Mental Blocks: The Freeze Response

Let’s talk about the Freeze response!

Often tumblers who are experiencing a block will say I feel stuck or my brain and body just freeze up. What most don’t know is there is an actual freeze response going on. You may have heard of Fight or Flight before right? Well, there is a third F-word Freeze!

The “freeze” response happens when our brain decides we are unable to fight the threat or escape from the threat so we essentially freeze. I like to use the example of certain animals who use this mechanism to survive like Opossums who will play dead to escape prey. Some insects and reptiles may even become completely still or stiff in order to survive. Other animals are known under stress to release a toxin that causes themselves to go into a brief paralysis. We are often told when certain animals like bears are around to stay completely still or even play dead ourselves. This is the “last chance response”.

There is also something called ”Tonic immobility” which is a rigid, unmoving state in response to intense fear. Scientists theorize that the body enters tonic immobility when the body assesses that running or resistance would increase the risk of pain or suffering. Yikes right!?

As I have mentioned in a previous post, sports that involve tumbling, spinning, or twisting in the air are already stressful and unnatural for the brain and body. Then you add pressure, injury, and fear, the brain becomes easily overwhelmed. The brain says you cannot fight this, nor run away from this, so I will shut it all down.

Before we move on let’s take a quick peek at what fight, flight and freeze can look like for athletes.

Fight in athletes can look like:

  • Yelling, screaming, defensiveness.
  • Frustration, aggression, throwing equipment, hitting the floor, wall or self.
  • Storming off or tantrums.
  • Crying, or strong emotions.
  • Increased heart rate and changes in breathing.
  • Sweating, red face, or hot flash feeling
  • Muscle tension, clenched fists, or clenched jaw.

Flight can look like:

  • Wanting to quit or leave competition/practice.
  • Worry, racing thoughts, or avoiding.
  • Fidgeting, looking around, shaky hands or legs.
  • Bailing out, or balking.
  • Stomach issues, or nausea.
  • Pounding heart, tight chest, or breath changes.

Freezing can look like:  

  • The inability to communicate, react or take any action.
  • Unable to recall information/memory trouble.
  • Going blank, pale face, blank stare.
  • Dissociation (disconnecting from thoughts, feelings and or surroundings.
  • Drop in hear rate, and blood pressure.
  • Shallow breathing.
  • Cold feeling, numb or stiffness.
Mens gymnastics and mental blocks

While the feel the freeze response is a big piece to the mental block puzzle I don’t think all blocks enter the freeze territory. What I do know is that in the freeze response our parasympathetic branch plays a dominant role For example, fight and flight happen our of the sympathetic branch and rest and digest happen out of the parasympathetic branch. With that being said each branch has significant shifts in brain functioning and physiological features. When working with blocks I assess for those features to better understand what the athlete is experiencing and give tools accordingly.

I share this information because for so many athletes blocks feel like an invisible force that no one else understands or wants to understand. Yet, it will happen to almost every gymnast or person in an acrobatic sport. We still treat blocks very poorly and the handling of them can do more harm than good. They are very real and there are things we can do other than showing up to practice hoping it goes away.

If you or your athlete are experiencing a block please do not wait to seek help. The faster we can get a hold of it the faster and safer we can get the athlete back in their happy place.

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