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What It Means If You Froze During A Sexual Assault

Updated: Oct 13, 2023



Firstly, if you are reading this after an assault then I want to say I'm so sorry this has happened to you, and I also want you to hear that it was not your fault, no matter how much you might think it was.


A common upsetting thought after a sexual assault is: "why did I react like that?" People expect to react to an assault by shouting or running away but it's very common for people to react with the other fear responses: freeze, appease or flop which I'll explain here.


What happens in our brain and body when we feel threatened?


When we sense danger the brain's threat-response centre (called the amygdala) puts our body into red-alert so that it can do what it needs to to stay safe.


This is automatic and beyond your conscious control, it is driven by a primal part of the brain which is different to the rational ‘thinking’ part of our brain where we spend most of our time using when we are not under threat (called the prefrontal cortex).


When we switch into red-alert our autonomic nervous system takes over for us, it does this because we can act much quicker when we aren't weighing up what to do (rational thinking is also slower thinking!). We have all experienced this, for example have you ever swerved the car to avoid hitting a something that's blown onto the road, and later thought that this wasn't a well thought out action because you could have swerved into oncoming traffic?


In that moment your red-alert mode took over to avoid a collision but later, when you felt calmer and your rational 'thinking' brain came back online it judges your actions as less wise.





There are five possible red-alert reactions to danger. What's important to understand is that we don’t get to choose which one takes over, our nervous system chooses the response which it thinks will keep you the safest. Sometimes we do not react in the way we would have expected and often our 'rational-thinking' area of the brain tells us off for reacting that way after the event because it thinks it would have made a better choice (which is pretty harsh of it and incorrect because it's too slow to react quickly!).


The five survival responses in relation to sexual assault


1. Fight

This means fighting back during an assault. In most cases of sexual assault the victim does not do this. People who do not understand the survival instinct of the human nervous system can find this confusing and say unhelpful things like "I'd have just pushed him off" (this is called victim-blaming). Research** shows that people who do not fight during an assault are less likely to sustain further injury. Sometimes survivors of assault report that it felt safer not to fight so that the assault would end sooner.


2. Flight This means fleeing the scene. Again this is not always an option if force is being used, but there may also be emotional blackmail or other forms of coercion that make it hard to run away. From a practical view, if the victim does not believe they can run away and escape with out making the attacker more angry or causing other negative repercussions then they may not use this strategy.


3. Freeze

In this state the body freezes, including being unable to talk; feeling temporarily paralysed and dissociating. It is the most common reaction in sexual assault* but as already mentioned is poorly understood by others who often want to know why the person didn’t try to scream or run away. In fact freezing demonstrates a healthy survival instinct as research** shows that people who fight or attempt to flee are more likely to sustain more physical injuries during a sexual assault.


4. Appease (also known as fawn) This is when we become compliant to minimise confrontation and harm. The victim might try to negotiate or do as they are told to avoid aggravating the perpetrator. The negotiation may include asking the perpetrator to put a condom on or trying to get to the end of the episode as quickly as possible to get it over with. Again, if appeasement happens then the victim can struggle to understand why they acted like this in the moment, but this in another autonomic nervous system survival response.


5. Flop

This is the final-resort of the nervous system to cope with a terrifying event. Flopping might mean going physically limp and feeling heavy. It also includes dissociating which is when we zone out from what is happening, this is the brain and body's trump card to separating out from intensity, people describe it feeling either dream-like or as though they are watching what is happening from afar.


Summary


Remember we do NOT get to choose which of the above five reactions we will do because our survival mode has taken over. You may not have reacted in the way you would have expected, particularly in sexual assault people expect themselves to go into fight or flight mode yet the most common responses are to freeze, appease or flop.


In fact, when we are out of danger the blood flow to our rational ‘thinking’ part of the brain returns to normal and begins to analyse how we behaved. This is why a person who has suffered from a sexual assault often starts criticising themselves for the way they responded, blaming themselves and believing incorrectly that their response encouraged the assault. This is exacerbated by incorrect ideas in our culture about what causes sexual assault - blaming the victim rather than the perpetrator.


Want to know more?


Check out the two longer guides I have written about recovering from sexual assault in the Guides section of this website. They are appropriate for someone who has been sexually assaulted but also for their partner, family or friend if you have people who would like to support you.



Therapeutic options after an assault


If the assault has happened recently then you can self-refer to your local Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC). You can find your nearest one here. They will offer you physical and emotional attention and a forensic examination if you want one. They will not force this on you and you do not need to report to the police to access this service.


If you are considering therapy then the best evidence-based options include Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR), Trauma-Focused CBT and Trauma-focused CFT.


If you would like to explore one of these therapies with a member of our team please fill in our online enquiry form here. We look forward to supporting you on this journey.


Sometimes the idea of one-to-one therapy feels too scary or intimidating. You may not feel ready for this even though you want to start to feel better. If this sounds like you then you may find my Untroubled Lite course helpful: this is a self-paced online programme with access to a supportive Facebook community, that teaching skills to sooth your nervous system and rebuilt self-esteem which is always badly effected by a trauma like this.


Free options of therapy are also available from certain charities including:


And finally this is a free course called Caring for Yourself: Sex and Intimacy After Sexual Violence, by Dr Jessica Taylor, a psychologist and activist against sexual violence towards women.



References

* Moller, Sondergaard & Helstrom. Tonic immobility during sexual assault – a common reaction predicting post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression. Obstetrics & Gynaecology, (2017).

** de Heer & Jones. Investigating the Self-Protective Potential of Immobility in Victims of Rape. Violence & Victims (2017), Vol 32, issue 2.


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