When Animal Defenses Encounter a Human Predator: Part IV

Victims of rape and childhood sexual abuse frequently describe dissociation-like experiences which occurred during the assault. Typically, we assume that these are dissociative experiences. But are they? I don’t think we really know. To be blunt about it, we have little idea where our animal defenses leave off and our dissociative functioning begins.

Tonic Immobility During Rape

In my last post, I described the first empirical study of tonic immobility during rape. Galliano et al. (1993) reported that 37% of rape victims had experienced tonic immobility during the assault. Furthermore, tonic immobility during rape was not a blessing. Galliano and colleagues found that tonic immobility seemed to breed guilt and self-blame. As one member of our discussion community recently put it:

“I was an athlete; 21 yrs old, strong, feisty, self-assured. my experience of tonic immobility during rape [generated] an identity crisis that had me feeling profoundly confused about who I was and ashamed that I did not fight back. it took me a long time to fully understand this response as a defense mechanism and let go of the guilt I felt about not fighting back.”

According to Tiffany Fusé, almost half of women who experience tonic immobility during rape find it to be terrifying. As the quotation above illustrates, the autonomous intrusion of tonic immobility not only takes away what little power that a rape victim still possesses, it may challenge her very identity:

“Animals and humans do not choose TI [tonic immobility] … TI is more akin to a hardwired response, a response that can be quite frightening itself.” (Marx, Forsyth, Gallup & Fusé, 2008, p. 80)

the TI experience itself might be so aversive and frightening that having such an experience promotes the onset of posttraumatic stress symptomatology.” (Marx et al., 2008, p. 84, emphasis added)

Uh oh — “promotes the onset of posttraumatic stress symptomatology?”  That would go far beyond the old saw about ‘adding insult to injury.’ Marx and colleagues are saying that, in the case of sexual assault, tonic immobility adds injury to injury. Does it?

Does Tonic Immobility Generate Posttraumatic Complications?

In a word, “Yes.” Every study that has examined this issue reports the same finding: trauma survivors who experienced tonic immobility have more posttraumatic symptoms than do trauma survivors who did not experience tonic immobility. Let’s take a closer look at this finding.

The size of the correlations between tonic immobility and posttraumatic symptoms are consistently modest. With few exceptions, these correlations range from .21 to .37. This means that tonic immobility and posttraumatic symptoms share 4% to 14% of their variance. On the other hand, Fusé and colleagues (2007) factor analyzed their Tonic Immobility Scale and found two factors: (1) Tonic Immobility and (2) Fear. When Heidt, Marx, and Forsyth (2005) correlated the Tonic Immobility factor with a good measure of PTSD symptoms, they found a correlation of .49.

This begins to be rather impressive. Rape is known to be an especially potent generator of PTSD symptoms (e.g., Rothbaum, Foa, Riggs, Murdock & Walsh, 1992). Now, Marx and colleagues have shown that tonic immobility, all by itself, accounts for 24% of those symptoms! What is going on here?

Let’s take a look at “the internals.” What the heck are internals? Those of you who are major political junkies may know. On TV, when they present the latest poll results, they soon get around to “the internals”  — the detailed numbers within the major result. For example, the poll may say that Obama’s positive rating is 48%. The most interesting stuff, however, lies in “the internals” — that is, Obama’s positive ratings among Democrats, Independents, Republicans, men, women, and so on. Similarly, the most interesting findings in these eight tonic immobility studies can be found in the internal details.

PTSD has three clusters of symptoms: (1) re-experiencing (e.g., flashbacks, intrusive memories), (2) avoidance/numbing (e.g., avoiding anything that reminds you of the trauma, loss of interest in daily life), and (3) hyperarousal (e.g., hypervigilance, jumpiness). The key internal result from the eight studies is that the relationship between tonic immobility and PTSD symptoms is mostly driven by tonic immobility’s effect on re-experiencing symptoms.

So, there is something about tonic immobility that can make a bad event (especially rape) more traumatic. There is something about tonic immobility that worsens flashbacks and intrusive memories. And by the way, some of these studies examined nonsexual traumas and found the same thing. Tonic immobility somehow makes trauma worse.

Bottom Line: Our gifts from evolution and Mother Nature are usually quite beneficial. Here, however, our phylogenetic inheritance (i.e., tonic immobility) may have some very unpleasant consequences.

