Fight, Flight, or “Freeze” Tonic Immobility

A victim’s reaction to trauma

sad woman-2

You awake to a very large, strong man covering your mouth with one hand, making it difficult to breathe, let alone scream. In the other hand, he’s clenching a knife millimeters from your face. Terror seizes your entire body and you react…. but how?

Fight or flight is the response society expects in violent attacks. Your amygdala springs into action engaging with your hypothalamus and pituitary, instantly flooding you with hormones to protect your sustainability:

  • Adrenalin arouses you to your circumstance.
  • Cortisol provides you with uncommon energy.
  • Opioids act like morphine to temporarily blind you to your pain.
  • Oxytocin attempts to stabilize your emotions.

Totally apart from your conscious control, you may be like millions of sexual assault survivors who freeze, some in a form of temporary paralysis called tonic immobility, and others in an effort to “go along to get along” known as fawning. It is estimated that as many as 50% of rape victims will respond by freezing.

The impacts of neurology on seeking justice

Our current laws labor under the misconception that victims will either fight with all their might to fend off brutality, or do everything in their power to free themselves. Absent evidence of doing either or both, police assume that the victim’s crime report is a lie. Approximately 86% of rapes, even those supported by a rape kit, do not make their way from the intake officer to the Prosecutor for this reason. Yet data reported by the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women indicates only 2-8% of rape accusations are false.

A natural phenomenon


Tonic Immobility, also known as thanatosis, is an automatic response to rape as well as other life threatening trauma by humans. And we’re not the only animals that experience this phenomenon.Opossum

The most widely
known is the
opossum, which is why “playing dead” is also referred to as “playing opossum.” Mammals are wired with the option to look and appear dead to their attacker for protection.

Additional neurological impacts on the victim’s post-rape “affect”

Because of their involuntary, reflexive reactions to inescapable danger, victims experience self blame and question their own inability to fight back or why they stopped resisting. Their personal sense of shame can  inhibit their reporting the offense.

During rape, the cocktail of trauma-stimulated hormones blocks the ability of the brain’s hippocampus to organize and store thought. Many rape victims, who are interrogated shortly after their trauma, have yet to recover cognition. Investigator who do not understand this condition suspect that the victim is inventing the story as they speak, when they are actually attempting to puzzle together disparate pieces of the events that their brain’s hormonal overload blocked from encoding.

Their “affect” or appearance, may not seem as emotionally charged as one would expect after a heinous assault. They could remain under the influence of those same opioids that deterred their reaction and dulled their senses during the crime.

Undermining self esteem

Victims who freeze struggle with an innate sense of guilt. Their response defied their own personal expectation that if something frightening took place, they would fight to the death or flee. We go through life taking comfort in the concept that we’ll be able to protect ourselves in life or death decisions, and doing nothing seems shameful, even though it very well may have saved our lives. Our brains are wired to react before our reasoning ability kicks in.

Penal laws on sex crimes have yet to grasp the impact of tonic immobility and fawning. Victims are seen as compliant rather than resistant. Our laws focus on the behavior of the victim to determine whether consent took place instead of determining whether the accused used malicious influence to dominate them. Jurors are tasked with determining consent by what the victim said or did, regardless that they were terrorized into compliant behavior.

Watch this TEDx Talk for the key to combating sexual assault!

Authors note:

Inspiration for this post came from information I received from a woman who comments under the name “Semi” on US Weekly. Unless otherwise linked, the source for the data and statistics is The Neurobiology of Sexual Assault, written and presented by Dr. Rebecca Campbell, Professor of Psychology at Michigan State University. I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to watch her scholarly presentation. 

54 thoughts on “Fight, Flight, or “Freeze” Tonic Immobility”

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  2. This tonic immobility I believe has happened to me but it’s often known as sleep paralysis. I woke up one day when I was 16 with this feeling of being paralyzed and as if something was on top of me. I opened my eyes and saw what looked like like red eyes staring at me and a long tongue going in & out of my throat. My penis was erect the whole time this occurred and I felt something inside of my rectum. I was so frightened and tried screaming but nothing came out. It was as if my voicebox wouldn’t work and all I could hear was an internal echo of my screaming inside my head.

    I think I than fell back asleep but woke up what felt like a few minutes later with my body in the same paralysis state but didn’t see this being in the darkness of the room so I got up enough courage to get up, walked to the light switch. My legs and body felt like jello, moving in slow-motion. Once I turned the light on nothing was there…no person, no alien being, nothing. Also my door & windows were all locked. It was so weird and made me feel zapped of energy for a week.

