Common reactions to trauma include flight or flight. But many trauma victims and survivors also react with a freeze response. According to Stephen Porges, professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, what we call the freeze response is immobolisation, “…the critical point of the experience of life-threat trauma events.” (“Stephen Porges: ‘Survivors are blamed because they don’t fight,’” by Andrew Anthony, The Guardian/The Observer Psychiatry, 6/2/2019, accessed 6/6/19). He describes it as “… this inability to move, the numbness of the body and functionally disappearing.”
When you ask trauma survivors what they felt going through an initial trauma or reliving it through later threatening experiences, they’ll often say they felt paralyzed or dumbstruck. For example, a client whose childhood and marriage had been filled with emotional abuse underwent psych-testing with a large, rather boisterous psychologist who kept firing questions at her without giving her time to think or respond. When she didn’t answer quickly enough, he berated her. She said that words had failed her: she had no idea how to respond to him, the same experience she’d had with her abusive father. Confused and wishing to say the “right” thing, her mind shut down which made her feel ashamed of her “spinelessness.”
Another client went silent whenever we talked about her having been raped. She still felt ashamed that she hadn’t screamed or at least yelled “No, stop!” at her perpetrator. She said she never thought of doing so and recalls her body going limp and her breathing getting shallower and shallower during the assault. I said that her automatic reaction likely saved her from further abuse. After all, her rapist ran off as soon as he had finished attacking her.
Porges says that immobilization is viewed as a kind of wimpy response compared to fight or flight. “Survivors are shamed and blamed because they didn’t mobilise, fight and make an effort. That’s a misunderstanding. It’s a poorly informed explanation because the body goes into that state and they can’t move.” He states that this is what animals do when they’re faced with a predator—they go still or play dead—viewing this automatic reaction as a “heroic” way to save ourselves. He points out that survivors get blamed for the very behavior—freezing up—that might well have saved their lives.
If you’ve suffered through physical, sexual and emotional abuse, don’t be surprised if you freeze up at the slightest threat of harm or danger. And don’t be ashamed. Understand that your mind/body is only trying to protect you the best way it can.