We need to disentangle the phenomena of animal defenses (e.g., freezing, hyperfocus, tonic immobility, etc.) from the phenomena of clinical dissociation (depersonalization, derealization, amnesia, etc.). Animal defenses have been built into us by natural selection; as such, their phenomena are normal. On the other hand, natural selection did not build clinical dissociation into us (see Dell, 2009); clinical dissociative experiences are abnormal.
I am convinced that our empirical data on both peritraumatic dissociation and chronic dissociation are an undifferentiated mixture of (1) genuine dissociative symptoms and (2) the operation of normal animal defenses.
A Personal Comment About UnderstandingDissociation.com
I spent the last 6 days in Atlanta, attending the Board Meeting and the annual conference of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD). During that time, I was too busy to make any new posts as I was completing my term as President of ISSTD. Now, I’m done. Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I’m free at last! 🙂 Well, not exactly. Now I’m the Immediate Past President (an actual position, with a one-year term of office, on the ISSTD Executive Committee ).
Anyway, today I’m back home in Norfolk and we can renew our blog-ular (bloggish? blogite? bloggy?) discussions. The last 4 posts have addressed flashbacks. We are definitely not done with that topic, but my sense is that we need a break from it for a while.
Let’s talk about animal defenses and dissociation. During a delightful conversation with Steve Frankel in Atlanta (Steve is a PhD/JD –clinical psychologist/lawyer — from the San Francisco area), I learned that Steve is very interested in tonic immobility. Tonic immobility is an animal defense whose primary manifestation is total paralysis (such that the animal may appear to be dead — but is anything but). I, too, have a longstanding interest in tonic immobility (my computer contains 250 pages of notes on the topic). Steve and I plan to work together on this topic so that we can give a presentation about it next year at ISSTD in Montreal and, hopefully, commit our thoughts to paper for publication.
I am a great believer in ‘killing two birds with one stone’ (My cats just alerted: “Burd?Burd? Where burd? I can haz burd?”). Today, I will accomplish two things. I will begin to work on my project with Steve by describing these fascinating phenomena to you –the community of UnderstandingDissociation.com.
In 1988, Fanselow and Lester published a seminal paper on animal defenses. This article built on the prior work of Ratner (1967). Fanselow and Lester proposed that there is a continuum of predatory imminence. Put simply, they (and many others since then) proposed that many species of animal automatically exhibit a series of different animal defenses as a predator comes closer and closer.
1. Pre-encounter Defensive Behavior. During periods when an animal has not recently encountered a predator, it is not defensive and is free to forage for food, and so on. At most, the animal may constrict its roaming to areas that it ‘believes’ to be safe from predators.
2. Post-encounter Defensive Behavior. When an animal detects a predator in its vicinity, it undergoes a dramatic change in behavior — freezing — in a location that reduces its visibility to the predator. While frozen, the animal is in a state of very high alert. All of its senses are heightened, but its sensitivity to pain immediately decreases. Its breathing is rapid and shallow. The animal is highly attentive to its environment.
3. Circa-strike Behavior. As a predator is about to strike, the animal’s behavior undergoes another dramatic shift. In fact, the animal may successively exhibit three quite different responses, each designed to survive this encounter with the predator. First, the animal will probably shift into explosive escape behavior. If unable to escape the predator, the animal is likely to struggle, fight, and bite. Finally, if fighting is of no avail, the animal may suddenly enter a state of tonic immobility. This immobility (as if dead) will sometimes inhibit the predator’s attack, allowing the animal to escape, perhaps injured but still alive.
4. Recuperation. The animal retreats to a safe place where its spontaneous analgesia subsides. The animal then rests and tends to its injuries.
Do Humans Have ‘Animal’ Defenses?
Yes, we do. In previous posts, we discussed what I have called evolution-prepared dissociation — an ‘animal’ defense which is specific to us humans. Similarly, there have been a few publications that have addressed tonic immobility in humans, especially in some rape victims (e.g., Suarez & Gallup, 1977; Marx, Forsyth, Gallup, Fusé, & Lexington, 2008).
On the other hand, there is a problem. Although we have some data which shows us what these phenomena look like in human beings, the truth is that we really know very little about this topic. There are far too few studies of animal defenses in humans. We simply do not know how similar (or different) our human ‘animal defenses’ are to those of other animals.
