Fight, Flight, or “Freeze” Tonic Immobility

A victim’s reaction to trauma

sad woman-2

You awake to a very large, strong man covering your mouth with one hand, making it difficult to breathe, let alone scream. In the other hand, he’s clenching a knife millimeters from your face. Terror seizes your entire body and you react…. but how?

Fight or flight is the response society expects in violent attacks. Your hypothalamus and pituitary take over, instantly flooding you with hormones to protect your sustainability.

  • Adrenalin arouses you to your circumstance.
  • Cortisol provides you with uncommon energy.
  • Opiods act like morphine to temporarily blind you to your pain.
  • Oxytocin attempts to stabilize your emotions.

Totally apart from your conscious control, you freeze.

You are not alone. It is estimated that 12 to 50% of rape victims will respond by freezing, and it is thought that the number is closer to 50% than 12%. Also, victims who experienced prior sexual trauma are more likely to experience this temporary paralysis.

The impacts on seeking justice

Policing is currently practiced under the misconception that victims will either fight with all their might to fend off brutality, or do everything in their power to free themselves. Absent evidence of doing either or both, they assume that the victim’s crime report is a lie. Approximately 86% of rapes, even those supported by a rape kit, do not make their way from the Patrolman to the Prosecutor for this reason. Yet data reported by the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women indicates only 2-8% of rape accusations are false.

A natural phenomenon

frog

Freezing, Tonic Immobility, also known as thanatosis, is an automatic response to rape as well as other forms of trauma in humans. But we are not the only animal that experiences this phenomenon.Opossum The most widely
known is the
opossum,which is why “playing dead” is also referred to as “playing opossum.” Mammals are wired with the option to look and appear dead to their attacker for protection. In sharks, rolling onto their back and becoming paralyzed enables mating.

Other impacts on the victim’s post-rape “affect”

During rape, the cocktail of hormones surging through the human body block the ability of the brain’s hippocampus to organize and store thought. Many rape victims, who are interrogated shortly after their trauma, have yet to recover cognition. Police, who don’t understand their behavior, suspect that the victim is inventing the story as they speak, when they are actually attempting to puzzle together disparate pieces that were blocked from encoding by their brain’s hormonal overload.

Their ‘affect” or appearance, may not seem emotionally charged as one would expect after a heinous assault. They could remain under the influence of those same opiods that deterred their reaction and dulled their senses during the crime.

Undermining self esteem

Victims who freeze struggle with an innate sense of guilt. Their response defied their own personal expectation that if something bad happened to them, they would fight to the death or flee. We go through life taking comfort in the concept that we are able to protect our mortality, and we respond to rape as a struggle for life. Most of society sees fight or flight as being brave, because we don’t understand that freezing is the same act of self-preservation. People who experience the trauma of rape by fraud are also plagued with similar self-blame.

How tonic immobility factors in rape by fraud

I recall vomiting and collapsing on the cold bathroom floor, immobile, when I first learned the initial lie that was used to defraud me into a sexual relationship. Little did I know, there were far more lies behind it.

Defrauding someone of sex strips them of both fight and flight to defend their body. The victim could not react, because they did not know. Their behavior, throughout the time they were assaulted, which could span years, uproots their personal sense of being able to protect themselves. The recognition that a sexual assault by fraud took place can be a paralyzing trauma.

The victim’s failure to protect their personal sexual sanctity also obscures society’s recognition that a crime took place against them. And it undermines the victim’s self-esteem in much the same way having been immobilized does in violent cases. The victim suffers secondary victimization from society, family, friends, the authorities and themselves when dealing with rape by fraud. It’s little wonder that knowing you were deceived into sex is so terribly degrading for a victim, and why it is so difficult to heal.

Media should be paying far closer attention to Tonic Immobility, just as it should be identifying the heinous nature of rape by fraud and its impacts on victims.

Authors note:

Inspiration for this post came from information I received from a woman who comments under the name “Semi” on US Weekly. Unless otherwise linked, the source for the data and statistics is The Neurobiology of Sexual Assault, written and presented by Dr. Rebecca Campbell, Professor of Psychology at Michigan State University. I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to watch her scholarly presentation. 

