The Stress Response That's Putting Women Last

This evolutionary throwback is called "freeze and appease" — and it isn't doing your health or relationships any favors.

The Stress Response Women Need to Stop Ignoring
Photo: Anna Berkut/Stocksy

When you're overworked, perma-exhausted, and on the verge of smelling like a gym bag, you know it's time to hit the brakes and find that center thing yogis are always talking about. But then someone asks you for a favor — a co-worker needs help hitting a deadline or a friend with marketing her side hustle.

Your gut tells you it's a hard no, your brain nods in agreement, yet your mouth overrides them both and tells the person, "No worries! I'm on it!" Cue Anderson Cooper eye roll.

As soon as you say yes, your insides start churning. You ruminate about all the ways this will derail your own to-do list and start to feel resentful. But the thought of bailing makes you feel guilty, so you slog your way through the thing anyway as plans for your own things crumble around you.

Once you're finally back to your regularly scheduled programming, you vow to never put yourself through something like that again by setting those boundaries therapists are always talking about.

Then your phone blows up (this time, your sister having a crisis or your boss pulling you into a last-minute project) and as you grind out another thing that's not your own, your gut taps a few times and asks, "Is this thing on?"

The stress response women need to stop ignoring

The cavernous discrepancy between how you want to respond to that request versus your knee-jerk reaction to do it anyway has close ties to an often-overlooked stress response known as "freeze and appease."

"In the stress community, this response is referred to as tonic immobility (TI)," says Rebecca Heiss, Ph.D., a stress physiologist and author of Instinct: Rewire Your Brain with Science-Backed Solutions to Increase Productivity and Achieve Success. "It usually occurs when a threat is present and the person doesn't feel capable of fighting or running away, so they hold very still and hope the threat passes." (Think: deer in headlights.)

Freeze responses don't just happen in extreme cases. The brain is lousy at sorting perceived threats (pinging emails) from real ones (assault), and since the brain is designed to do what's necessary to ensure survival, this can sometimes translate to less-than-productive behaviors in the modern world.

Back to your sister's crisis: Even if you don't have the bandwidth to help in that moment, your brain might become overwhelmed by the perceived threat — the pain of saying no and letting her down — and peer pressure you into being agreeable rather than pushing back or saying no when there's a discrepancy (freeze).

This is typically followed up with a smile or super-perky response (appease). "Smiles aren't just a sign of being friendly — they're a sign of submission," says Heiss. "A literal evolutionary sign of 'everything's fine, I'm not here to threaten, how can I serve?'"

To top it off, young girls are socialized to respond to others in a courteous way (despite what's being said) or risk being labeled difficult. The result? They evolve into women who not only prioritize other people's comfort and emotions over their own, but minimize and suppress their experience to appease others.

How it can impact your health and relationships

Combine pandemic-fueled stress and chaos with a woman's tendency to validate the feelings of others over her own, and the freeze and appease response becoming an autopilot reaction isn't exactly surprising.

"The pandemic has put a lot of us over the top," says Heiss. "Things that we took for granted before, like grocery shopping or dropping the kids off at school, are now suddenly full-blown moral dilemmas." And with the majority of homeschooling and childcare falling on women, many have been pushed to the brink and beyond trying to juggle home and career at intensified levels.

The not-so-subtle intrusions of working from home don't help: Endless pings, dings, and buzzes from your devices keep your body on high-alert, which makes it harder for your brain to tell the difference between urgent requests from your team and inconsequential ones. "Most women are experiencing decision fatigue and are unable to respond to favors and requests in a way that aligns with their desires or needs," says Leela Magavi, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry in California. "In an attempt to avoid confrontation or added stress, they agree and oblige, only to regret their decisions later."

Once your insides start churning and feelings of resentment kick in, the perpetual flood of stress hormones that follows can, over time, lead to such gems as high blood pressure, anxiety and depression, decreased mental capacity (cortisol actually lowers IQ, says Heiss), and a compromised immune system.

Finishing whatever it is we agreed to doesn't mean the stress response will taper off either: When we fight or flee, we exert energy and efforts that signal to our body the threat has ended, Heiss explains. We fought and won or fled and survived. When we freeze and appease, however, we don't get that relief. We instead bury the feelings that arise after-the-fact as self-blame ("It's my own fault for...") and self-defeating stories ("Why didn't I...?").