    It was the weirdest experience of my life and has affected me all of these years. I don’t know who the person or being could of been. I went to a shrink before about it and was told it was sleep paralysis but it was too real to to be my imagination.

    1. Ryan-

      Sleep paralysis is a type of dream one has, usually when one falls asleep or wakes up. It occurs in the REM phase of dreaming. It feels very real, like a nightmare would. People often have the sensation that some type of attack is happening to them that they can do nothing about…. that they’re body seems frozen and despite their efforts to do so, they can’t move and escape harm. Here’s a link to a good description:

      Tonic immobility is very far removed from sleep paralysis. It results from a real and terrifying ordeal.

      Sleep paralysis can feel very real to the person, even though it’s not.

      1. Sleep paralysis prevents a person from acting out his/her dreams. A person whose paralysis phase fails to work could be injured or killed, or could injure or kill someone else. Sleepwalking is a failure of the sleep paralysis function. Attacking one’s bedmate, acting out a dream, can be dangerous, though the victim’s reaction usually awakens the sleeper enough to get him to stop.

      2. In my understanding, tonic immobility is a physiological state of extreme distress. It can happen in different situations, also but not only in acute danger.

        1. Everyone is different. I’m not ruling out that tonic immobility could occur in circumstances where acute danger doesn’t exist. Can’t think of one off the top of my head, but it wouldn’t surprise me if someone else could.

          I often refer to the paralysis people who are overly analytical demonstrate. I call it “paralysis of analysis.” I know folks who analyze things left, right and center, then go back and do it all over again. They’re afraid to make a decision. But I wouldn’t call it tonic immobility.

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    1. Quite right! The report from Dr. Campbell has been widely distributed to law enforcement. But I also think we need to reach the public in order to raise awareness among past, present and future victims. No one should ever feel the weight of guilt that comes with being victimized.

  4. I’ve been raped several times, in one form or another. Including molestation and domestic violence rape. I would put myself in another mindset while it was happening- having an out of body experience. I remember the first time I was raped and lost my virginity to my brother at the age of 10. When I look at the memory of it happening, I’m looking at him doing it to me. Not it happening to me. I’m floating above.
    The last time I was raped, was by two men who were practically strangers. I fought like I had never fought in my life. I screamed. I kicked. I bit. Until he covered my nose and mouth and I couldn’t breathe. Eventually I calmed down and just laid there, spaced out, waiting for it to be over. The fear of me dying took over my fight instinct. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t fight, I couldn’t scream. So I laid there and took it.
    That was my only means of survival.
    Thank you for your post.

    1. Estrella-

      You are braver than brave! And your “out-of-body” behavior was, in fact, Tonic Immobility.

      Dr. Campbell cited reports of how victims “encode” information in their brains during these episodes. While they may not be able to tell the police what happened in a linear form, they will have absorbed information in a sensory way. They may have stared at the ceiling and be able to report how many holes or marks there were. They may have a keen sense of the odors from the offender or in the air at the time.

      When questioned, their responses may seem like they are creating lies rather than reaching for information that was disjointedly misfiled when rational thought was blocked as a result of the hormonal overload. And alcohol consumption can even more onerously disturb memory processes.

      Some people never recover a linear sense of what happened, and for others, allowing them time for their internal chemistry to clear will yield better results. Police officers and investigators should be schooled in this concept so they don’t misread what they are seeing and hearing from the victim. She recommended that two sleep cycles are needed before attempting to make sense. It seems to be the normal protocol in investigating police shootings as well.

      1. Also that first time (when I lost my virginity) is the only time I remember being raped by my brother; however, I know it happened hundreds more times over the next several years. I know that they happened at a particular location (our apt, then our house, then my dad’s house, for example) but that is the only information stored there. I can’t remember what it felt like, I can’t remember the event actually happening… I just know it did.
        Thanks for your response. I normally don’t post many comments, especially something so sensitive, but God led me to do so.

        1. I’m sure your revelation will help others understand the phenomenon that happened to them as well. It bears repeating….. you are braver than brave!


          1. Thank you. I try to be an open book. I want to use my struggles and painful experiences to help others…. just as God as put in my heart to do.
            You are awesome for writing a blog like this!!!! I look forward to reading more!