And now, a Question:Is tonic immobility an aspect of peritraumatic dissociation?” Or not? If not, why not? This may be an annoying or useless question for some of you. For me, it’s really important. Remember: I’m the guy who is trying to sort out the boundary between animal defenses and dissociation. So, what do you think?

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42 Responses to When Animal Defenses Encounter a Human Predator: Part IV

  1. Ken Benau, Ph.D. says:

    Based upon my clinical experience, I would say yes. Two complex trauma survivors I worked with illustrate my point: 1) Highly dissociative, early relational trauma survivor, slept most of the day and night, when re-experiencing traumatic memories. A minimum a “human variant” of tonic immobility; 2) ddnos pt, highly dissociative, often couldn’t speak nor move most of her body when re-experiencing traumatic memories (including “body memories”).

    Whether dissociation is best thought of as sometimes correlated with tonic immobility, or whether they are both aspects of a common source, I can’t say, but that they co-occur is, to my mind, undeniable.

    • Ken,

      Your clinical examples of immobility-while-reliving/reexperiencing are interesting. These examples differ from almost all previous examples of peritraumatic dissociation and/or tonic immobility in that they occur long after the trauma in question. As such they are not peritraumatic to the original trauma. Instead, they would be peritraumatic to the reliving of the trauma. Are these manifestations of tonic immobility? If so, that would mean that some posttraumatic symptoms (such as flashbacks) can evoke tonic immobility!.

      Are they a kind of peritraumatic dissociation? If so, these clinical phenomena (1) expand/alter the concept of petritraumatic dissociation, (2) expand our understanding of what can happen when a person relives trauma, and (3) elaborate our understanding of the toxicity or pathogenicity of flashbacks/relivings.

    • Scrappy says:

      This reminds me of a few weird experiences of my own. Not sure where they belong on the dissociation vs tonic immobility vs who knows what the heck happened scale of experiences. I’ll just do my best to describe it and y’all can try to sort it out if you want.

      For example, one day when I was in high school, one minute I was in English class, and the next thing I knew I was in the Guidance Office. I don’t know what happened but I was panicked beyond words. I sat down in the counselor’s office and just froze. The panicky feeling faded and I just kind of closed down. I could hear him talking to me but the words didn’t stay with me. I couldn’t talk – I knew he was asking me questions but I couldn’t answer.

      I was aware of him telling me I had to leave, but I couldn’t move. I wondered why I couldn’t move, and thought I *should* move, but the thought didn’t result in the action. The counselor finally called the school nurses in because he had to leave. They eventually got me into their office, which was right next door, but I don’t remember how. One of them drove me home after I started responding a bit. I felt bad that she was concerned and agreed to go straight back to her office when I returned to school.

      The nurses and the counselor told me about what they saw the next day. It was horribly embarrassing to hear their description of the situation and to find that I remembered some of it but not all of it. They said I was pale and very still, like I was in a daze or a trance, not even blinking for a long time. They seemed very disturbed about it. I just wanted everyone to forget it ASAP.

      As was “normal” for me, I promptly shoved the whole fiasco aside and tried to appear as normal as possible. (Probably looked ridiculous to them but hey, at least I fooled myself!) People wanted answers from me but all I could say, honestly, was, “I don’t know what happened.” And change the subject fast!

      More recently, I’ve had a couple of experiences with my therapist where I suddenly couldn’t speak or move very well as what seemed to be a flashback of some sort hit, and I noticed some other peculiarities in there as well. For example, intense odors – not memories of odors – I actually SMELLED them even though there’s no way those odors were in her office. One thing is for sure: having an experienced therapist there to guide you out of that kind of mental trainwreck makes a BIG difference!

      But when you’re intensely re-experiencing something, how can you determine what’s TI and what may be another aspect of dissociation, flashback, learned helplessness, etc? Very confusing. What I do know is you can definitely get in a situation where you can’t/won’t move based on something going haywire in your brain many years after the original traumatic event actually occurred.

      • Scrappy,

        Your first experience [being frozen and unable to speak] certainly fits the phenomena of tonic immobility. The average DD therapist would call it a trance state. I am struck by the two stages of your experience that day: (1) panicked beyond words and frozen with fear, and then (2) no fear, but true inability to move. I think what happened is that your autonomic system went from high sympathetic activation (fear) to high parasympathetic activation (shutdown, withdrawn, inability to think or retain what you were hearing).

