& Body - Flight/Fight/Freeze
Vol. 6, No. 8
by John F. Barnes, P.T.
am sure that you have heard of or experienced the flight or fight response, but
have you ever heard of the freeze response?
For years, I have taught that one of the many benefits of Myofascial Release and
Myofascial Unwinding is the release of the holding or bracing patterns of the
mind/body complex. It seems that during times of trauma the subconscious
develops a protective pattern that becomes locked into the mind/body complex
like a "frozen moment in time."
I believe that it is these "holding patterns" that have frustrated
therapists using traditional therapy in their efforts to help their patients
have a speedy and complete resolution of their problems.
In his informative book "Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma," Peter
Levine, Ph.D., develops an intriguing model that may explain the effectiveness
of Myofascial Release.
The behaviours of fleeing, fighting, and freezing are so primitive that they are
thought to predate the reptilian brain. These survival tools are found in all
species from spiders and cockroaches to primates and human beings. When neither
flight nor fight will ensure the animals safety, there is another line of
defence; immobility (freezing), which is just as universal and basic to
survival. No animal, not even the human, has conscious control over whether or
not it freezes in response to threat.* When an animal or human is traumatized,
it will enter the freeze response as a survival strategy. This state of
immobility is beyond conscious control and becomes a vicious cycle maintaining
physiological high levels of activity of both the parasympathetic and
sympathetic nervous systems.
In humans, trauma occurs as a result of the initiation of the instinctual cycle
that is rarely allowed to finish.
The duration of the immobility (freezing) response is normally time-limited;
animals go in and they come out. If the animal is not killed and when threat is
over, the animal then discharges an enormous amount of energy in the form of
shaking, profuse sweating and deep breathing. It then returns to a state of calm
alertness. The human freezing response does not easily resolve itself because
the supercharged energy locked in the nervous system is imprisoned by the
emotions of fear and trauma. The result is that a vicious cycle of fear and
immobility takes over, preventing the response from completing naturally. When
not allowed to complete, these responses form the symptoms of trauma.*
Myofascial Release allows for a completion of this instinctive cycle in a safe,
natural and effective manner. Working in reverse, Myofascial Release and
Myofascial Unwinding start with present day restrictions and compensations. The
release of fascial restrictions alters the habitual muscular "holding
patterns." With Myofascial Unwinding, the therapist eliminates gravity from
the system. This unloading of the structure allows the body's righting reflexes
and protective responses to temporarily suspend their influence. The body,
guided by the therapist, can move into positions of past trauma, which allow for
a release of the instinctual "freeze" response in a safe, gentle and
As this occurs, Myofascial Release techniques are utilized to eliminate
structural compensations for a resolution of the patient's long-standing
The goal of Myofascial Release is to return the patient to a pain free, active
Levine, Peter, Waking the tiger Healing Trauma, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley,
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