Biopsychology Gender/Sexuality Therapy

Paralyzed by Fear: Exploring Tonic Immobility in Sexual Assault

Woman who has been traumatized

In this episode I mention an organization I do work with and which I think is doing such wonderful work. If you are a mental health professional I strong encourage you to visit Safer Society.

In this episode of “The Psych Files,” I delve into the complex and sensitive topic of sexual assault, focusing particularly on the phenomenon of tonic immobility, often referred to as “frozen fright.” This involuntary response can leave sexual assault victims unable to move or speak during an assault, a reaction that is not only common but also deeply misunderstood. My exposure to this topic began with a the Netflix fictional series “A Nearly Normal Family,” where a young woman experiences this paralyzing effect during an assault. This portrayal opens up a discussion about the real-life implications of tonic immobility, including the challenges it presents in legal contexts where victims’ lack of physical resistance is often misinterpreted as consent. Throughout the episode, I explore the biological and psychological underpinnings of tonic immobility. Experts explain that this response is an evolutionary defense mechanism, akin to the “freeze” response observed in many animals when confronted by predators. It’s a survival strategy, not a choice, triggered by extreme fear and a complex cascade of hormonal reactions in the brain.

I also discuss the broader implications of misunderstanding tonic immobility, particularly the undue guilt and shame that can afflict survivors, complicating their recovery and the pursuit of justice. The episode highlights the importance of education and awareness, both for mental health professionals and the general public, to foster a more compassionate and informed response to survivors of sexual assault. This episode is not just an exploration of a psychological phenomenon but also a call to action to support survivors more effectively and to challenge societal misconceptions about sexual assault and victim behavior.

Applying Neuroscience to Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention



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