        As for your second experience in your therapist’s office, you were apparently having a sensory (smell) flashback. Do you know that flashbacks can do that — i.e., vivid sensory re-experiencing?

        • Scrappy says:

          Hi Dr Dell,

          I’ve mentioned the sensory nature of many flashbacks in previous posts (when I posted as dissociationstation), which used to really confound me. I didn’t identify the experience as a flashback because what happens to me isn’t quite what you see in the movies, lol. It’s not just visual and auditory, at least to me. It can involve a lot of physical and emotional feelings, and yes even scent. My Dr explained this immediately during the session because I was quite disturbed by the smell, and really disoriented for awhile. One thing she did that helped refocus me was to put some lavender oil on a tissue and let me breathe that in. That was worth a thousand words.

          I could be wrong but I think there’s also some kind of dissociation occurring in both of the examples I shared above. There are big gaps in what I’m able to perceive in both examples. I don’t know what caused such a panic in the high school situation. I think I know which part could tell me, but I don’t want to mess with that on my own.

          What really struck me in thinking back on it was that some aspects of the experience seemed to be blocked from me, and some of the reactions didn’t seem to be mine. I know, logically, they are mine in a sense, but it doesn’t feel that way at all.

          With the experience in the therapist’s office, she was working with a much younger part, and had asked me to try to provide some support and stability in any way I could. Things were okay to a point and then all of a sudden I got hit with the multi-sensory flashback thing, which was extremely disturbing.

          What I’m really curious about with both situations is that it seems to be a dissociated part of my past that’s causing certain reactions and/or “bleeding through” as my Dr calls it, and it can result in me experiencing seemingly inexplicable feelings, tonic immobility, flashback, etc. Did that make any sense?

          • Scrappy,

            You make excellent sense. First off, flashbacks in the movies are indeed auditory and visual. In real life, however, if you have a major dissociative disorder, a flashback is often a full-blown total reliving (on all sensory and emotional ‘channels’) of a past event. That is what you are describing.

            Second, you seem to be pretty clear that these events are coming from another part. That is most often exactly correct. The flashback resides in a traumatized part and ‘leaks’ into you. That is why it feels like it is ‘not yours.’ And yes, some parts of the experience probably are blocked from you. In fact, until the event is fully worked through, part of the event may even be blocked from the part ‘inside’ who ‘has’ the experience.

            Whether these experiences of yours involve tonic immobility is anybody’s guess. We can’t even begin to venture an informed opinion until we know all the details of what was being relived and what part(s) is(are) involved.

            • Scrappy says:

              Whether these experiences of yours involve tonic immobility is anybody’s guess. We can’t even begin to venture an informed opinion until we know all the details of what was being relived and what part(s) is(are) involved.

              Was that last sentence simply an observation or nudge for more details? You shrinks are tricky sometimes. =)

              I’m curious about whether it was tonic immobility or something else, too. There may be other internal processes that could result in immobility of some sort, right? I can think of at least 2 other possibilities, but I don’t know how to pin it down unless maybe another part of my system can explain it.

              How would you go about finding the answer?

            • Scrappy,

              I try to be very straightforward and direct. I was not hinting for more details. I take seriously your statement in your earlier post about your not wanting to inquire inside because it might trigger more than you can handle on your own right now. Take a look at the discussion between Peregrine and me. It might give you some food for thought (without the need to stir up anything inside).

            • Scrappy says:

              I have been following Peregrine’s posts carefully, but didn’t comment because I thought maybe it would be taking the conversation too far off topic. But if you want to go in that direction…

              My experience with animals isn’t based on laboratory studies or books. It’s real-life interactions in a variety of environments and circumstances. I’ve worked as a show horse trainer, a livestock wrangler, a stagecoach driver, a trick horse trainer, a ranch hand out in the desert dealing with everything from coyotes to rattlesnakes, a rescuer/rehabilitator of abused and neglected racehorses, dogs, and wildlife, and at present I’m choosing to share my home with dogs, not other humans. I’m actually not comfortable with humans for any extended period of time, partly because of the dissociation, and because… I just don’t trust y’all that much. If animals notice the dissociation, they at least don’t make a big deal about it 😉

              I could write a book about what animals have taught me, not as a researcher but as someone who’s lived with them, worked with them, hunted them, fought them, trained them, been hunted by them, been attacked, been protected by them, been healed, and helped them heal over the years. Each species of animal is unique and distinctly different from each other as well as humans, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t think, feel, and remember, and that at least some can’t experience dissociation, especially the more intelligent species, which I suppose would make dissociation an “animal defense” if that’s the case.

