Tonic Immobility: Why do I freeze up when I’m threatened??

If you sneak up on a bird and grab it with both your hands, hold it down for 20 seconds, and then let go, the bird will immediately flap wildly to get away the second you release your hands.

However, if you first frighten or startle the bird — then grab it, hold it down for 20 seconds and let go, something else happens: the bird doesn’t move.

It sits there in a state of freeze for some time before it ‘snaps’ out of it and flies away.

Why? Tonic Immobility. It’s the paralysis that happens when we are

  1. First frightened (or overwhelmed with negative emotion such as sudden grief)

and then

2. immobilized.

By the time we have the option for freedom/movement we are in a state of freeze or learned helplessness.

We come out of this state the same way we went in.

For example:

An infant born crippled, her legs are cast. Each week doctors saw the casts off to account for her growing body. The sound of the saw terrifies this young tiny baby. She screams until her face is bright red and flails around maniacally. This is the 1970’s when standard medical belief was that babies could not feel anything. The nurses hold down her flailing arms. Her legs can’t kick as they are immobilized from the casts. She is terrified and she can’t move. She goes limp.

Another example:

A woman is frightened. She realizes she is about to be raped. Terror strikes through her. First she runs but he grabs her. She puts up a fight; kicking, screaming and biting. She is held down forcefully — immobilized. She can’t move. She goes limp. She goes away. She floats to the ceiling through dissociation. For weeks and months later when she sees a strange man she wants to run but she’s frozen. She can’t scream. She’s totally shut down.

Through therapy each of these women gradually start to heal and become less frozen.

This unleashes the rage and the fight she never got to act on. For a period in her healing she is angry all the time.

The anger that arises from the aborted fight response must be titrated. This means that it can’t all cathartically be released in one session and then she is rid of it forever. It must be brought to the surface in tiny increments that her damaged nervous system can actually metabolize.

There is one important difference between the two examples:

One trauma happened in infancy — before the nervous system was even wired. This nervous system never goes on to learn resiliency. It has no reference point for safety in its world. This would be considered developmental trauma.

The other happened in an adult. If the adult was typical, there is a baseline of emotional regulation she can return to as she processes through the trauma. This would be considered shock trauma.

To learn more about Tonic Immobility and shock trauma see Peter Levine’s book “In an Unspoken Voice”.

To learn more about developmental trauma see chapter 10 of Bessel van der Kolk’s book “The Body Keeps the Score”.