Please understand that this caveat is neither trivial nor pro forma. There are important reasons to shine a bright light on these potential differences. Forty years ago, Robert Bolles (1980) proposed that there are species-specific defense reactions. Species-specific means that there may be important differences in the fine details of an animal defense from one species to another. In short, there is every reason to carefully study human ‘animal defenses’ to learn how they may differ from those of other species.
What Do Our Own Experiences Tell Us?
In previous posts, we discussed a form of evolution-prepared dissociation that humans frequently experience at a time of extreme danger to survival: calmness, absence of fear, hyperfocused attention, time slows down, thought speeds up, enormous mental clarity, superb problem-solving, anesthesia. Several of you described such experiences.
Today, I am asking about a very different kind of evolution-prepared dissociation: tonic immobility. Have you had an experience of suddenly being unable to move when you could not escape an assault or likely death? If so, please describe your subjective experience in detail (if you can), but describe the trauma itself with as little detail as possible.
Your experiences of tonic immobility may be uncomfortable to ‘go near,’ so please (1) be careful in your remembering, and (2) choose your words judiciously if you describe such an experience in a Comment.
Okay… There is memory of during many nighttime abuse instances, the child was able to slow her breathing down to the point of being able to actually “breathe through” the thickness of a feather pillow. I’m not sure whether the pillow on the face was primarily a hiding mechanism at first, or whether it was forced before the abuse, but in any event, the child learned to cheat death by slowing the heart rate and breathing so that she was able to get adequate oxygen through the thick feather pillow while remaining perfectly still. This was a much different “escape” than leaving the body as she also did during other times of abuse. Would this be classified as tonic immobility?
Thank you for your courage in ‘going near’ this memory. In tonic immobility, the immobility is involuntary. It just ‘happens’ to the person. The person is unable to move, even if she wanted to, even if it were safe to move. For that moment (which may even be many minutes in length), the person is simply unable to move because she is really and truly paralyzed. The paralysis is not voluntary. How does that description of tonic immobility fit with your experience?
Yes, I understand what you’re saying… much like if someone were to break into your house, and you became physically immobile, and unable to get an audible sound out of the mouth even though you wanted to scream?
I do believe that the slowing of the heart rate and of the breathing in conjunction with the stillness of the body, spontaneously mimicking a “death state” were possibly involuntary… I don’t know if this child was so afraid that she was unable to move, or if she chose that behavior for protection. These were definitely fight, flee, flow, or die situations, so it’s possible that the former might have been the case.
Yes, precisely. The “unable to move” of tonic immobility includes “unable to speak, scream, etc.” Our culture recognizes this phenomenon with phrases such as “scared stiff,” “paralyzed with fear,” and “deer in the headlights.”
Those of us who have dissociative disorders may have some history of tonic immobility, but we can only articulate what happens during our episodes of dealing with sudden, life threatening danger. We may not know what the clinical process is, but it is my opinion that those of us who have dissociative disorders may have much different experiences and spontaneous reactions than those who do not dissociate.
The chameleon’s sensing danger, freezing, and spontaneously changing color to blend into its environment to “become invisible” to its predator comes to mind. Maybe this addition of an extra step in the process is closer to what we experience as dissociatives?
I have heard more accounts of tonic immobility from non-dissociatives than I have from those with dissociative disorders. Maybe pure tonic immobility is simply more of a singleton issue.
Thank you for this observation. You suggest that singletons have ‘pure’ tonic immobility, whereas people with a dissociative disorder have tonic immobility mixed together with a variety of other (dissociative?) experiences. This is exactly what I am trying to get at. I think that our data on the dissociative experiences of people with a dissociative disorder are an undifferentiated mixture of genuine dissociative experiences and tonic immobility.