              In my experience, animals tend to behave very differently depending on how you treat them. They’re not so unlike humans in that way. If you raised a human in a laboratory with little to no personal interaction and meaningful communication, no emotional support and recognition of their individual personality, what do you think that human would be like? The same holds true for many pets. A lot of people think of pets as toys who should appear and entertain them on cue and otherwise should find a shelf to hide on and not interfere with human lives. Ever seen a child raised that way? Part of me is a result of that. Live with a creature and interact with it in ways they can relate to, and you might find yourself dealing with a very different kind of animal, just as I’m sure I could have been a very different person under different circumstances.

              I’m not saying that any other species thinks and feels the same as humans do. Not by a long shot. But that doesn’t mean that they lack their own type of reason, their own particular motivations (which may not resemble human motivations at all) and their own variety of emotions. Some may be quite similar to humans, some not. But overall I think mammals, especially long domesticated mammals, are a lot more like humans than some people want to believe.

              I suspect that I’ve encountered at least one animal (a horse) with a form of dissociation. I suppose it could have been something else but there was something terribly familiar, on an intuitive level, that I recognized in her. I responded to her instinctively, as if I were dealing with a child version of myself, and the 3 professional trainers who’d failed with her before couldn’t believe the results. I had never heard of dissociation at the time. I just sensed that she was more like me than any human I’d ever met. I could explain about that if you’re interested.

              Meanwhile we have at least the following rather intriguing questions floating around in this thread:

              1) “Is tonic immobility an aspect of peritraumatic dissociation?” (Your original question)

              2) Is dissociation actually another “animal defense” like “tonic immobility” or is there something uniquely human about it? (We haven’t yet explored WHY that makes such a difference but I’m looking forward to that information.)

              3) Can “tonic immobility” be caused by a flashback or some type of dissociative reaction?

              As the blog director, is there any particular subject you want to focus on or do you enjoy the free-wheeling brainstorming thing we have going on here? I’ve been holding back a bit because I’m capable of going in many directions at once, but I’ve found that it can overwhelm “normal” people and wear them out, and I don’t want to do that to anyone. On the other hand you seem unusually adept at sudden changes of subject and mounds of new information, which makes me wonder if that’s just your nature or if it’s a byproduct of having dealt with dissociative people for so long. You inspire many questions. HAPPY NEW YEAR!

            • Scrappy,

              There are, indeed, certain directions that I hope we can follow in our discussions. On the other hand, I never know what one of us may have to contribute that will be very interesting and helpful — even if it appears to be off topic. So, I try to roll with what each of you have to offer. Occasionally, I just choose not to follow up on a potential thread.

    • Peregrine says:

      FWIW, this actually happened to me a couple of weeks ago in therapy. I knew I was about to inform someone of my decision to cut ties with them, and that’s been a difficult process. My therapist pointed out the pain I felt was because of my decades-long fantasy this person will change (we’ve had this discussion before–he wasn’t springing anything on me. Just reminding me.)

      When he said that, it overwhelmed me, and I froze and went inside myself. Couldn’t move, wasn’t speaking. Therapist tried to gently prompt me to return to talking (I froze mid-sentence), and I tried to open my eyes and talk. Only to discover that I simply couldn’t talk. I was barely breathing at that point, but what little air I had couldn’t do anything with my vocal cords, which were completely tensed up along with the rest of me. So I just went back inside myself until it cleared, and then I was fine.

      No physical threat being re-lived at all. Just overwhelming emotion at the thought of implementing a decision I’d made and trying to let go of a long-held wish.

      But correlation doesn’t imply cause and effect. That said, until I read some of your posts, it didn’t occur to me that freezing was separate from dissociation. To me, it just seems a matter of how far I go away/pull inside myself.

