Written by DiveThru Team
Reviewed by Natalie Asayag MSW, LCSW
Traumatic Shock: Why You ‘Froze’ And Couldn’t Say Or Do Anything
Published Apr 1st, 2021 & updated on Jul 27th, 2021
Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault
When we experience trauma, our brains can respond in super unpredictable ways. We probably think that in the face of danger, we’d take charge and find all the best ways to protect ourselves. We’d run away, or channel our inner Karate Kid to fight back. There’s absolutely no way we would just “let it happen” to us. But that’s not how traumatic shock works.
You know that moment when you’re watching a scary movie and yelling at the character NOT to do something because it seems stupid? Are you kidding me right now, you’re gonna run and hide upstairs where there’s zero chance of escaping?? That makes no sense. I DEFINITELY wouldn’t make those decisions if that were me! It’s not that simple in real life.
Responses To Trauma
Chances are, you’ve heard of fight or flight before. But there are actually 2 other common types of trauma responses that we gotta give some recognition: the freeze response and fawn response.
Let’s talk a bit about the fawn response first. This one happens when we immediately go along with what’s happening in order to avoid conflict with another person. It can be seen as a “people-pleasing” response, where you want to prevent any further abuse by pleasing the other person. Even if it means ignoring your own feelings of discomfort. The fawn response is common during childhood, where the abuser is usually someone older who has more power over you. As you grow up, you might notice this pattern showing up in other areas of life too: pleasing your friends, romantic partners or your boss to avoid upsetting them.
Then there’s the freeze response, also known as traumatic shock. Basically, the freeze response happens when we freeze up in a scary or uncomfortable situation where we can’t move or speak. And it’s way, wayyy more common than you think. Sooo…why isn’t this response talked about more?
Great question. Let’s dive thru traumatic shock, why it happens and how it impacts our mental health.
Why Freezing During Trauma Happens
In the face of trauma, we might react in ways that make zero sense to us. At all. Anytime we feel really uncomfortable or unsafe, our brain shuffles through the fight-flight-freeze responses and decides subconsciously which one is best for us at that exact moment. So as it turns out, we don’t have as much control in these situations as we think we do.
During a trauma like sexual assault, it’s common to be in traumatic shock, to freeze up and be unable to move or speak. It’s like you’re suddenly under some sort of spell that turns you into a statue, and it’s a real defense mechanism our brains might use to protect us. But the thing you’re probably wondering is, why?? If our brains truly gave a crap about our safety, why keep us frozen instead of, ya know…telling us to get away from a scary, traumatic situation?
Ok, quick biology lesson. Stick with us here! It’s super important to understand how our brain works when we experience this type of freezing reaction. That way, we can hopefully alleviate the blame we might put on ourselves for not doing or saying anything in the moment. ‘Cause 1) your trauma is not your fault, and 2) how you respond is with survival. There is no “right” way to respond and it is often out of your control.
Our nervous system has two modes: the everything-is-totally-fine mode, and the holy-crap-what’s-happening-am-I-about-to-die mode. When we’re in safe mode, our brains are like, Yep, all good. Nothing to see here! But when we sense a threat to our safety, our brain is like, Hold up. We’re gonna focus on survival right now, that’s it, nothing else! The prefrontal cortex, where we have rational thoughts, clear thinking and control over our bodies? It goes on pause. Our brains have one goal and one goal only: keeping us safe.
So if we freeze during sexual assault, it’s because our brains decided in those milliseconds that was the best and safest option. Fight or flight could have had worse potential outcomes, so our brains told us we need to ‘play dead’ instead. Make no sudden movements and nobody gets hurt…this will be over soon…. Our minds might feel blank because we’re mentally ‘checking out’ from the situation. It’s another way of keeping us safe, by not letting us fully process what the heck is happening. It’s like the whole thing doesn’t even feel real to us.