We are now embarked on a discussion that will try to sort this out. Let’s see what others can tell us about their experiences of tonic immobility.
my comment is more conceptual than experiential, so i hope this does not take us too far away from the phenomenon everyone is trying to describe.
dr dell, when you write:
“The “unable to move” of tonic immobility includes “unable to speak, scream, etc.” Our culture recognizes this phenomenon with phrases such as “scared stiff,” “paralyzed with fear,” and “deer in the headlights”.
i thought you may be refering to two very different experiences, both of which result in “immobility”. the one you seem to be speaking to here, the “deer in the headlights” or “freeze” response is, i believe, indicative of hyperarousal (sympathetic activation), whereas the “feigned death” response that also manifests as immobility is, i believe, indicative of marked hypoarousal or shut down. both outwardly manifested as “immobile”, but experientially and neurophysiologically quite different. i think of the first form of immobility as occuring when fight and flight are simultaneously activated, but there is no perceived action available to reach safety. the second, feigned death, i think of as a system collapse, a somatic “i give up” (which i believe, with porges, is activated when fight/flight/freeze “fail”, i.e. are insufficient to keep the animal/person safe).
as an aside: i’ve been pondering your original remarks, dr. dell, when you wrote:
“There are far too few studies of animal defenses in humans. We simply do not know how similar (or different) our human ‘animal defenses’ are to those of other animals”.
the question about what is “cross species” vs “species specific” is, to my mind, a very interesting one. here’s one take on this: i believe, in humans, there is a form of depression in certain trauma survivors that follows marked hyperarousal (freeze response), that i associate with a variant of the “feigned death” response. in my experience, it also is evidenced in very severe forms of shame. one former relational trauma survivor pt of mine suffered so much shame that every act of his was met with an unrelenting and scathing internal attack, which, for him, resulted in sleeping most of his day to numb the pain. in session, the sleepiness would take over involuntarily. i believe this may reflect a human variant of “feigned death”. in my pt, it certainly had the effect of his “laying low” (including constricted breathing) while waiting for the “danger” to pass, which in his case was originally a frightening and harsh parent, and now are his “introjects”.
You have provided many ideas to think about. I will tackle only one of them in this comment. You picked up on the expression “deer in the headlights,” and suggested that this is not tonic immobility. I am not positive about this, but here are my thoughts.
1. You note that there are two kinds of freezing or immobility, and they are not the same. I agree. In fact, several authors have pointed out the frequency with which two kinds of freezing are confused with one another. First, there is a voluntary kind of freezing which occurs when an animal notices a predator in its vicinity. This kind of freezing is a highly alert state during which the animal’s sensitivity to environmental stimuli is sharply increased. In addition, the animal has a hair-trigger readiness to take evasive action. In short, the animal is not paralyzed. Second, there is tonic immobility. In this kind of ‘freezing,’ the immobility is not voluntary. The animal is genuinely unable to move or cry out.
2. The issue at hand is whether the “deer in the headlights” phenomenon is alert freezing (with hair-trigger readiness to escape) or paralyzed immobility (with an inability to move or cry out, even if one wants to). My understanding of the idiom, “like a deer in the headlights,” is that the deer is frozen with fear. Looking online, I found this definition of “deer in the headlights” at Answers.com:
Similarly, The Word Detective (online) says:
Somewhere in my notes is a description of laborers who work in railroad tunnels. Some of them would become immobile, staring at an onrushing train (instead of moving to the wall of the tunnel), and would be hit by the train. This, too, I think of as being frozen with fear, like a deer in the headlights.
My mother’s cat, Sheba experienced a classic case of tonic immobility when we took her to be groomed. Sheba is about 20 years old, suffers from arthritis and chronic liver disease (treated with prednisone) and cannot reach parts of herself to groom herself. As a result, she has developed severe matting in her fur that has left her quite uncomfortable.
We took Sheba in to be bathed and shaved to get rid of the mats and we were asked to leave her there. A couple hours later, my mother was asked to come get her. Sheba had been bathed but the groomers had been unable to complete clipping her. When I got home, Sheba was in a tonically immobile state, which I recognized immediately as what Stephen Porges would call “dorsal vagal” and William Sargant and Joseph Pavlov would call “post-ultraparadoxical collapse”.
Sheba had up until this time been strictly my mother’s cat, only being comfortable in her lap and I decided that to quote Rahm Emanuel, “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste”, so I took Sheba in my lap and helped her through her crisis, petting her and warming her up (her body temperature was quite depressed).
Apparently, she had been held in straps in the groomer’s bathtub while being bathed and unable to escape or fight, had gone into a hypertonically immobile state, as if she had been waterboarded. Because the water was cool, it lowered her body temperature and may have also induced a mamalian dive reflex, even though Sheba wasn’t drowning.