      What confuses me, though, is that “freeze” is sometimes compared to rabbits freezing. But a rabbit freezing is much, much different from my freeze. In a rabbit, freezing is part of a very successful defense strategy. They bolt when the predator rushes at them, after all. If my therapist had been a predator, I’d have been a dead bunny! I didn’t lose all awareness (heard him gently prompting me to speak again), but I simply couldn’t muster up much of a response.

      And that, perhaps, points to tonic immobility being separate from dissociation–even if the two co-occur at times.

      All anecdotal, of course.

      • Peregrine,

        Thank you for sharing this account of freezing (whatever that means) during your therapy session. As you noted, there are different kinds of freezing. Because it is less confusing, I prefer the neutral behavioral descriptor immobility. In one of my earlier posts, I described 4 different kinds of immobility. The key issue is not the immobility, central though that may be, but what accompanies the immobility — emotions, thoughts, etc. Thus, I am interested in learning more about what you were feeling, thinking, and experiencing. You said you were overwhelmed — With anger? Fear? Pain? Grief? What? Can you say more about your inability to speak or move? Can you say more about your awareness of what was happening? Can you say more about what you meant by “I simply couldn’t muster up much of a response“? Is that an inability to think? A loss of motivation and initiative? Or what?

        • Peregrine says:

          Good questions, but to really respond feels a lot more revealing than I think I want to be on the open net. Was skirting the edge of my comfort level above, but the discussion is interesting to me from an analytical perspective.

          In any case, it would be a self-selected anecdotal data point with a sample size of one, and that’s probably the least reliable data I can imagine if you’re trying to figure out general principles.

          Now isn’t it just like someone like me to go all analytical on you when asked about emotion?! 🙂

          • Scrappy says:

            That was some funny stuff, Peregrine 🙂

            BTW, I never handled a peregrine but I did rescue and rehab Redtail and Harris hawks, and several kinds of owls. And I raised a kestrel from a baby. Raptors can be some pretty sharp birds, and I’m not just talking about their talons.

            • Peregrine says:

              That’s really cool! Psittacids and Corvids are also quite intelligent. Either blue jays or crows (can’t remember which) have been shown to be able to count to six, for example.

              I once watched a group of crows mobbing a redtail, chasing it across a four lane highway. Just as they reached the lane to my left, they dove–forcing the redtail to dive down and be hit by the oncoming trailer of a tractor trailor rig. It was both fascinating and horrifying, and watching it unfold, I was absolutely convinced those crows knew damn well what they were doing.

          • Scrappy says:

            Hi Peregrine, the blog format can only support the “reply” function to a few levels, but you got the workaround. If the conversation gets much more active Dr Dell might be better off going to a forum format. It’s nice to see more and more people participating.

            Your comment about animals seeming to sense that they can trust you fits the impression I’ve gleaned from your posts from the start. You come across as very sensitive and tuned in to the reactions of others. In my experience, when an animal wants to interact with another animal, they seek out exactly that kind of accepting, non-threatening energy. I bet you project that very well and that’s why you see so many of them respond so well.

            Although a lot of people are surprised at how well many animals respond to me, it’s not like I think I can go up to any animal and they’ll love me on sight. I’m sure you’re well aware of this too, but I’ve seen city slickers jump to that conclusion with startling regularity. One of my favorite examples was a woman in a white silk blouse who climbed over a corral fence and went to hug a mule who was hitched up to a stagecoach where I worked. I yelled at her to get back but she ignored me. She ended up with gross quantities of green mule snot blown all over her face and blouse when the mule freaked the frack out on the spot. She was quite upset, both about the condition of her blouse and her damaged self-image, as she had assumed that since she “loved” the mules they would feel the same way about her!

            The key is to recognize the animal’s state of mind and respond appropriately to it. Some people seem to do this naturally, others can learn, and yet others never seem to get it at all. Your post leads to an interesting question of whether some people with trauma-related experiences may be more sensitive to non-human ways of interacting. It certainly seems possible, especially for those of us who had to learn to respond to the many non-verbal cues and clues of volatile and violent humans. Honest to God, the most dangerous animal I ever met was my mother. After her, a rattlesnake was a piece of cake.

