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.