On Fight, Flight or Freeze
I had seen the rape scenes in the movies and I was confident of one thing: if I was sexually assaulted, I would be the fighter. I would kick and scream and bite and leave my powerless rapist on the floor. I would be the leader who would step over him and tell my family and friends and the media what had happened, and that man and men like him would get their day in court—and in that day, he would see their future drop just as he attempted to drop mine.
And then it did happen to me.
And I rested in the bed of my friends’ guesthouse as her older brother pulled up my dress.
I could not move. I was paralyzed. I froze.
“In five seconds I’ll tell him to stop,” I told myself. “1. 2. 3. 4. 5. Fuck.”
I couldn’t do it.
I hadn’t ever heard of a strong feminist woman who could not fight off her attacker or run away or open her mouth to tell the four other women in the room that she was being touched and she did not want to be touched. I hadn’t known a strong woman to lay and be silent.
Each response to sexual assault is different.
According to Rebecca Campbell, Ph.D., professor of psychology and program evaluation at Michigan State University, when there is a traumatic incident, like a sexual assault, many different hormones flood the victims system.
“These hormones cause the fight, flight or freeze response,” according to Campbell. “They increase energy, prevent pain and promote good feelings. These hormones are essential for the survival to the victim after such a traumatic event.”
Freezing was my brain’s response to danger. I was a deer in the headlights.
Think of sleep paralysis: you want to move, you want to scream and you want to run and fight but you can’t.
It’s like that, only real.
“Freezing occurs when the amygdala – a crucial structure in the brain’s fear circuitry – detects an attack and signals the brainstem to inhibit movement,” said James W. Hopper, Ph.D., in an article in the Washington Post. “It happens in a flash, automatically and beyond conscious control.”
Your eyes widen, your pupils dilate, your hearing become more acute and your body becomes ready for fight or flight, but neither action follows.
During the freeze response, a victim’s brain releases a surge of stress chemicals into the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that allows us to think rationally, according to Hopper. If my prefrontal cortex had been working, I would have been able to notice the open bathroom door or remember that there were four other women in the room with me, including my attacker's sister. It could have helped me make use of that information. But the surge of chemicals blinds the prefrontal cortex.
At this point, habits and reflexes are all the victim has. If the victim hasn't been rigorously trained on how to react to this specific situation, there aren't any habits and reflexes there to rely on.
The victim can have one of three survival or animal defense responses.
One is tonic immobility. This was my response. My brain was primed for action, but in tonic immobility, my body was paralyzed by fear and unable to move or speak. My body went rigid, my hands went numb and I was unable to act.
Another is collapsed immobility. It’s basically playing dead. Keep in mind, human beings are animals, and this is a common animalistic response to fear—playing possum. The victim could feel sleepy during collapsed immobility.
The most common survival reflex is dissociation. The victim has a sort of out-of-body feeling, where they feel completed disconnected from what’s happening to them.
I was unaware that this was my brain's reaction to terror. I didn’t know that my brain was trying to save me. I thought I was failing as a woman, as a feminist and as a friend.I didn’t tell anyone for weeks. It was my fault. I was ashamed. I was a coward. He was the first man I had ever been with.
I didn’t tell anyone for weeks. It was my fault. I was ashamed. I was a coward. He was the first man I had ever been with.
“Most people in common conversations will talk about fight or flight, but freeze is not a commonly understood response,” said Minnie Almader, who provides sexual assault and trauma services at the University of Arizona Campus Health Service's Oasis Program.
In the fight or flight response, the brain has a sympathetic branch that functions during periods of effort and stress, according to a report by the University of Michigan. When a victim is sexually assaulted, the SNS increases the adrenaline throughout the victim's body, which causes their heart rate to increase, creates more oxygen and causes the blood to move into the muscles to allow sudden movement if needed – pretty much the opposite of the freeze response.
In fight or flight, a victim’s brain helps them to mobilize.
This is what we see in Hollywood because no one wants to see a woman helpless. They root for the heroine, and they want their heroine to be Laura Croft in Tomb Raider—not me.
But all of these responses are biological, and none of them has anything to do with strength, ability, intelligence or consent.
A freeze response does not imply consent.
I did not consent.
Christianna is an adventurous, optimistic feminist who can hold her own in a few topics: politics, music, baking and books. At a party, you can find her consoling the hostess’s pets and sipping a gin and tonic.