 

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54 thoughts on “Fight, Flight, or “Freeze” Tonic Immobility”

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  2. This tonic immobility I believe has happened to me but it’s often known as sleep paralysis. I woke up one day when I was 16 with this feeling of being paralyzed and as if something was on top of me. I opened my eyes and saw what looked like like red eyes staring at me and a long tongue going in & out of my throat. My penis was erect the whole time this occurred and I felt something inside of my rectum. I was so frightened and tried screaming but nothing came out. It was as if my voicebox wouldn’t work and all I could hear was an internal echo of my screaming inside my head.

    I think I than fell back asleep but woke up what felt like a few minutes later with my body in the same paralysis state but didn’t see this being in the darkness of the room so I got up enough courage to get up, walked to the light switch. My legs and body felt like jello, moving in slow-motion. Once I turned the light on nothing was there…no person, no alien being, nothing. Also my door & windows were all locked. It was so weird and made me feel zapped of energy for a week.

    It was the weirdest experience of my life and has affected me all of these years. I don’t know who the person or being could of been. I went to a shrink before about it and was told it was sleep paralysis but it was too real to to be my imagination.

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    1. Ryan-

      Sleep paralysis is a type of dream one has, usually when one falls asleep or wakes up. It occurs in the REM phase of dreaming. It feels very real, like a nightmare would. People often have the sensation that some type of attack is happening to them that they can do nothing about…. that they’re body seems frozen and despite their efforts to do so, they can’t move and escape harm. Here’s a link to a good description: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleep_paralysis

      Tonic immobility is very far removed from sleep paralysis. It results from a real and terrifying ordeal.

      Sleep paralysis can feel very real to the person, even though it’s not.

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      1. Sleep paralysis prevents a person from acting out his/her dreams. A person whose paralysis phase fails to work could be injured or killed, or could injure or kill someone else. Sleepwalking is a failure of the sleep paralysis function. Attacking one’s bedmate, acting out a dream, can be dangerous, though the victim’s reaction usually awakens the sleeper enough to get him to stop.

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      2. In my understanding, tonic immobility is a physiological state of extreme distress. It can happen in different situations, also but not only in acute danger.

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        1. Everyone is different. I’m not ruling out that tonic immobility could occur in circumstances where acute danger doesn’t exist. Can’t think of one off the top of my head, but it wouldn’t surprise me if someone else could.

          I often refer to the paralysis people who are overly analytical demonstrate. I call it “paralysis of analysis.” I know folks who analyze things left, right and center, then go back and do it all over again. They’re afraid to make a decision. But I wouldn’t call it tonic immobility.

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    Liked by 1 person

    1. Quite right! The report from Dr. Campbell has been widely distributed to law enforcement. But I also think we need to reach the public in order to raise awareness among past, present and future victims. No one should ever feel the weight of guilt that comes with being victimized.

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  4. I’ve been raped several times, in one form or another. Including molestation and domestic violence rape. I would put myself in another mindset while it was happening- having an out of body experience. I remember the first time I was raped and lost my virginity to my brother at the age of 10. When I look at the memory of it happening, I’m looking at him doing it to me. Not it happening to me. I’m floating above.
    The last time I was raped, was by two men who were practically strangers. I fought like I had never fought in my life. I screamed. I kicked. I bit. Until he covered my nose and mouth and I couldn’t breathe. Eventually I calmed down and just laid there, spaced out, waiting for it to be over. The fear of me dying took over my fight instinct. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t fight, I couldn’t scream. So I laid there and took it.
    That was my only means of survival.
    Thank you for your post.

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    1. Estrella-

      You are braver than brave! And your “out-of-body” behavior was, in fact, Tonic Immobility.

      Dr. Campbell cited reports of how victims “encode” information in their brains during these episodes. While they may not be able to tell the police what happened in a linear form, they will have absorbed information in a sensory way. They may have stared at the ceiling and be able to report how many holes or marks there were. They may have a keen sense of the odors from the offender or in the air at the time.

      When questioned, their responses may seem like they are creating lies rather than reaching for information that was disjointedly misfiled when rational thought was blocked as a result of the hormonal overload. And alcohol consumption can even more onerously disturb memory processes.

