Have you ever had a nightmare when something or someone was coming toward you, and you couldn’t run or call for help? You wanted to, but you just couldn’t move your legs at all, and when you tried to scream, no sound would come out of your mouth?

I used to have dreams like that all the time when I was a child. I don’t have them anymore, but I think about them whenever the subject of automatic responses to traumatic situations comes up, which for me occurs quite often in my work with survivors of sexual assault.

Why I couldn’t move my legs or scream? Did an automatic response to my fear and anxiety prevent me from doing that? That may be, since we know that happens in real, awake life.

Traditionally, the concepts of fight-or-flight have been used to describe the ways humans respond to trauma and fear; however, there are a couple of important realities not so widely discussed.

First, there are additional automatic responses, like freezing or tonic immobility. Secondly, none of such responses is consciously determined at the time they are applied. They are automatic reactions to trauma, fear and stress and happen deep within our brains (in the amygdala), where rational thought and logic are not actively present.

Dr. Leon F. Seltzer, in his article “Trauma and the Freeze Response,” shares how the freeze response “adds a crucial dimension to how (someone is) likely to react when the situation confronting (them) overwhelms (their) coping capacities and leaves (them) paralyzed in fear.” He says that this “reaction refers to a situation in which (a person has) concluded (in a matter of seconds — if not milliseconds) that (they) can neither defeat the frighteningly dangerous opponent confronting (them) nor safely bolt from it.”

The freeze response may be the individual’s only possibility, if fighting and fleeing are not possible, and it can also be the best choice because of the way the body’s heart rate may decrease and endorphins may be released, allowing the person to not feel the assault so intensely. (Psychology Today, posted Jul 8, 2015)

Doctors and researchers have also been talking about tonic immobility. Francine Russo, in an article titled “Sexual Assault May Trigger Involuntary Paralysis”, says “tonic immobility (TI) describes a state of involuntary paralysis in which individuals cannot move or, in many cases, even speak. In animals, the reaction is considered an evolutionary adaptive defense to an attack by a predator when other forms of defense are not possible. Much less is known about this phenomenon in humans, although it has been observed in soldiers in battle as well as in survivors of sexual assault.” (Scientific American, Aug. 4, 2017)

Additionally, Russo cites a study of female-identified sexual assault survivors who visited an emergency clinic. The majority of individuals “reported they did not fight back. Many also did not yell for help. During the assault they experienced a kind of temporary paralysis called tonic immobility. And those who experienced extreme tonic immobility were twice as likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and three times more likely to suffer severe depression in the months after the (assault.)”

The myth that fight and flight are the only reactions to trauma and fear are dangerous because of the harm those beliefs cause to survivors and their healing process. Survivors of sexual assault are often asked why they didn’t try to run or why they didn’t fight back — with the implication that they would of course have done those things if it had been a “real rape.”

Survivors ask themselves those same questions, often feeling like they could have or should have done more to stop the assault. These questions worsen feelings of self-blame, guilt and shame; increase victim blaming; and place the responsibility of the sexual assault onto the survivor, not on the offender where it belongs.

So, for survivors of all genders who question themselves and have thought they should have done something different or better, please know that you did what you needed to, in that moment, to survive the assault. Your instinctual brain took over and protected you the best it could from further harm.

Kayce Hunton is client services coordinator at Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services.

Kayce Hunton

Support, information, and resources are available to survivors and concerned others at Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services by calling the free, 24-hour Helpline at 1-800-871-7741. Text/chat help is also available Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Text the Helpline at 1-800-871-7741 or chat by visiting sapars.org.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.