The Freeze Response and Sexual Assault- How to turn it off- PTSD and Trauma Recovery #2


When I was 16 and living in a foreign
country a man came up behind me and swiped his hand up my butt and then said
things in a menacing way but in a foreign language and do you know what my
response was? I said “I’m sorry” as if my butt had somehow forced his hand to
grope it now that response makes no logical sense but in the light of the
#metoo movement people are asking “why didn’t she speak up?” or
“why didn’t I fight back?” or “why didn’t I resist?” And when one in three girls and
one in five boys have been sexually assaulted but the vast majority of them
did nothing in the moment- they froze up. We as a society have to understand the
freeze response if we’re going to understand sexual assault. Every single
survivor of sexual assault that I have met with in therapy froze during the
assault and most submitted and most felt shame. One in four of your Facebook
friends has been sexually assaulted please share this video as one of them
may need to hear this to forgive themselves you may think of
freezing up as just inaction but it is much much deeper than that
these are instincts that are deeply hardwired into our brain’s survival
Center we’ve been taught that we need to say no to resist to escape but so so
often victims feel paralyzed to do so one survivor said “we’re told that though
we need to respect ourselves enough to fight back but that was the mystery to
me I did respect myself but I could never bring myself to literally say the
word no or fight back my voice always just seemed to shrink away as my body
went limp worse yet sometimes I found myself
smiling hoping that by encouraging these behaviors in the moment I could
cooperate myself out of the situation just play along until you can escape I
thought” Not fighting back, not saying no is not a form of consent or
participation in a sexual act it’s actually your brain’s most desperate
attempt at survival. When we talk about our brain taking over in dangerous
situations we often talk about the fight-or-flight response
but the reaction the freeze response doesn’t get much attention. This response
is the result of our ancient brain flipping a switch turning off our logic
turning off our thinking and switching to the one and only option that is left
to save our lives freezing. So let’s look at this in nature for a second here’s an
example of a duck that is completely immobile in the presence of a much
larger animal a dog and when the dog looks away the ducks able to escape with
its life now the survivor that I quoted previously said this as a scientist I
conducted experiments on the stress response of birds one phenomenon I’ve
seen over and over is something called tonic immobility we would trap these
birds handle them extensively and put colorful bands on their legs to mark
them now understandably all this could severely stress the bird but when we
release them they usually didn’t try to fight back or escape we would carefully
place them on the ground and often they would lay just like that perfectly
immobile for several minutes before flying freely away these birds survival
instincts overpowered their physical ability to fly away they were stuck in
freeze mode because their ancient instinctual brain decided that was the
safest option so this tonic immobility literally means
that your brain turns off your muscles ability to react in order to keep you
alive so why does sexual assault elicit a survival response rape and sexual
assault isn’t about sex about power and control and dominance
rape has been used as a tool of war through history to submit the populace
to the invaders it happened in World War Two in The Rape of Nanking and the
Russian army entering Germany and many many more wars through the history of
the world and if a woman who was being assaulted
by an invading soldier fought back she would probably just be killed there was
little hope of fleeing freezing submitting cooperating were her best
hopes of survival and our anciently evolved brain knows that better than we
can realize in our modern culture of sexual harassment and assault these
reactions don’t seem to function too well but our ancient brain still
defaults to these survival responses during threats in 2001 there was a study
on college aged women in which subjects were asked highly inappropriate
questions in a job interview setting for example do you our bras to work do you
find yourself sexually desirable their results show that gap between what we
think we should or would do and our actions in the moment so each of the
women had previously said that if they were to be sexually harassed they would
respond by being confrontational by leaving by reporting it but when it
actually happened not a single one of them reacted as they had imagined they
would instead the researchers saw a startling response in the video
recordings of these interactions the women sat patiently and answered the
questions while smiling now whether you find this validating or horrifying
another study showed 70% of sexual assault victims reported significant
tonic immobility and only around 5% of rape victims file a police report and
that’s because speaking up is dangerous Society shames them their boss may fire
them romantic partners may shun them but this freeze response isn’t logical or
planned it’s a reflex and in and a physiological reaction that’s
triggered by high-stress situations even if we wanted to scream or yell or kick
our brain ensures that our muscles are frozen because millions of years of
evolution say that freezing is the safest response and it’s incredibly
difficult to override our body’s natural response in the moment so let me show
you an example could you watch that video without
