Thursday, March 2, 2017

PTSD and the Freeze Response

For the longest time I berated myself because I didn't feel like I fought back hard enough when I was raped. If I look back, in truth I did fight back. I tried to get away, but he was bigger than me. He was taller than me and he was stronger than me. There was nothing I could do so I stopped fighting. I stopped fighting and just froze.
This wasn't me saying it was okay. This wasn't me "giving up" as I had thought for so long. No, this was me doing what I had to do to survive and protect myself.
We've all heard so many times about the fight or flight response. That's what I thought I had to do. I didn't really fight back if I didn't fight or flight. What most people don't know, what I didn't know, is that the fight or flight response has a third option: freeze.
In situations where you can't fight the attacker off or when you can't run away, the only option you're left with is to freeze. When it showed that fighting back would make my attack worse I froze. This wasn't me giving in. This was me surviving. When you freeze your mind takes you away from the situation you are in. You dissociate as a survival technique to get through whatever is happening.
The world needs to remember that the freeze response is totally motmal amd should be an acceptable response to trauma. When I was questioned by the police one of the first questions he asked me was "Did you fight back?" "Did you scream?" "How hard did you fight back?" "Did you try to run?"
I understand the police need to know these things to get the full picture, but he made me feel like I didn't do enough to prevent my attack.
This was not true for me and is not true for any other victim of sexual assault. It is never the victims fault no matter how much she fought back. Freezing is a normal brain response to trauma and for me was safer than fighting back.
So next time you hear "fight or flight" remember the third 'f', freeze.


  1. I froze when the driver of the car I was sitting in ran over a little boy and killed him. I just shut down seeing him dead in the street. I froze and fell over and my arms were out like a zombie. My dad had to come get me and pick me up and pick me in the backseat all frozen and shocked. My mouth was stuck open in shock for hours. I relate so much to what you said even though I have never been raped. Sometimes freezing is the only valid response in a world that continually harms and horrified us.

    1. My goodness, what a horrible experience. I'm sorry you had to go through that. Yes, sometimes freezing is the only thing the brain knows how to do.

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience. Children, through necessity, have the same response as they can't fight back against an adult and generally cannot get away. Unfortunately this response can become thoroughly entrenched as time goes on. In my case, some 50 years on, it is now my only response. I can't fight back against aggression and the freeze precludes flight, even from situations that I know are still to come. It has only been in the last 3 years that, with the help of my wife, kids, and a therapist that I have been able to work out what has been going on, why I haven't been able, am still largely unable, to deal with life as well as I perceive everyone else can.