Here are some other common symptoms we might experience during traumatic shock, on top of being unable to move or speak (it’s a hefty list):
- Mind going blank
- Clouded thoughts
- Panic or dread
- Muscle tension
- Feeling numb or detached
- Feeling trapped or stuck
- Fearing that you won’t be believed
- Fearing that others will think you’re making it up
- Heaviness or stiffness
- Holding breath
- Heart rate increasing or decreasing
Freezing Does NOT Equal Consent
This is a hard, fast rule that we want to make sure is explicit when it comes to consent: if it’s not an enthusiastic YES, it’s a NO. So if you’re in a state of traumatic shock or freeze response and someone commits sexual acts towards you without your YES, they did not have your consent. It’s as simple as that!
There are sooo many toxic and harmful misconceptions out there about the freeze response during sexual assault:
They should’ve just walked away.
Why didn’t they fight back?
They should have screamed.
If they didn’t say no, that’s their fault.
They just changed their minds after the fact…If they didn’t want it to happen, they would’ve said something while it was actually happening.
It really sucks, but we’ve probably all heard some variation of these phrases before. Society has done so much harm to survivors of sexual assault by pushing these false narratives, and it’s not fair. But we can change the narrative around sexual assault. Instead, let’s challenge those victim-blaming phrases, shall we?
It was not my fault.
I did what I had to do to survive.
My brain was working to protect me.
My feelings about my trauma are valid.
I did not deserve what happened to me.
The sad reality is that sexual assault is a common offense. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. *jaw drop*
It could be committed by a random stranger on public transit who gropes us as they walk by. It could be someone that’s considered a friend who forces a kiss on us without asking permission. And it could even happen with someone we’re actually dating, who takes it further than we’re ready to go without our consent. Stats show that most sexual offenders are people we actually KNOW, and that’s obviously a super dark, terrifying thing to realize. Often we don’t even understand what has happened to us until wayyy after the fact. But that doesn’t make what happened to us, or how we feel about it, any less real.
To understand more about what sexual assault is and what consent is, check out our article that dives thru a more detailed explanation.
How Traumatic Shock Impacts Mental Health
Someone who freezes or goes into traumatic shock typically experiences a lot of confusion and self-loathing afterwards. They might go over what happened repeatedly in their minds, wondering if they could have stopped it if only they had done something differently. Maybe if I hadn’t gone to that party…Or maybe if I didn’t drink…Maybe I gave them the wrong idea…If only I actually did or said something, I could have stopped it. Reflecting on how they froze during sexual assault, survivors might also feel:
- Dirty or used
If this is something you’ve gone through, you could also be dealing with flashbacks, panic attacks and major anxiety. These symptoms might make you feel like you’re not YOU anymore. Maybe life suddenly doesn’t seem worth living. You’re going through the motions everyday, but something just isn’t right. You haven’t come to terms with what happened, or healed from it.
We can’t say this enough: your trauma is not your fault. And the way you responded when it happened? It was to survive. This is such a painful experience to work through. Coming to terms with what happened to you won’t be easy, but please know that you are not alone! There are resources and ways to cope with trauma that we wanna share with you.
Where To Find Support
The first step in finding support can look different for everyone. For some people, it is a trusted friend, family member, or significant other. For others, the thought of saying it out loud or telling someone is too scary. No matter where you are in your process, you can always receive help.
Even if we have an amazing support system, trauma impacts the way our brain functions and there are times when we need professional help. It doesn’t mean you are weak. If your foot was broken, would it be weak of you to go to the ER for a cast? Nope, it would help you heal! Don’t underestimate the power of therapy.
It’s also SUPER important to note that going to therapy does not mean you have to talk about what happened until you are ready. Finding a therapist who can help you work through the trauma, process your experience and validate your rollercoaster of emotions will be helpful — but rest easy knowing that it will happen on your terms.
Search for therapists in your area who deal specifically with trauma or sexual assault either online, or get a referral from your doctor or a helpline. Therapy will not only help you feel less alone, but it also provides you with necessary coping mechanisms to actually deal with your trauma head-on. The healing process can take some time, so remember to be kind to yourself!
Here are some helplines you can reach out to for support who deal specifically with sexual assault. You might not know what to do after something so traumatic, but there are trained professionals who want to support you so you don’t feel lost and alone. They’ll tell you what your next steps are:
US: RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or chat online. Both are available 24/7.
*If you need immediate help, dial 911 or your local emergency number.
*To report a crime against a child, or other vulnerable persons, contact your local police.