feeling a little squeeze in your stomach or taking a sharp intake of breath your
brain has powerful tools to manage danger and just like you couldn’t stop
those reactions from happening a victim of sexual assault often can’t just say
no or fight back because this reaction this tonic immobility literally locks
the muscles in place the brain is more likely to force a freeze response in the
face of overwhelming adversary women tend to be smaller weaker or of lower
status than men men who are sexually assaulted are usually assaulted by an
older larger or higher ranking individual whether that be a pastor
teacher coach or prison inmate the freeze response becomes the brains only
remaining the mechanism when that man grabbed my butt I was alone on the
streets of a foreign country a language I didn’t speak my brain sized up the
situation in a microsecond and made the decision for me be compliant and he’ll
go away it said and he did my brain was right it worked
during a sexual assault we can risk death by trying to escape or fight or
not doing our best to appease the dominant members of the tribe might
allow us to escape with minimal bodily damage so what do we do about this
number one stop blaming yourself or others for this response it is a natural
reaction your brain took over to save your life a recent article on this and
it was saying this is enough and I can agree with that to a degree you have to
put the responsibility where it honestly lives with the perpetrator the crime is
their responsibility and that’s a great first step but this article basically
said I don’t know what else you can do now I don’t have all the answers but I
do know from personal experience that you can train yourself to respond to
differently sometimes in the years following my assault I was trained in
self-defense for one of my jobs and I was trained to be a Wilderness First
Responder with excellent teacher who through surprising
and stressful situations upon us so people would run into the classroom with
their arm on fire or they begin choking in class like like they were acting but
regardless it was scary and in the beginning we all froze up but we
practiced and practiced our protocol until our new reaction was to take
life-saving steps so I trained my reaction to stress to be the behavior
that I chose so putting out the fire or performing the Heimlich maneuver now
training can replace reflexes now after that class and after those
self-defense courses when I was 22 I returned to that foreign country where
I’d been assaulted and one day out on the streets with a friend a group of
young men walked aggressively toward us one of them got in the face of my friend
inches from her face and this time my reaction was different instead of
freezing submitting or apologizing for taking up space I him hard in the
shoulder hard enough to send him tumbling like somersaulting with a look
of embarrassment and we walked away safely
now that situation would have been different if they were bigger more
numerous or armed my brain probably still would have defaulted to freeze at
that point and there’s no shame in that freezing serves a purpose so don’t beat
yourself up over it but in the face of sexual harassment at the workplace or in
dating I do believe we can intentionally train ourselves to respond differently
to these attacks I’m not exactly sure how to do it I wish victims didn’t even
have to deal with this if there weren’t perpetrators out there then we wouldn’t
need to take so many actions to increase our safety but that being said can I
have it both ways can I say it’s not your fault you froze and you can train
yourself to respond to differently in the future and the real responsibility
for this rests on the perp and we should take our own safety into our own hands
now if I can have it both ways then I say take a rape aggression
defense class or two actively begin to retrain your stress response
through exposure to safe yet stressful experiences like rock climbing martial
arts or exposure therapy practice role plays so your brain has a couple of
default options to choose from if you happen to be assaulted or harassed but
above all let’s work toward understanding ourselves and each other
with compassion be kind to yourself and others who have experienced sexual
assault judgment and blame simply aren’t helpful I believe that we as a culture
can take action towards stopping sexual assault and harassment but to do that we
need to understand why survivors act the way they do in the face of danger my
mission is to create mental health resources that are easy to access so
that people know how to help others with mental illness I’ve got courses on you
to be calm with mental health basics and how to help family and friends with
mental illness I’m currently working to make more courses on trauma so check out
my website if you’d like to learn more and please share this message thanks for
watching and take care

8 thoughts on “The Freeze Response and Sexual Assault- How to turn it off- PTSD and Trauma Recovery #2

  1. Those in the legal/ law sector need to understand this so when they report and defend these people that they themselves do not inadvertently add to the trauma. Being confused about the incident is not a sign of lying but often a sign of fragmentation of our the narrative of the incident.

  2. I felt ashamed of freezing but looking back it probably saved my life. Rapist wants the control and they can easily use more violence to get it, or kill you if they feel threatened…

  3. I dissociated and felt nothing I would call shame as I attempt 50 years later to put emotions onto my historical trauma.

  4. I really appreciate your point about training to replace reflexes. Is there any research about this available as far as you know?

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