Anyways, after about a couple hours of my petting Sheba and having her in my lap, she started to feel a bit better, though one of her paws was bleeding and her two front paws seemed sprained from her struggles. At one point, while I was laying down on my side, she put her paw on me and I rolled over and she crawled on top of me and fell asleep, something she had never done before with me. Sheba has been a lot closer to me ever since.
Welcome to UnderstandingDissociation.com! Thank you for sharing this lovely account of Sheba’s tonic immobility. In my next post, I will provide more detail about tonic immobility. For today, I will limit myself to one pertinent fact. Tonic immobility is accompanied by a decrease of body temperature.
Finally, I think that your nurturing of Sheba when you brought her home helped her to transition from Tonic Immobility to Rest and Recuperation. Animal defenses in action!
I’m a husband helping my wife through DID. When the insiders first started coming out, I recorded this instance in my journal. I think it may be what you are talking about:
Later Karen and I were watching Mail Order Bride on Hallmark. It turned out to be about a whacko man who thought he owned a woman like a piece of cattle and hunted her down after she ran away. Even though in the end, the good guy won and saved the girl, the story line frightened all the littles. Amy came out before the conclusion and I tried to assure her that everything would be ok. But when it ended, even though it was “a happy ending” Karen went catatonic on me. She closed her eyes, started breathing only like once every 10 or 15 seconds, then would take a deep breath. She was unresponsive to me. It scared me. I called to her, to Amy, to Sophia. Then I called to Alexis (now Alleylieu) and asked her to help me. Eventually Karen came back, but it was kind of freaky.
I was holding her right after this, and Alexis came out. “Now we’re even.” I knew the voice was Alexis. “What do you mean, Alexis?” “You saved us in the hospital, and I heard you and sent Karen back out. Now we’re even.” “I don’t want to be even, Alexis. I want us to be friends.” Nothing. That was pretty much the end of the conversation. I haven’t heard from Alexis for weeks, and now Alexis feels like she’s off the hook. It was kind of depressing.
(end of quote from journal)…We’ve come a long way since then (Alexis became Alleylieu and is my girlfriend now). And that was the only time I personally was involved in one of those states.
Unresponsive states are not uncommon in DID. I really can’t tell if this was tonic immobility. I don’t have enough information to venture even an educated guess.
I have definite and clear memories of tonic immobility- my therapist, Lynette Danlychuk, actually directed me here partly because she knew you’d wanted more input on this (and that I’d find it fascinating).
It’s something I’ve talked to her about a fair bit as I’m pretty well read and had been surprised to find very little about in the literature.
First, there is a specific part (I am DID) who came out primarily during episodes of torture or other extreme pain that the rest of the system literally could not endure- who basically is perpetually stuck in that tonic state. Lynette and I/we have been working with him in bits and pieces over time- it’s very hard, as it’s extremely hard to get someone else back “out” and very physically and emotionally disorienting. She says my skin is cool to the touch and she’d guess my respiration and blood pressure drop drastically- which fits. I- the part writing- am directly connected to him. He is *aware* simply- completely unresponsive. It- *feels* totally different then dissociation to us. Very, very clearly different.
I don’t know if this is related, but I/we also have- a lot less “normal” DID dissociation and a lot more- unresponsive states. Often we can hear and are *aware* of what is going on around us- simply can’t respond at all. It’s either in response to extreme stress, an extreme trigger, or sometimes to conditioned responses.
If you would like to talk more, I’d be glad to do so- I believe my email is included in this. I will continue to read this blog and am eager to see more on this topic.
Hello DarkSouls. Welcome to UnderstandingDissociation.com.
It is important that you and other ‘insiders’ who visit UnderstandingDissociation.com be safe. Please minimize your self-disclosure so you will not be too ‘exposed.’
Thank you very much for contributing this aspect of your experience to the group discussion. You are describing some very interesting experiences. I introduced my posts about animal defenses with the suggestion that our data about dissociative experiences is actually an undifferentiated mixture of genuine clinical dissociation and normal animal defenses. Your report may be an example of an animal defense that is recurrently activated in the midst of your other DID dissociative experiences. Being cold would fit with the literature that describes tonic immobility in animals. On the other hand, what you describe also fits with Allan Schore’s description of dissociation as being driven by dorsal vagal stimulation of the heart, which produces bradycardia (slowing of the heart), metabolic slowing, and reduced temperature.
