‘freezing’ might be undermining you at work and how to thaw this little known stress response

When Laura, a marketing manager in a financial services organisation found herself being challenged in a recent meeting, her response took her by surprise. ‘A colleague was quite aggressive about a report I was delivering, and in the moment, I found myself unable to respond. I just froze,’ she says. The sense of not being able to say the right thing at the right time is an annoying ‘rabbit in the headlights’ response you may recognise—and one that could be undermining you in more significant ways at work.  

Described as ‘fight-or-flight on hold’, ‘freezing’ is the lesser-known third response to threat, also known as ‘reactive immobility’. Like its cousins, freeze starts with an overactive amygdala (the emotional regulator in the brain), which shuts down the neural pathway to your prefrontal cortex (or ‘thinking brain’), in turn stimulating the autonomic nervous system. 

When you’re in ‘freeze’, instead of ‘escaping’ (flight) or deploying aggression (fight) to cope, your protective mechanism is a sense of physical and psychological immobility. For Laura, it manifested in a blank mind: ‘I should have said something simple like “I’ll return to this at the end of the meeting”,’ she remembers. ‘I find conflict difficult to deal with generally, but this was unexpected and it threw me. I couldn’t respond with calm and authority and I felt as if I had undermined my own credibility and embarrassed myself.’ 

According to Dr Ruth Lanius, Director of post-traumatic stress disorder research unit at the University of Western Ontario, there are two main types of freeze. The first, she calls ‘Orienting’, and it’s what happens when you’re first faced with a threat. It’s akin to hearing brakes squeal or a siren, and thinking, ‘Where’s this sound coming from, am I in its path?’ The second is ‘tonic immobility’, which involves specific muscles becoming rigid. It’s effectively an evolutionary adaptation that aids survival by helping an animal blend in with its surroundings to hide from a predator. This bodily tension may be accompanied by trembling or shaking, a feeling of dread or foreboding, limited breathing, a higher-pitched voice or heaviness of limbs. 

’Freeze usually occurs when a threat is present and the person doesn’t feel capable of fighting or running away, so they hold still and hope the threat passes,’ says Dr Rebecca Heiss, stress psychologist and author of Instinct: Rewire your Brain with Science-Backed Solutions to Increase Productivity and Achieve Success. While men may be biologically programme to ‘fight’ their way out of a threatening or conflict situation, women – particularly when ‘flight’ isn’t possible, such as in an intense workplace situation – are more likely to find that their automatic stress response is ‘freeze’. It goes some way to explaining why 27% of women encounter challenges with their speech when attempting to confront difficult issues at work—something they also say has the largest impact on their productivity.

At its base, the freeze response is triggered by a psychological fear, overwhelm and feelings of helplessness, typically conditioned through negative association with a situation or person. Over time that association can build to create a perceived threat, an anticipatory, emotive idea around something that can affect the way you respond when circumstances are similar. At work, freeze could be provoked when encountering disapproval or challenge from a more senior or difficult colleague. Or when being asked to contribute unexpectedly in a meeting, or take on some work that you feel unprepared or unqualified for. Anything that makes you feel stressed and anxious can trigger a perception of a situation as potentially dangerous or threatening. But these responses don’t just happen in extreme cases. The brain’s imperative to ensure your survival, combined with its relative lack of nuance in distinguishing perceived threats (such as email notifications or impending deadlines) from real ones (such as physical danger) can lead to unhelpful stress responses.  

The freeze response may manifest in an inability to think straight at a stressful or high-stakes moment; or it might show up as procrastination, an inability to make a decision or contribute fully in a meeting. PTSD UK also lists symptoms such as feeling ‘numb’, and activities such as hiding out from the world, endless social media scrolling or binge TV watching as potentially representative of a wider ‘freeze’ stress response in life.  

Operating from a position of threat, however it manifests, can have a huge impact on your career. If you view stretch assignments as threats, for example, you are far less likely to raise your hand for opportunities. If you feel unable to speak up confidently around senior leaders, your potential will not be on full display. Likewise, if you don’t express your needs, you can’t adequately establish boundaries—something that will have knock-on effects on your time, energy and confidence. At its most basic level, just being in statis on high alert for threat is an exhausting drain on your energy resources. 

Freeze…and appease 

This particular stress response can also manifest through what is known as ‘freeze and appease’ – saying ‘yes’ to requests too quickly, as a way of dealing with a brain that has become overwhelmed by perceived threat. For women, this is one of the most potent and common manifestations of the freeze effect, with significant repercussions for health, wellbeing and personal equilibrium, as well as confidence and perceived authority. 

The best response when put on the spot with an unwanted demand is to pause and think, or simply to respond with a firm ‘no’. But when faced with the stress of letting someone down and the potential disapproval that goes with it, you might pivot immediately to agreeable. This transgression of your boundaries is often then followed up with appeasement through a smile or bright response. ‘Smiles aren’t just a sign of being friendly; they’re a sign of submission,’ says Heiss. ‘An evolutionary sign of ‘Everything’s fine, I’m not here to threaten, how can I serve?’’ 

Reverting to freeze prolongs the very stress you are trying to avoid: Heiss notes that when you fight or flee, the energy you exert in doing so signals to your body that the threat is over. But when you freeze and appease, you don’t get that relief; rather you can end up – as Laura did in the aftermath of her presentation – tending towards self-blame (‘It’s my fault’ or ‘Why didn’t I say/do X?’) 

Thawing your response 

You often won’t realise you’re freezing until you are actually in the moment, so building some awareness and a toolkit of things that can help free you up is important. One method is to focus on your body sensation through awareness of touch and hearing. This helps to centre and anchor yourself. Try breathing with slow, deep exhalations to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Observe your surroundings carefully, describing things to yourself intently. These are all useful strategies for helping to ‘thaw’ your freeze.  

Staying firmly in the ‘now’ is another way to short-circuit the anticipatory fear that often underpins the freeze response. Let go of ‘future tripping’ – projecting what could happen if a conversation or situation goes one way or another. It’s also important to keep asking yourself: ‘What story am I telling myself in my head?’ Turn your attention outward to become the curious investigator of the other person in the situation, rather than making yourself the focus.  

Crucially, you don’t have to wait until you’re experiencing a freeze to be able to mitigate it. The first step to getting in front of it is to recognise your own unique triggers ahead of time. Perhaps you know that receiving an aggressive email will leave you unable to respond in the calm, clear way you would like? Or that your boss demanding to know exactly what you’ve been doing with your time triggers job security fears that will stop you speaking up about challenges you need support with? Putting some ‘circuit breakers’ in place ahead of time for these personal flashpoints will allow you to self-regulate. Uncoupling trigger from reaction means you can respond rather than react when the stress hormones are firing up.  

In Western culture, stress is viewed largely as a loss of control. In Eastern cultures, stress is perceived as an absence of inner peace. In this sense, the freeze response is an indication that your wellbeing needs to be addressed—rather than a personal failing you approach with self-judgement. This important distinction may just be key to thawing out your freeze, before it even happens.  


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