    1. I remember a childhood sexual incident in which I simply froze. (It’s in my book.) I always wondered why I did so, and heaped tremendous guilt on myself. Now I understand why.

  5. Very valuable info. Thank you for sharing as I will also share it by reblogging on my blog if you don’t mind. Even in childhood sexual abuse the victim is most times not believed and they don’t have the choice of fight or flight. “Freeze” is the bodies defense mechanism.

      1. Childhood sexual abuse is rape! I reblogged on my Cyber Support Group blog. I appreciate you sharing it and Merry Christmas.

        1. You’re 100% correct! According to the It’sOnUs Pledge, endorsed by President Obama, “Non-consensual sex is sexual assault.” A child below the age of consent is incapable of “knowing consent.” And consent that is not “knowing” is not consent at all!

          1. The age of consent is set by statute and is very arbitrary. Within the last 150 years it has ranged from 7 (!!) to 21 (unless married). Even today its ranges from puberty (one state of Mexico) to 18 (unless married).
            A blanket statement, “A child below the age of consent is incapable of “knowing consent’,” is seriously wrong. As if a legislature has any control over whether a person is capable of consenting at 12:01 am on their 12th, 13th, 14th, 16th, 17th or 18th birthday but a minute earlier, at 11:59 pm, the person was a “child” incapable of consenting. Or cross a state line and a legal act in the one state is a felony upon making one step across an imaginary boundary. Or in one state a 12 year old can have legal sexual activity with a 12, 13, 14, 15 or 16 year old but is not allowed to marry. Fornication legal while marriage is illegal.
            Certainly some limits have to be drawn to deter predatory grown people from preying upon the young, but some reasoning should be used.
            One of my nieces was physically fully developed at age 12. I attended junior high school with girls my age that ranged from skinny undeveloped children to fully developed, big breasts, wide round hips and the face of an 18-20 year old. Their behavior varied likewise from young adult to rather childlike. All in the same grade, within a year of one another.

            1. Gerry-

              The age of consent has less to do with the development of one’s reproductive organs or breasts, and more to do with the development of their mind.

              In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet is 13 and Romeo is believed to be 18 or older.

              It was recently revealed that back in 1993, SCOTUS, Ruth Bader Ginsburg made a comment that the age of consent should be 12 years old. I seriously beg to differ with her! If a child is not of an age when they can take full responsibility for their actions, feed, nurture and support an infant to maturity, then they are not the age of “consent.” Nor can they fully understand the weight of their actions.

              Just because a person has more developed breasts and curves does not mean they have achieved an age at which they are considered fully responsible for their actions. That’s why children are tried in juvenile rather than adult courts.

              Your argument that one day you’re too young to consent, but the next day, you’ve magically achieved that ability is a valid one. And certainly the concept of “the age of consent” would be far more understandable if all states used the same benchmark.

              When I say, “when a child below the age of consent is incapable of consent, I assumed people would understand that I meant that the authorities in their district have deemed them unable to consent. Such laws are enacted in order to establish a boundary. and even though not every person’s growth mimic’s every other person’s growth, it’s imperative that laws establish a standard by which we’re all expected to behave, otherwise we would have blatant chaos in society, and in the case of sex with children, blatant statutory rape.

  6. Anew one to me! fight or flight I recognized, but there has to be a way to train out freeze in prevention classes. In the military we trained muscle memory to respond with fight to given stimulus.

    1. I appreciate your point. Keep in mind that the military gave you special training to direct your automatic response toward “fight.” People who are not in the military don’t have the training you’re suggesting.

      Fight, flight and freeze are automatic responses. Perhaps, with significant programming, a person’s “freeze” mechanism could be overridden, but it seems like that would take considerable specialized focus.

      I think the first thing needed is to spread the word so that society is aware of this phenomenon, and first responders should be trained to expect the likelihood of this behavior, as well as the confusion that results from “tonic immobility,” when questioning victims who report rape.

      1. yes I had a lot of special training, and I saw freeze on the battlefield too Why the Army invested so much in training interestingly enough PTSD and freezing are often related to previous trauma as well!

        1. I’m glad you mentioned that. In fact, Dr. Campbell stated that people who had experienced prior sexual assault would be at a higher risk of freezing if it happened a second time.

