Human defensive freezing: Associations with hair cortisol and trait anxiety

Annika Smit, Mahur M. Hashemi, Wei Zhang, Reinoud Kaldewaij, Saskia B.J. Koch, Bernd Figner, Rosa Jonker, Floris Klumpers, Karin Roelofs

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademic


The anticipation of threat facilitates innate defensive behaviours including freezing reactions. Freezing in humans is characterised by reductions in body sway and heart rate. Limited evidence suggests that individual differences in freezing reactions are associated with predictors of anxiety-related psychopathology including trait anxiety and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activity. However, previous human studies focused on acutely circulating cortisol levels, leaving the link between freezing and more stable, individual trait markers of HPA axis activity unclear. We investigated whether individual differences in anticipatory freezing reactions are predicted by accumulated hair cortisol concentrations (HCC) and trait anxiety, in a well-powered mixed sample of police recruits at the start of the police training, and age, sex and education matched controls (total N = 419, mean age = 24, Nwomen = 106, Npolice recruits = 337). Freezing-related reactions were assessed with posturographic and heart rate measurements during an active shooting task under threat of shock. The anticipation of threat of shock elicited the expected reductions in body sway and heart rate, indicative of human freezing. Individual differences in threat-related reductions in body sway, but not heart rate, were related to lower HCC and higher trait anxiety. The observed links between postural freezing and predictors of anxiety-related psychopathology suggest the potential value of defensive freezing as a somatic marker for individual differences in stress-vulnerability and resilience.

Data availability
The datasets analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding authors upon reasonable request.
Original languageEnglish
Early online date16 Sept 2021
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2021

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