      Some people never recover a linear sense of what happened, and for others, allowing them time for their internal chemistry to clear will yield better results. Police officers and investigators should be schooled in this concept so they don’t misread what they are seeing and hearing from the victim. She recommended that two sleep cycles are needed before attempting to make sense. It seems to be the normal protocol in investigating police shootings as well.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Also that first time (when I lost my virginity) is the only time I remember being raped by my brother; however, I know it happened hundreds more times over the next several years. I know that they happened at a particular location (our apt, then our house, then my dad’s house, for example) but that is the only information stored there. I can’t remember what it felt like, I can’t remember the event actually happening… I just know it did.
        Thanks for your response. I normally don’t post many comments, especially something so sensitive, but God led me to do so.

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          1. Thank you. I try to be an open book. I want to use my struggles and painful experiences to help others…. just as God as put in my heart to do.
            You are awesome for writing a blog like this!!!! I look forward to reading more!

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  5. Very valuable info. Thank you for sharing as I will also share it by reblogging on my blog if you don’t mind. Even in childhood sexual abuse the victim is most times not believed and they don’t have the choice of fight or flight. “Freeze” is the bodies defense mechanism.

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        1. You’re 100% correct! According to the It’sOnUs Pledge, endorsed by President Obama, “Non-consensual sex is sexual assault.” A child below the age of consent is incapable of “knowing consent.” And consent that is not “knowing” is not consent at all!

          Liked by 1 person

          1. The age of consent is set by statute and is very arbitrary. Within the last 150 years it has ranged from 7 (!!) to 21 (unless married). Even today its ranges from puberty (one state of Mexico) to 18 (unless married).
            A blanket statement, “A child below the age of consent is incapable of “knowing consent’,” is seriously wrong. As if a legislature has any control over whether a person is capable of consenting at 12:01 am on their 12th, 13th, 14th, 16th, 17th or 18th birthday but a minute earlier, at 11:59 pm, the person was a “child” incapable of consenting. Or cross a state line and a legal act in the one state is a felony upon making one step across an imaginary boundary. Or in one state a 12 year old can have legal sexual activity with a 12, 13, 14, 15 or 16 year old but is not allowed to marry. Fornication legal while marriage is illegal.
            Certainly some limits have to be drawn to deter predatory grown people from preying upon the young, but some reasoning should be used.
            One of my nieces was physically fully developed at age 12. I attended junior high school with girls my age that ranged from skinny undeveloped children to fully developed, big breasts, wide round hips and the face of an 18-20 year old. Their behavior varied likewise from young adult to rather childlike. All in the same grade, within a year of one another.

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            1. Gerry-

              The age of consent has less to do with the development of one’s reproductive organs or breasts, and more to do with the development of their mind.

              In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet is 13 and Romeo is believed to be 18 or older.

              It was recently revealed that back in 1993, SCOTUS, Ruth Bader Ginsburg made a comment that the age of consent should be 12 years old. I seriously beg to differ with her! If a child is not of an age when they can take full responsibility for their actions, feed, nurture and support an infant to maturity, then they are not the age of “consent.” Nor can they fully understand the weight of their actions.

              Just because a person has more developed breasts and curves does not mean they have achieved an age at which they are considered fully responsible for their actions. That’s why children are tried in juvenile rather than adult courts.

              Your argument that one day you’re too young to consent, but the next day, you’ve magically achieved that ability is a valid one. And certainly the concept of “the age of consent” would be far more understandable if all states used the same benchmark.

              When I say, “when a child below the age of consent is incapable of consent, I assumed people would understand that I meant that the authorities in their district have deemed them unable to consent. Such laws are enacted in order to establish a boundary. and even though not every person’s growth mimic’s every other person’s growth, it’s imperative that laws establish a standard by which we’re all expected to behave, otherwise we would have blatant chaos in society, and in the case of sex with children, blatant statutory rape.

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    1. I appreciate your point. Keep in mind that the military gave you special training to direct your automatic response toward “fight.” People who are not in the military don’t have the training you’re suggesting.

      Fight, flight and freeze are automatic responses. Perhaps, with significant programming, a person’s “freeze” mechanism could be overridden, but it seems like that would take considerable specialized focus.

      I think the first thing needed is to spread the word so that society is aware of this phenomenon, and first responders should be trained to expect the likelihood of this behavior, as well as the confusion that results from “tonic immobility,” when questioning victims who report rape.

