Fight, Flight, or Freeze | “Why didn’t she scream?”

During the recent Belfast rape trial, one of the defence barristers raised the question with the jury: why didn’t she (the complainant) scream the house down? This was echoed in discussions on social media, in conversations with friends, colleagues: Why didn’t she say anything, call out, scream when another woman walked into the room? Although you might think that you would respond differently in such a situation, the truth is you have no idea how you would react, because responses to threat operate outside our willful control.  In fact, the complainant’s response makes complete sense when looked at in the context of our neurobiology, and specifically how our bodies are designed to respond to threat.

Our brains have evolved to keep us safe from danger.  As we evolved as both prey and predator, we have developed a range of threat responses to ensure our survival.

The term fight or flight was coined in the 1920’s to describe how the body prepares us to fight our attacker or to run away when faced with danger. The freeze response is one that we talk about less often, however freezing is also a common response which has adaptive value.  Tonic immobility is another response to situations involving extreme fear and the phenomenon has been well documented in the animal studies. It is considered an evolutionary adaptive defensive reaction to a predatory attack. It has been described as a catatonic-like state with muscle weakness, tremor, lack of vocalization, a temporary lack of pain sensation, and relative unresponsiveness to external stimuli. From the outside, tonic immobility looks like the freeze response, however, researchers have clarified that it tends to occur later on in the chain of responses to threat. It is a last-ditch attempt of your body to defend itself and is often activated in the context of inescapable threat and a perception of entrapment. Your body decides that fighting or running away aren’t possible or aren’t helpful and can go into an involuntary shut-down response, silencing you, freezing your muscles, making you feel detached from the horror of what’s going on.

Tonic immobility has been studied within the field of trauma and two recent robust studies provide findings that illustrate how common this response is in relation to sexual violence. 

A large-scale study of over 3000 people showed that tonic immobility is a common response to many types of threat.  Rape is one of the most traumatic experiences a person can be exposed to, and tonic immobility is almost twice as high in survivors of both child and adult sexual assault. Survivors of torture also showed high rates of tonic immobility as a response.

Another recent Swedish study of almost 300 women who were raped found that the majority of women (70%) reported significant tonic immobility at the time of the attack. Tonic immobility during rape was found to be associated with developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and severe depression.

Despite this scientific research, the Belfast rape trial and the ensuing discussions highlight how this knowledge has failed to filter down into public awareness. Louise Doughty’s excellent novel Apple Tree Yard, televised by BBC1, has a brilliant scene that perfectly captures the freeze response. In the book, the main character, a science professor, has been raped. Her husband has brought in a lawyer to help prepare her for the trial.  In a parallel with the Belfast trial, the lawyer is asking her why she didn’t anything, why didn’t she scream, there were other people around, someone would have heard her. Her husband snaps. He grabs a kitchen knife, stands behind the lawyer, and holds the knife to his throat. It is a powerful scene where you see so clearly the fear in the lawyer’s eyes, yet he too freezes, he doesn’t move, doesn’t say anything…

As a clinical psychologist working in a sexual health clinic, I see survivors of sexual violence including rape all too often. I have yet to meet a survivor whose case has gone to court. In the privacy of the consulting room, people tell me I froze, it didn’t really feel like it was happening, I felt numb, I couldn’t move. The feelings people talk about are those of deepest shame.

The Scottish campaign #ijustfroze aims to raise awareness of common reactions to sexual violence and has produced two excellent animations.

Share them widely if you can.  Although the Belfast rape trial is quickly falling out of the media spotlight, we need to learn from this. We need to keep on talking, raising awareness of how the human body (both male and female) responds to rape. Education is key because the jury is not made up of “other people”; a jury is made up of people like you and me. So is the police force, and so are health care teams, and the media. The lack of knowledge in the general population about how people respond to sexual violence can be a huge barrier to justice.

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