Recently I was asked by a client “what did I do wrong” in reference to their reaction to a recent trauma. This client did not experience either fight or flight, but instead froze, and did not react at all. I had never thought about the perception that we only have two choices in response to fear. In thinking about it, I realized that the response system to trauma is much more complex that the fight or flight model that is taught in general psychology classes.

The ordinary human response to danger is a complex combination of reactions of the body and the mind. Fear kicks the sympathetic nervous system into a state of arousal. Attention is focused on the immediate danger, perception of other needs is diminished, and the body’s natural defense systems take over. The assumption is that our choices are to “fight or flight“, a phrase that was coined by Walter Cannon in 1929 and has been published in numerous textbooks since. However new research has suggested that there are actually four possibilities that people experience.

These four stages in order are to freeze (hypervigilance), then to attempt to flee. When all attempts to flee have been exhausted, we will try to fight our way out of the situation. The last desperate action is tonic immobility (playing dead).

When presented with danger animals typically freeze as their first response. This allows the brain to gather more information, and to process which response will lead to the best possible outcome. Many animals also see in black and white, and sensing movement is part of how vision works for those animals. Humans on the other hand use their color vision to help with this processing, but we still have instincts which tell us that if we freeze then maybe a predatory animal won’t be able to see us. Think of the T-rex in Jurassic Park.

When our brains have had a chance to process the situation, we will attempt to flee the danger if we can find a clear safe path. We automatically become prepared for flight as part of our sympathetic response. Our body pumps us full of adrenaline, increases our heart rate, increases the flow of oxygen by increasing our breathing, and even works to cool out system by starting the sweating process. This allows our body to run father and faster than we normally could. But at the same time we rationalize whether it is possible to flee, and sometimes come to the realization that there is nowhere to go.

The third stage uses the same sympathetic response for our fight. Often times this is where we will struggle, kick, punch, and be resistant. However, what if there is a gun or knife involved? What if harm has been threatened on a loved one? As creatures of intellect, we will use our intellect to understand that fighting might well lead to harm of ourselves or others. In this case, we will instinctively feel as if we have tried our best to both flee and fight.

This leaves the last stage of tonic immobility. As a last resort we will go into an internal stage that puts allows for our survival. Consider what we are taught if a bear were to attack us, play dead. This is tonic immobility. Often this stage is described as a dissociative state, where we are no longer in our bodies. Tonic immobility is not giving in, nor agreeing to allow the trauma to happen. It simply is a way of surviving.

I hope that by understanding this more complex version of the response to fear will help normalize some people’s reactions. By explaining this to my client, they were able to understand that they did nothing wrong. Their reaction was just that, a reaction.

Copyright, 2011, Benjamin Wolf. Blog entries and other materials available on Hope & Healing For Life’s website are intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations.  If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a counselor in St. Paul MN. For further information about this blog, or Hope & Healing For Life, contact Ben Wolf at 612-643-1920 or ben@hopeandhealingforlife.com.