Would you be willing to elaborate on this part being somehow “very physically and emotionally disorienting?” It would also be helpful to our thinking if you could provide more experiential detail about what seems to to be happening when you undergo “unresponsive states” where you can hear, but can’t respond.
Haven’t been able to keep up around here lately due to medical miseries. But this is a very interesting subject. There are a couple of experiences I think may be classified as “tonic immobility” that come to mind, but I’d rather not go into them on an open forum. If you want them sent privately I could probably do that.
However, there are 2 situations that have long puzzled me, which might (or might not) be related to tonic immobility. It recently occurred to me that the “threat” I faced in these two events was purely psychological – I wasn’t in any physical danger from the individuals I was with at the time. The more I think about it, the more similarities I see between the two events, so I’ll just describe one and maybe you’ll see what I mean.
I’d been seeing this psychiatrist for 3 years as a teenager. On the one hand I wanted her to help me; on the other hand I was afraid to tell her much of anything. My mother had made it clear that I was to put on a happy face, tell the doc everything was FINE at home, and get a rubber stamp on my forehead decreeing that I was fixed ASAP. So therapy sessions were a confusing, painful struggle, a sort of cat and mouse game where I would try to tell her something without telling her anything. UGH.
Towards the end this psychiatrist became rather upset with me about something. I don’t remember what. But I do remember sensing her anger, and I started shaking. Then I couldn’t get any words out at all. It seemed like my body just shut down on me. At some point I realized that I couldn’t move. It didn’t even alarm me. I was just numb. I couldn’t think clearly at all.
I heard the doctor’s voice rising in pitch and volume, and remember that she accused me of ignoring her. For a moment I wondered if she was going to come over and hit me or something. I felt completely, utterly… hopeless. Defeated. I wanted to say to her, “Help me,” but no words would come out, and I knew in that instant that she had no idea how to help me anyway. She just seemed to get angrier and angrier, saying that I was wasting her time, that I was rude, that she should throw me out and be done with me. I couldn’t so much as shift my eyes to look at her. I couldn’t even cry.
At the end of the session she opened the door and ordered me to leave. I still couldn’t move. In obvious frustration, she stormed out of the office and into the reception area. It was late; no one else was there. I heard her making a phone call. After a few minutes I found I could move again, although I felt really shaky and uncoordinated. Somehow I managed to stumble out of the office, past her glaring eyes as she continued with her phone call, and outside where I finally seemed able to catch a breath.
During all of this, I was aware of what she was saying to me. My field of awareness seemed very limited, though, and my senses seemed dulled. Even my emotions weren’t particularly strong at the time. It seemed like later, after I thought about it, the emotional impact increased. But at the time I just seemed resigned to whatever might happen. She probably could have come over and slapped me in the face, and I doubt I would have moved. Nor would I have been surprised.
In retrospect, I don’t think she would have done something like that, but it was how I perceived it at the time. I felt helpless and vulnerable, and hopeless. There was no fight in me at all, not even enough to formulate a thought of what I might do, or what I might wish that she would do. Only recently did I connect the dots between my reaction in that situation with some other, more physically violent incidents in my past. But even if there was no physical threat in this one, the reaction was quite similar: BSOD… mentally.
So do you think that’s tonic immobility, or something else?
Actually, I don’t think that this is tonic immobility. Apropos of my Nov. 4 post, I think that this is a different kind of immobility — a conditioned fear response that is rooted in your having experienced previous inescapable incidents of abuse.
Let’s enumerate the salient features of this event in your psychiatrist’s office: (1) she was angry at you; (2) you became scared and anxious (you started shaking); (3) you couldn’t speak or move (it seemed like your body had shut down on you); (4) you were numb and felt little emotion; (5) your senses seemed dulled; (6) you couldn’t think clearly at all; (7) you were aware of what she was saying to you, but your field of awareness seemed limited; (8) you felt hopeless, helpless, vulnerable, defeated, and you were resigned to whatever might happen.