Rebecca Heiss, Ph.D., stress physiologist

"If we don't address these behaviors, the festering of stress is contagious (like laughter through mirror neurons) and all of our relationships suffer and are negatively reinforced by one another."

— Rebecca Heiss, Ph.D., stress physiologist

"If we don't address these behaviors, the festering of stress is contagious (like laughter through mirror neurons) and all of our relationships suffer and are negatively reinforced by one another," says Heiss.

This can be especially true in our romantic relationships. When you're doing the superhero thing (taking on extra work to impress your new boss, homeschooling it up with the kids and making sure everybody's fed, running errands for your parents and acting as their tech support) and your partner's, well, not, you might feel shortchanged, like your values aren't being reciprocated, and project your exhaustion onto them.

Not only can the misdirected resentment and anger cause a major rift between you and your partner, but it also won't solve the real problem: your penchant for ghosting your own needs.

How to turn things around

Setting boundaries and saying no are integral to breaking the freeze and appease cycle, but the follow-through can be tricky, especially under extreme stress. "Our bodies don't typically allow a choice under stress," says Heiss. "We react first and justify later."

So if you've decided to set boundaries yet your mouth is still in insta-yes mode, go easy on yourself — it's a learned pattern of safety your brain has laid down. "It's literally your physiology taking over," says Heiss. According to your brain, you did it like this once before and survived the extra dose of obligation, so it must be the way to survive this time.

"We're much more comfortable when we know something (a pattern, even one that hurts) than when we take the risk of doing the unknown," says Heiss. "The brain can be stubborn about learning new paths."

Because you're most vulnerable to the freeze and appease response during times of high stress, take time out to practice stress inoculation rituals. "Just like you might train a physical muscle, you can train your brain to handle stress differently by actively seeking out safe forms of stress," says Heiss.

Things like dancing it out in the middle of the street or asking for a price match will trigger a stress response (your heart will beat fast, your mouth will go dry, you'll sweat) and when nothing bad happens, your brain begins to draw new associations.

"The more we actively seek safe forms of discomfort, we can then stay consciously in control when discomfort finds us, rather than allowing our physiology to take over in the form of freeze and appease," says Heiss.

Ditto for diffusing all the tabs of fears and worries you've got open. Write them down, then go back a week later and re-read some of them. Did they come true? Were they as bad as you believed they'd be? Our brain is great at catastrophizing, Heiss explains, but rarely looks at the possibility of positive outcomes or opportunities to grow from mistakes.

Working out post-stressor can also shift your stress response to a lower gear. It signals to your brain that you've outrun the predator — the stressor that was initially chasing you — and your brain and body relax into a state where you can have better conversations and make better decisions in the future.

As added protection when someone asks for a favor, say you'll get back to them instead of launching into your usual yes-fest. Taking the time to check your calendar and dig into how you really feel first can help you make decisions you're less likely to regret later, says Magavi.

If you decide to say no and twinges of guilt peer pressure you into changing your mind, think back to the negative emotions and stress you experienced after taking on commitments that weren't feasible and use these feelings to stay firm in your decision.

Leela Magavi, M.D., board-certified psychiatrist

"Women shouldn't feel guilty setting healthy boundaries when they're unable to give anymore; they have the right to care for themselves first."

— Leela Magavi, M.D., board-certified psychiatrist

Tell the person you'd love to help but you're already booked solid. "Some people find it necessary to explain things in an elaborate manner with repetitive apologies, but this only perpetuates the societal expectation that women should drop everything when others are in need," says Magavi. "Women shouldn't feel guilty setting healthy boundaries when they're unable to give anymore; they have the right to care for themselves first."

And if you tell someone you can help them but later realize you're not up for it, it's almost never too late to walk it back. "Commitments and owning them is important, but not so important that you compromise your own health and wellbeing," says Heiss. There's almost always a way out, and that's straight-up honesty.

"We shouldn't have to do things," says Heiss. "We should get to do things." If the commitment doesn't feel right, ask yourself why. Listen to your body, your mind as if it were a friend — and treat it like one.

"More often than not, our intuition is overlooked and devalued," says Heiss. "We know what helps and what hurts us; we've just been taught not to listen. Start listening again." Preach.

Related Articles