TRIGGER ALERT: This article is one of many that I will be doing on the subject of abuse. I want to let the reader know, that abuse is ultimately the topic being discussed her. If you have any triggers related to it, I hope you aren’t caught off guard and are able to make the choice to read further or not. I am not a professional, I am only speaking from my own experience. In my life, I have survived child molestation, sexual harassment, a parent with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, spousal abuse (including emotional, mental, sexual, and financial abuse), and sexual assault.
I recently collected questions that others have concerning abuse. The question I will be focusing on in this article is, “I always wondered why we sometimes freeze up during sexual abuse…I still feel guilty for not retaliating the way I would now, now that I'm older and somewhat wiser.” A common misconception seems to be that freezing up is due to weakness of some kind or a lack of knowledge. Is this truly the case? Why DO we freeze up?
As a child in grade school, I was hounded repeatedly to play a sexual game called Slave. I was immediately uncomfortable, I did not want to play, and I said as much over and over. Eventually, the pressure got to me and I remember thinking, “If I just let them do it then they will get what they want, and they’ll stop.” Of course, it didn’t stop. I just lay there, frozen, confused and unable to make sense of what was happening with my emotions. Ashamed, I didn’t tell anyone about it until I was in high school. I went from a kid living in a bathing suit to wearing pants and a turtle neck in July; I continued to hide my body inside XL men’s shirts and baggy jeans up until the time of my confession.
Fast forward to my 20’s. A family friend I trusted drugged my drink and I lay there conscious but immobilized. I didn’t know I had been drugged. I couldn’t think clearly, I thought I had somehow had more to drink than I remembered, but all I could remember was the one. I had blacked out in the public bathroom. I had never done that before. Now I lay in the car, unable to move my arms or legs, what other explanation could there be? And when I yelled, and no one heard, when he wouldn’t stop, and I couldn’t stop him physically, again I thought, “Once he gets what he wants, he’ll leave me alone.” Why? I’m not entirely sure… perhaps when you’ve grown up learning from every possible cultural source that you’re only an object, an achievement for someone to brag about, it’s an easy thing to believe. I know I just wanted it to end. I just wanted to survive.
That thought was just one of the many things I blamed myself for. I’d taken self-defense classes, why didn’t I fight back? How could I have been so stupid to get that drunk? How could I have trusted him? He’d been flirty with me before, I should have seen the signs. Why did I just revert to my child self and let this happen again?
What I didn’t think was, “This guy just did a terrible thing and I should report him!” There was too much shame. You think you know how you will act. I thought I was such a strong woman, I would never let that happen to me, not after everything I had been through. Hell no, I would fight! But I didn’t. I froze. And now everything I thought I knew about myself was broken.
The main PTSD symptom I remember was the numbness. Up until that point, I’d been in a healthy sexual relationship. I was a passionate, fun-loving, adventurous person. Suddenly, I felt…nothing. My SO didn’t believe me, he thought I’d cheated. Afraid of more judgment, I told no one else. Within a month the two-year relationship was over. I was misdiagnosed and ended up on medication that did little to help.
I carried the guilt of freezing for years.
We grow up hearing about Fight or Flight as the two natural reactions to a threatening situation, those concepts originated in the 1920’s. The knowledge of the third reaction, Freeze, is relatively new, 2002 being the first mention of the response in regard to humans.
Buckle in, I’m going to lay some science on ya.
A study published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry called Exploring Human Freeze Responses to a Threat Stressor points out that the freeze response was first observed in nature. “In the context of predatory attack, some animals will freeze or ‘play dead.’ This response, often referred to as tonic immobility (Gallup, 1977), includes motor and vocal inhibition with an abrupt initiation and cessation.” (Link to the study)
The idea of a deer just collapsing to the ground as a lioness attacks it seems incredibly counterproductive and yet, in nature at least, it can work when a predator might attack more because of movement or when immobility may increase the chance of escaping. See, a predator takes down the prey but doesn’t dig in and eat right away, it runs off to get the others for the meal. All the predator needs to see is that the animal is immobilized to believe it’s dead and release it. The predator runs off, the prey pops back up, gives its body a shake and takes off to live another day.
The first time I learned of this information was from a book discussing PTSD. Four years after the sexual assault I had experienced, I was only just figuring out that I had PTSD. I learned that the body shake an animal makes after freezing is vitally essential. Truly.
Experts in animal rehabilitation have observed an animal that goes through a freeze and does NOT shake it off will NOT survive a reintroduction into the wild. No exceptions.
It’s life or death, and yet how many people today even know what a freeze response is, let alone the importance of the shake off afterward?
“…Several studies have described a rape-induced paralysis that appears to share many of the features of tonic immobility. This literature suggests that a relatively high percentage of rape victims feel paralyzed and unable to act despite no loss of consciousness during the assault. Since fear, predation, contact, and restraint are common to both rape and the induction of tonic immobility in animals, it has been concluded that these phenomena are essentially isomorphic*.”
*I had to google that one, it’s a fancy way of saying “they’re the same.”
How many victims are trapped in guilt and remorse for responding in a way they had little control over? How easily those who have never been through it cast judgement and declare those victims should have handled it differently, tried harder, said something sooner, as they so surely would have if they had been assaulted *<– laying the sarcasm on thick here*.
This is information our culture and victims desperately need in order to heal, to help others, to spread understanding, possibly even to prevent (if more research would be made a priority, who knows?).
If you have experienced a freeze response, then please know this: it was not your fault. Just as the assault was not your fault, you have no way of knowing whether your brain would have been able to overcome this response, even if you’d known about freeze responses. Though it is completely natural for victims to blame themselves, it is a lie. Ultimately, the predator is at fault. We may never understand why they did what they did, but the responsibility does belong to them.
So, what about this vital “shaking off” of the freeze response? Animals shake, tremble, run, etc. to discharge the effect of the stress chemicals on their body. Humans tend to want to do this too, however we are often told (by our own minds from previous training or by other people in the moment) things like “calm down,” “stop being so sensitive,” “get it together,” or “be a big boy/girl and suck it up.” Unfortunately, if we don’t discharge trauma, the primitive brain freezes the event in our minds and bodies. Then future events that remind us of the original event can trigger further responses.
Is there a way for someone to discharge the energy even years after the trauma? The book that first introduced me to the concept of freeze response, Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body by Peter A. Levine, PhD, suggested EFT or “tapping” integrated with revisiting the trauma as a means of discharging the stress chemicals to show our primitive brain that we survived and we are safe, which in turn sends a signal to the cognitive brain. Tapping might sound odd, but the mental/physical connection and stimulation is effective and used by professionals in mental health with great results.
There is hope. It may not be overnight, it may be a journey, but there is a way to move forward and heal. You are not alone.