This is a very clear description that involves paralysis and a sense of defeat, but I don’t think that this is the animal defense of tonic immobility. Instead, I think it is a conditioned and immobilizing fear response that was caused by previous incidents of inescapable abuse.
My hunch is that your total inability to think is diagnostic of the essential difference between true tonic immobility and defeat immobilization: “There was no fight in me at all, not even enough to formulate a thought of what I might, or what I might wish that she would do.”
Yes, that makes sense after reading the next post. Thank you for your very precise analysis of the many factors involved. Very interesting.
I have DID, but at 17 a totally random event occurred. A violent attack and rape while I was just walking in a plantation. I froze, tried to appease – then fought.
But in the end I couldn’t fight hard enough and he got what he wanted. It was interesting reading your post and your question. I don’t know if this is what you mean, but perhaps it is:
The pain as he started to rape me was insane. That was one half of what happened. The pain seemed to split me in two, I was very calm, noticing everything going on around me. The trees, the clouds in the sky, the birds. Watching cars go by on the road in the distance – if only they could see me! I could hear myself screaming.
Until reading your post I’ve never given any thought to what my body was doing during that entire experience. I can ignore pain in normal life anyway (bluebottle/jellyfish stings, etc). But I doubt very much if my body was moving at all – certainly I cannot remember any movement at all. In fact, I don’t really remember anything about my body during the actual rape – except that the pain seemed to split me in two and I became aware of everything else around me instead.
Does that make any sense? I am not sure if that is the sort of experience you are looking for or not.
Thank you for your description of your experience. You are doing something that is seldom done — reflecting on the details of what you experienced.
I would like to ask a few questions. You felt very calm and noticed everything around you. Where was the pain then? Were you screaming? Or was a different part screaming? Did this attack trigger the ‘birth’ of a part that did not exist before then? While you were feeling calm, were you thinking about your situation (e.g., how to get away, making plans for what to do afterwards, making note of important details about the attacker, etc., etc.)? Thanks!
Fortunately this is something we have done some work on in therapy. Yes, this resulted in the birth of another part. This occurred a few days before starting our final year of high school (at boarding school). There was a court case. Unfortunately my parents had moved (from the UK originally) to a rural area in South Africa which was very conservative. The people on neighbouring farms clearly believed that choosing death would have been the honourable thing to do rather than allow that to happen and survive. So perhaps you can understand why it was necessary to simply continue as before at school while “someone else” dealt with what had happened during the school holiday, the ongoing court case, fear of pregnancy, etc. I can actually remember being quite aware that I could “change people” (something I think I’d been less aware of in the home when I was younger) and of being grateful for this “useful skill” (as I saw it then – before I knew of the havoc it would wreak in later life).
So, yes, a new part was born with that splitting from the pain. As for the screaming, no, I was not screaming – but I could hear that my body was. My entire body seemed to be just to the left of me – so the pain was there as well. The major thing which led to my “choice” to gamble on being allowed to live afterwards, him not having HIV (it’s amazing how many calm choices one can make in a split second!), etc was that we got to the edge of a marshy stream and I “knew” that if he got me in there I would never be coming out again. So I leant my weight the other way, knowing that he would land on top of me and my fight would all be over. As I said – my body seemed to be just to the left of me. That threatening place, the deep, marshy stream, was just to my left. I wonder if my perception of where my body was was linked in some way to the reality of that threatening place.
I wasn’t doing anything as advanced as making detailed notes on the attacker, but I was definitely just concentrating on when he would end it and taking my chance to jump up and run. I should stop now.
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I am not sure what you mean by describe with as little as possible so I will make an attempt and will lean as heavily as I can towards vagueness.
The child has a memory of a time when she was strangled from behind. During the trauma she remembers that her feet were in the air dangling and kicking, her hands were at the object cutting off her airway and trying to pull it away and her attempts at screaming for relief or external help but being unable to produce sound. Then a sudden shift in the experience to a release and a softening of her throat, a relaxation of all muscles and a mental realization that death was near and fighting was no longer necessary. The child then hit the floor. The time frame is distorted in that the child describes the period of time between the release and hitting the floor to be a fraction of second. Then the child remembers nothing but being back to normal life. Activities. The child never discussed the incident.