Fight, Flight, Freeze

No need to be a psychologist to know the “fight of flight” phrase. It has been pretty much everywhere, from tv programs to magazines to blogs to online psychology courses. Usually it comes with the example of a cave ancestor faced with a saber toothed tiger.

Threat ? Fight or Flight.

This “Fight or Flight” has been around since the 1920’s, initially describing the instinctual response of animals to danger. With time, it was discovered humans have the same hardwired reaction to threat, and that it can lead to us being traumatized.

Unfortunately, this idea that there are only these two possible reactions to a threat is shaming for us, survivors of sexual trauma. Because of course, when we disclose what we were victims of, or even in the privacy of our own heads, there it goes: “when it happened, why didn’t you fight? Why didn’t you flee?”.

Indeed, most of us did not: instead, we froze.

This can, and very often does, lead to unfair self blame later.

It can also be used by malicious or uninformed people as a proof of consent. I think you know, but just in case: not fleeing, and not fighting, is not a proof of consent. Unpressured explicit consent is a proof of consent. As for children, informed consent simply does not exist.

But really, why didn’t we fight ? Why didn’t we flee ?

We did not fight because it made no sense at all. In the case of child sexual abuse, do you really think a perpetrator will stop because a child is fighting ? Of course not, what the violent person will do is up the violence – physical or emotional, and then proceed with what they intended to do. Adults know they can overpower a child very easily.

The same goes for women. I’m very aware that if I did have to fight against a man, I would be defeated 95% of the time, at best. At least two things conspire against me: a physical imbalance (you know, things like height, weight, muscle mass, hormones), and social conditioning which did not prepare me to fight. And I’m not even going into financial and social power imbalances.

The same logic applies to same sex violence: the perpetrator choses his or her victims so he or she is able to overpower them.

Now, as for fleeing, let’s ask a question: if the perpetrator is stronger and you judge it is worthless fighting, what are the odds that you run faster ? Sexual violence being primarily about violence, what will happen if the perpetrator catches up with the victim ?

Another interesting question: when was the last time you heard a perpetrator attempted sexual violence on someone stronger than him, or her ? It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?

This evaluation process (who is stronger, who is faster ? What will happen if I fight of flee?) takes place in split seconds, outside of our awareness. Indeed, the response to threat uses the very fast, but very basic, danger circuitry in our nervous system. It doesn’t even go through our neo cortex, the part of our brain which allows us to think and make educated choices.

In summary, our response to sexual violence was often to freeze. It was not a conscious choice, rather an instinctual one. But this unconscious choice made perfect sense at the time: no need to go into theoretical psychology here, common sense is enough.

The freeze response

On the theoretical front however, Peter Levine came to our rescue in 1997 in his book Waking the tiger. He added the concept of freezing as another instinctual response to danger, when it was not possible to successfully fight or flight.

Like the other possible responses, it has physical consequences: flooding the body with opiates-like hormones to numb the pain and reduce blood flow to lessen bleeding. So it is far more than a theory: the existence of he freezing response is observable .

So the famous phrase, in trauma informed circles, became “Fight, Flight, Freeze”. Some authors even extended it further, like Pete Walker with his « Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn », but let’s not go there for now.

So why do we still hear about the « Fight or Flight response », if it is outdated?

Well, do you know how long it takes on average from the time a medical important information is confirmed, and the time you can hear it from your GP? 17 years. It’s the same thing here: information spreads slowly. The reasons are, I guess, a mix of information overload, laziness, and resistence to the idea that we uttered nonsense for years.

So next time someone talks about the « Fight of flight response », you can do your part by gently correcting « Fight, Flight, Freeze response ». It makes us all feel better about ourselves, and incidentally, it is more accurate.

Psychological consequences of Fight, Flight, Freeze

At the time of trauma, the freeze response helped us also by triggering dissociation. What it means is that some of us kind of left the scene mentally, since it was not possible physically. We were not fully here, and a part of us was shielded from what was happening.

This dissociation helped us to cope with what was happening, and helped us function afterwards. It’s a good protection mechanism, but it had a cost.

I will expand on dissociation in later articles because it has had an enormous impact on my life, as is probably the case for many trauma survivors. Unfortunately, like for the freeze response, accurate information about dissociation it is not at the forefront, to say the least.

In summary for now, untreated dissociation (and trauma in general), has an effect on how our memory, our attention, and our emotions function later in life.

For example, it can lead to :

  • Impaired memories of the trauma: memories are either absent, partial, confused, non linear (you cannot link them to a specific date or situation). You can even visualize events as if you were in another part of the room, or staring from the ceiling. This has a welcome protective effect initially. But it can be a serious problem later if you need to prove what happened to you, to others or to yourself. It is very easy to believe our memories are not reliable.
  • Impaired ability to learn and pay attention later on. Studies show that trauma shrinks our hippocampus, which is involved in learning and thinking in general. You can find a full description of the neurobiology of trauma here, if it interests you. It’s a bit technical, however, it is comforting to read that there are now evidence we are struggling for tangible, physical reasons. And that it is reversible.
  • Not feeling feelings, when we know we should be
  • Not having a clue about what we like, or want to do
  • The subjective impression of not being able to participate fully in our own lifes. As if we were looking at it from behind a pane of glass. It’s gone now, but I felt like this for a long time, and I found it frightening and depressing.

Speaking of which, you may notice this list looks like symptoms of Depression, and / or ADHD. Is it a coincidence ? Of course not. These conditions are correlated with trauma (not necessarily sexual though).

In fact, I share the opinion of Pete Walker and John Briere: “If complex post traumatic stress disorder were ever given its due, the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental disorders) used by all mental health professionals would shrink from its dictionnary like size to the size of a thin pamphlet.”

Another way of saying it, is that we collectively should pivot from the question « What is wrong with you ?» (depression or ADHD for example) to the far more useful « What happened to you? ». We are not malfunctioning. We are reacting normally to abnormal circumstances.

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