      Liked by 1 person

              1. That the sooner the better I wrote a hthesis on the predictability and preventabily of PTSD I always felt if the Armed Forces invested in screening all volunteers with the MmPI 2 and a PTSd screening tool we,d be more aware of those apt to freeze up on that battlefield – they view it as impractical and too costly

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                1. Yup… better to load up the front lines with soldiers to get picked off than figure out who can deal best in battle! Sounds like solid military thinking!

                  Is there currently a screening tool that can help determine who would be at greater risk of developing PTSD?

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                  1. write or contact http://www.ptsd.va.gov/ their center for research was in Boston when I did my thesis in 2002! they had tools then. All I can say Joyce, is decent social histories and mental health screening could pick up a lot of this. But who pays for it? The Army concluded it would be too cost prohibitive and cut down the field of potential volunteers. Which would certainly be true. As a chaplain I had to work with the Division Psychiatrist to get them out after the fact, but an imperfect world.

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                    1. Sleep paralysis prevents a person from acting out his/her dreams. A person whose paralysis phase fails to work could be injured or killed, or could injure or kill someone else. Sleepwalking is a failure of the sleep paralysis function. Attacking one’s bedmate, acting out a dream, can be dangerous, though the victim’s reaction usually awakens the sleeper enough to get him to stop.

                      Like

          1. “People” including both genders, or women?
            There is a considerable difference between male and female response to attack by a male. The male’s impulse upon attack is to fight unless overwhelmed, while the female’s instinct is to prepare for sexual intercourse and to submit. It’s only by socialization and indoctrination that a sexually mature female has an urge to refuse to submit.
            There are more than one influence:
            • a small adult male is about the size of a medium to large female
            • a male of similar size, weight and condition is much stronger than his female counterpart – she has a natural fear of resisting the larger, stronger, more aggressive male
            • a female of the age of puberty instinctively desires to submit to sexual intercourse – she is here because her female ancestors submitted to intercourse
            This does not mean that a woman should submit to any male who wants her. We are not just animals completely controlled by instinct.
            Many sexually aggressive males will be discouraged by concerted resistance. The indication of statistical analysis is that 90-95% of sexually aggressive men will back off from a woman who will resist. But how many of them would have, absent the resistance, gone through with a rape? No one knows. And what do the other 5-10% do to the resistant woman? She gets raped anyway, and is beaten, her nose broken, choked, her eyes blacked, her teeth broken, in addition to the rape, which may also be brutal, torn vagina, etc.
            It comes down to what the woman is both willing and capable of doing. No one can give absolute advice. Every person is different, the conditions are different in each incident. Basically each has to “wing it.”

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            1. Gerry-

              I haven’t given advice, nor should you, regarding what a person should do when confronted by a rapist. I believe that in any case, whether the person is male or female, their survival instinct will kick in and there is no right or wrong way to behave. My interest was to I was to point out that freezing is, in fact, a common reaction. and law enforcement should not dismiss the claim of a victim simply because they did not fight or flee. The same holds true whether the victim is male or female. Also, whether male or female, the victim should not feel disgrace because they did not fight or flee.

              I disagree with you regarding the figures you use to indicate common behavior. And I think you’re assuming when you state your belief about how a man’s reaction would differ from a woman’s. I don’t think anyone’s reaction should be either judged or predicted, period.

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  6. Awesome post. Thanks for sharing. This explains perfectly why “victim blaming” is so prevalent… but no evidence of fighting does not mean consensual sex. Society and the legal system need to change their views on rape. Too many victims are victimized again when they report any sexual assault.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Amen. I pray that laws will the changed to protect the victims. It is not easy to fight in the legal system. Victims become victimized again as they fight for their rights. Thank you for sharing your knowledge to help others and /God bless you.

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    1. Retraining professionals who are responsible to debrief victims is the only way that will change. Dr. Campbell seems to be making significant inroads towards that end. I hope folks who have experienced negative push-back by the authorities contribute their stories here. There’s no need to identify yourself. But those individual accounts can help support rethinking the process.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Reblogged this on Army of Angels and commented:
    One of the most helpful things I learned along the path to healing, was that the body has its own defense mechanisms – automated to protect us. I had heard of “fight or flight”, but not “freeze”. J.M. Short explains it clearly.

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