Fight, Flight, and Freeze

You may have heard the term "fight or flight," referring to the involuntary instinct we share with animals to defend against or escape from a perceived threat. Yet, many people who have been physically or sexually assaulted have instead found themselves freezing in place. This is called Tonic Immobility (TI).

TI leads to a drop in blood pressure, heart rate, and blood flow to the brain. The brain also releases opiates that cause a sense of numbness. As a result, you may experience:

  • Blurred vision

  • Dizziness

  • Nausea

  • Light headedness

  • Tingling

  • Racing heart

  • Shakiness

  • Difficulty speaking

  • Difficulty perceiving the world around you

  • Feeling outside of your body (dissociation)

  • Feeling as if you or the world is not real (depersonalization or derealization)

Research supports the existence of TI and the importance of better understanding it. One study found that 52% of respondents who had been sexually abused as children later reported they experienced TI at the time of the abuse. Another study found that 70% of women who visited an emergency room following a sexual assault reported TI during the attack.

TI is rarely discussed, but it can have a significant impact on your well being. The emergency room study found that women who experienced TI were significantly more likely to develop PTSD and depression following the assaults than women who did not experience being frozen. Some trauma researchers also believe TI increases the odds of experiencing dissociative disorders.

After a trauma there is a tendency for the experience to play through your mind again and again as your brain tries to process and make sense of the experience. Various associations to the trauma may also quickly bring the memory of it to mind. This may be in the form of a flashback. As this replay occurs, you may re-experience the neurological pattern that occurred during the attack.

If you experienced more of a fight or flight pattern during a trauma, you may be more likely to feel on edge, looking for danger around every corner, and easily moving into a fight or flight mode when triggered. If you experienced a TI reaction, you may instead tend to feel numb and dissociated from your body and experience.

Additionally, psychological distress following TI simply makes sense. For one thing, legal and social systems may be more difficult to navigate if one experiences TI, increasing anxiety during an already incredibly stressful time. Culturally we tend to praise the "good victim" who fought back against their assailant, as if any other response indicates collusion with the attacker.

So what is going on here? Why do some people experience TI during an assault?

The answer is that a lot more is going on in the internal response system to a threat than simply fighting or fleeing. We actually go through a sequence of defensive responses during a traumatic experience. We may skip steps here or there, but generally the sequence is:

  1. Pauser - We sense danger and pause as we orient ourselves to what is happening.

  2. Flee - The most common response after orienting ourselves to danger is to attempt to escape it.

  3. Fight - If it is impossible to flee or previous traumas have taught us that attempting to flee is useless, we may move into fight mode.

  4. Tonic Immobility - If we recognize there is little chance of successfully fleeing or fighting, we freeze in place in hopes that the attacker will lose interest. This is what we talk about when we say that animals "play dead."

  5. Escape - If an opportunity arises, we may make one last ditch effort to run.

These steps occur so quickly that it may seem as if TI occurs immediately. For some, TI may in fact come on instantly because previous traumas have taught you that fleeing or fighting is impossible.

This is a lot of information to take in, but it can be incredibly useful to truly understand your experiences. If you froze during an assault, it was not because you were weak or complicit. It was because your brain quickly assessed the situation and determined escaping or fighting back were not possible. We have evolved to respond to danger in the most effective way possible.

During a moment of danger, you and your body did the best you could based on the circumstances. Keep that in mind as you work toward developing greater self-compassion and providing yourself with the care you need following a traumatic experience.

Reach out today if you'd like to further understand and learn about how to heal from a traumatic past.