What Is the Freeze Response to Trauma?
In sexual assault cases, it's not uncommon for the court of public opinion—and defense attorneys—to argue that if the victim didn't fight hard enough, scream loud enough or run away fast enough, they must have wanted it.
Even in assault prevention education, many students are taught that "fight or flight" are the "right" ways to respond to threats. But these options aren't always available.
Research suggests about 70 percent of sexual assault survivors experience a third response known as freezing, according to Rebecca Heiss, Ph.D., an evolutionary biologist and stress physiologist based in Greenville, South Carolina.
What does it mean to have a freeze response?
Like the fight-or-flight response, the freeze response is an evolutionary, automatic function that has helped humans survive for thousands of years, Heiss said. However, despite its prevalence, many people are unaware it exists.
As a result, survivors often feel ashamed and blame themselves, believing they could or should have done more to prevent the assault. Not only can this compound the trauma and inhibit healing, but it can increase people's susceptibility to chronic mental health issues.
These health issues include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is 2.75 times more likely to affect women who freeze in response to trauma, a 2017 study suggested.