When people speak about reactions to trauma or crisis, they routinely offer up ‘fight or flight’ as a way to describe human response. In actuality, this is an incomplete phrase. Science tells us that the full phrase is “fight, flight, or freeze,” but somewhere along the way, most folks drop freeze from the list. However, all three responses are biological in nature, and an individual doesn’t have control over how their body will respond in a crisis situation. The brain (and thus the body) responds in a way that seems the likeliest to preserve its life.
Many people who've come to BARCC have experienced this freeze response and explain that they were incapable of moving during the assault, let alone fighting off their attacker or fleeing the scene. Despite the fact that freezing is a normal biological response, it unfortunately often causes a lot of self-blame and guilt. People who've frozen during an assault wonder why they didn’t react, and further, they wonder if by not reacting, that somehow implied consent. Some might even ask themselves if they are partly to blame for the assault since they didn’t “assert themselves enough.” It can take a lot of therapeutic work to understand that a freeze response is not a choice, but rather a biological response beyond conscious control.
In media reports and in casual conversation, people often talk very differently about these responses. We often hear a lot of praise for the strength and courage of people who "were able to fight off" or "managed to flee" from an assailant. This response is often much more about self-protection and feelings of relief from people who are hearing or repeating those details: it makes others feel as though we could make those same choices in a similar situation.
Unfortunately, the negative impact of those reactions exists in two forms. First, it can serve to minimize the harm suffered by people who experienced the terror of someone trying to hurt them. Second, it implicitly (and often explicitly) casts blame on those surivvors who experienced the much-more-common freeze reaction.
Biologically, freezing comes from a person’s body recognizing that there is a the potential for injury and that it is life threatening. The hormones that are dumped into the bloodstream at this time prime the body for survival, and therefore a person’s ability to have rational thoughts is significantly impaired. In other words, a person with an activated sense of danger cannot biologically carry out logical thinking.
Someone who would normally be able to think: “If I do X, then Y will be the outcome” as a way to leave a situation will find themselves incapacitated. Additionally, other chemicals released by the brain can block any pain (physical and emotional) as a survival technique, which leaves many survivors with a flat affect during and after the assault. Society needs to start recognizing that the freeze response is both a perfectly legitimate and biological way to survive an attack.
While many of us believe that we know how we’d respond in specific situations, it is actually impossible to know how you will respond to a traumatic event like sexual violence. Even people who work as advocates for survivors and who talk regularly about different ways to respond are affected by their biological response to trauma. A recent post by Jen Corey, a board member for Collection Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), discussed a sexual assault she experienced on the DC Metro.
CASS regularly writes about the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment on the metro and in public spaces in DC, and also advocates for better environments, policies, and responses. Despite the prevalence rates in this area and others, many people continue to downplay their experiences or what happens to others. Even though Corey’s own work focuses on ending sexual assault and harassment, she too froze on the train when she was assaulted. She even describes trying later to convince herself that there wasn’t enough evidence and having to remind herself that it wasn’t her fault and that she had a right to make a report.
Another thing we know from research is that trauma can impact people for a long time depending what age they were, the experience, and the duration of the violence experienced, in addition to a host of other factors. An individual’s brain chemistry and structure can actually change, especially if the violence occurred during the young and formative years. For those who experience chronic trauma, heightened levels of stress hormones in the body sometimes don't go away completely or decrease over time. The Adverse Children’s Childhood Experiences (ACE) study demonstrates that children who experience trauma are more likely to experience adverse effects later in life. These impacts include social and cognitive impairments, disease, adoption of risky behaviors, and early death. The more trauma that a child experiences, the more adverse effects can occur. (The CDC's Veto Violence site has some interesting interactive infographics on this.)
The experiences of trauma in childhood can impact the way someone responds to trauma as an adult. While anybody can freeze up during an act of violence, it is a more common response for those who experience violence or abuse as a child. As we said before, our bodies will react in a way that will preserve physical life. Therefore, if a method has worked in the past to achieve this end, it is more likely to be used again. Children do not have the same independence, autonomy, or rights that adults do, and therefore the act of freezing up may be the only thing that their bodies know how to do to protect themselves.
Both the immediate and longer-term impacts of neurobiological changes in survivors is something that survivors and advocates have seen personally and anecdotally for decades. Unfortunately, we haven't usually given those narratives the weight they deserve. With improvements in brain imaging technology and the ability to share data, the hope is that we'll see an increase in understanding for survivors and a better response from formal systems and society.
If you'd like to hear more about the specifics of the neurobiology of trauma, Dr. Rebecca Campbell of University of Michigan presents all of this information and more in a webinar that is accessible and easy to understand.