We often hear pet owners—particularly dog lovers—attempt to train man’s best friend to:
“Roll over and play dead!”
On the surface, this behavioral conditioning session appears to be just for fun and games. The owner enjoys an opportunity to develop or maintain secure attachment with the pet, and the pet looks forward to a tasty treat after compliance. However, have you ever taken a moment to decipher this interaction and its purpose? Is it really just an amusing trick to teach your dog?
If you look beneath the surface, you’ll see that it isn’t a trick. It’s more like charades, teaching your dog how to physically mimic an automatic defense response that some animals—and humans—do upon facing real and perceived danger within their respective environments. This involuntary response is formally known as tonic immobility or the freeze response, and it occurs when predators, perpetrators, or other things pose a threat to life. In other words, tonic immobility is a form of physical paralysis that kicks the body’s sympathetic nervous system into high gear, leaving one eager to win the survival race—without actually fleeing, of course. It may also be helpful to view tonic immobility as a form of trauma-related dissociation, which one could describe as being on autopilot or detached from thoughts, emotions, and even physical sensations.
It’s helpful to also know that there are two layers to the ‘why’. We know why tonic immobility happens. However, have you ever considered the reason why the freeze response—and even aspects of the fawn response— activates instead of the fight or flight acute stress responses? Consider the following:
People often say, “Mother knows best!”
In the case of tonic immobility, your prehistoric brain’s amygdala knows best! It runs on ancient instinct fuel and sometimes decides not to gamble and land on the other stress responses when your life is at stake. Essentially, fatality risk increases when it comes to the fight and flight responses. According to your ancient brain, running away from danger could potentially mean being captured and killed, and fighting back could lead to defeat via death. The freeze response is comparable to waving a white flag so that you can dodge demise and have an opportunity to eventually escape.
Tonic immobility is extremely common when it comes to sexual assault-related trauma, which impacts survivors of all ages and gender identities, for example. One research study sampled 298 women who had survived rape and found that nearly 70% and 48% of them disclosed significant and extreme tonic immobility, respectively, during the sexual assault (Möller et al., 2017). This information is not an attempt to quickly peel back and discard the layers of grief and inappropriate guilt that may be wrapped around you if you’ve experienced this type of trauma. It’s simply another way to explain what happened to you—with extra emphasis on the words what happened to you, provided that, regardless of what victim blamers or your inner critic says, you are 0% responsible for what happened to you.
That being said, you may have asked yourself at one point, “Why did I freeze?”
Remember that tonic immobility isn’t a choice. It’s automatic, and really more like a reflex. It can’t be fully controlled with ease, but it serves a purpose: to increase your chances of walking away from the trauma with your life fully intact!
Also, keep in mind that the freeze response should not be mistaken for consent. For the people in the back, I’ll say it again: the freeze response is NOT consent—although perpetrators may believe otherwise. With consent, there’s an element of intentional, conscious choice in the mix of the decision-making process.
Although tonic immobility or the freeze response doesn’t prevent trauma wounds, please know that the wounds have the capacity to heal and fade over time with professional support.
Möller, A., Söndergaard, H. P., & Helström, L. (2017). Tonic immobility during sexual assault – a common reaction predicting post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression. Acta obstetricia et gynecologica Scandinavica, 96(8), 932–938. https://doi.org/10.1111/aogs.13174