              1. That the sooner the better I wrote a hthesis on the predictability and preventabily of PTSD I always felt if the Armed Forces invested in screening all volunteers with the MmPI 2 and a PTSd screening tool we,d be more aware of those apt to freeze up on that battlefield – they view it as impractical and too costly

                1. Yup… better to load up the front lines with soldiers to get picked off than figure out who can deal best in battle! Sounds like solid military thinking!

                  Is there currently a screening tool that can help determine who would be at greater risk of developing PTSD?

                  1. write or contact their center for research was in Boston when I did my thesis in 2002! they had tools then. All I can say Joyce, is decent social histories and mental health screening could pick up a lot of this. But who pays for it? The Army concluded it would be too cost prohibitive and cut down the field of potential volunteers. Which would certainly be true. As a chaplain I had to work with the Division Psychiatrist to get them out after the fact, but an imperfect world.

                    1. Sleep paralysis prevents a person from acting out his/her dreams. A person whose paralysis phase fails to work could be injured or killed, or could injure or kill someone else. Sleepwalking is a failure of the sleep paralysis function. Attacking one’s bedmate, acting out a dream, can be dangerous, though the victim’s reaction usually awakens the sleeper enough to get him to stop.

          1. “People” including both genders, or women?
            There is a considerable difference between male and female response to attack by a male. The male’s impulse upon attack is to fight unless overwhelmed, while the female’s instinct is to prepare for sexual intercourse and to submit. It’s only by socialization and indoctrination that a sexually mature female has an urge to refuse to submit.
            There are more than one influence:
            • a small adult male is about the size of a medium to large female
            • a male of similar size, weight and condition is much stronger than his female counterpart – she has a natural fear of resisting the larger, stronger, more aggressive male
            • a female of the age of puberty instinctively desires to submit to sexual intercourse – she is here because her female ancestors submitted to intercourse
            This does not mean that a woman should submit to any male who wants her. We are not just animals completely controlled by instinct.
            Many sexually aggressive males will be discouraged by concerted resistance. The indication of statistical analysis is that 90-95% of sexually aggressive men will back off from a woman who will resist. But how many of them would have, absent the resistance, gone through with a rape? No one knows. And what do the other 5-10% do to the resistant woman? She gets raped anyway, and is beaten, her nose broken, choked, her eyes blacked, her teeth broken, in addition to the rape, which may also be brutal, torn vagina, etc.
            It comes down to what the woman is both willing and capable of doing. No one can give absolute advice. Every person is different, the conditions are different in each incident. Basically each has to “wing it.”

            1. Gerry-

              I haven’t given advice, nor should you, regarding what a person should do when confronted by a rapist. I believe that in any case, whether the person is male or female, their survival instinct will kick in and there is no right or wrong way to behave. My interest was to I was to point out that freezing is, in fact, a common reaction. and law enforcement should not dismiss the claim of a victim simply because they did not fight or flee. The same holds true whether the victim is male or female. Also, whether male or female, the victim should not feel disgrace because they did not fight or flee.

              I disagree with you regarding the figures you use to indicate common behavior. And I think you’re assuming when you state your belief about how a man’s reaction would differ from a woman’s. I don’t think anyone’s reaction should be either judged or predicted, period.

    1. Thanks for all the reblogs- I hope that together, we can help prevent the misconceptions associated with the horror of sexual and its aftermath!


      1. Thanks Joyce and God bless you. May we continue to speak out against these abuses and pray that God will intervene to help these victims. Many, many blessings to you.

  7. Awesome post. Thanks for sharing. This explains perfectly why “victim blaming” is so prevalent… but no evidence of fighting does not mean consensual sex. Society and the legal system need to change their views on rape. Too many victims are victimized again when they report any sexual assault.

      1. Amen. I pray that laws will the changed to protect the victims. It is not easy to fight in the legal system. Victims become victimized again as they fight for their rights. Thank you for sharing your knowledge to help others and /God bless you.

    1. Retraining professionals who are responsible to debrief victims is the only way that will change. Dr. Campbell seems to be making significant inroads towards that end. I hope folks who have experienced negative push-back by the authorities contribute their stories here. There’s no need to identify yourself. But those individual accounts can help support rethinking the process.

  8. Reblogged this on Army of Angels and commented:
    One of the most helpful things I learned along the path to healing, was that the body has its own defense mechanisms – automated to protect us. I had heard of “fight or flight”, but not “freeze”. J.M. Short explains it clearly.

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