            • Peregrine says:

              I definitely think my sensitivity to animals is in lock step with my upbringing. Hypervigilance is adaptive when you’re in the thick of things, and can be put to good use for purposes other than staying safe. I could read the family dog just as well, but she was much safer to be around. We spent a lot of time together.

              Your mule story is funny, though not for the mule, I’m sure. I think some people are naturally better at reading animals than others. Lots of people could learn and hone what underlying ability they do have, though. And I think almost anyone should be capable of learning some basic principles–especially if you watched an animal with them and pointed out all the cues you and I naturally know how to read. But I also think a lot of people simply don’t care to learn. They want the animal to be what they want it to be (as you said in another post). For as well as many animals respond to me, I also know not all will, and that building trust takes time. If an animal, particularly a wild or mistrustful one, allows you close, it’s a gift and should be treated with proper respect. If you make presumptions the way the woman did, you won’t build that trust. Which isn’t to say you can’t make a mistake with an animal–they’ll cut you some slack if their overall impression is that you are sensitive to them.

              I had a boss once who was extremely insensitive to people and made lots of presumptions. It didn’t surprise me to learn he hated horses. Seems his family had them when he was growing up, and he was often kicked and stepped on. From how he treated me, I knew exactly why the horses would do that.

              It works the other way around too. I’ve scared/fascinated some people who swore I had ESP. Nope. Just knew them well enough to read their body language and to have observed their particular tendencies and patterns of behavior. I could see the gears turning when they thought, but not because I had direct access to their thoughts. I’ve since learned to “dumb down” on this–it scares people. Plus, it just gets exhausting, so the more I’ve learned to understand people and know most of them aren’t a threat, the less I bother to figure most of them out to that degree.

        • Peregrine says:

          Sorry for the tangent, but a PS to Scrappy (no reply link on your post above). I’m also really good with animals–though much less experienced than you. Domesticated animals that won’t let other people near them will allow me to pet them or will take food from me. My last dog (from the shelter) turned out to have horrible separation anxiety, and I taught him how to calm himself and trust me. I couldn’t eliminate the problem, but it was well-managed without meds. And I’ve had wild animals come quite close. A baby ground squirrel crawled into my lap once, actually. Momma got upset and chattered, but I told her I wouldn’t harm her baby, and she calmed down. Birds will fly close and check me out.

          So it’s interesting that we share this. I think animals trust me because I move slowly and predictably, don’t stare at them (at least not if I want to get close), and respect their boundaries. I can relate to them when they start to feel fear, and I back off and don’t push them too hard. I.e. I instinctively know not to send them into tonic immobility and/or dissociation (if that applies). I treat them how I’d want to be treated if I were feeling triggered. Don’t crowd them and project calm. Let them come to you when it feels safe.

  2. Scrappy says:

    Dr Dell, I’ve been having one little problem with this discussion all along. I guess I might as well spit it out: How do you know that animals don’t experience dissociation in the first place? Just because they aren’t able to communicate the experience to us doesn’t mean they don’t have the experience. Maybe dissociation isn’t unique to humans, and is basically another “animal defense” after all. Just wondering…

    • Hi Scrappy,

      I suppose that animals may experience dissociation, but I doubt it. I think that a human mind and human consciousness are required for a person to experience dissociation. When something weird happens in us (i.e., a dissociative event), we immediately notice it (and have thoughts about it). I don’t think that animals can notice their own behavior and reactions in the same way that humans do. Animals are certainly attuned to unexpected events in their environment. They quickly react (via orienting, freezing, fleeing, or whatever), but I don’t believe that that they have the second-order noticing and reflecting that we humans do.

      This is actually a weighty philosophical/psychological area of analysis. There are scads of books and articles that discuss and argue about these matters. I think my own view of the matter is in the majority, but I lay no claim to much competence in these issues.

      • Peregrine says:

        Well, studies have shown that chimps (and I believe also dolphins) have self-awareness. E.g. a well-known study on chimps involved putting a chimp under general anaesthesia and painting a dot on its nose. After the chimp woke up, it was given a mirror to look in, and it immediately touched the dot on its face (vs. the dot in the mirror). I.e. it recognized itself in the reflection.

        Anecdotally, my family once watched a dog for friends who were on vacation. The dog had a cast on her leg from a recent surgery, and the cast kept her from squatting fully while peeing–she’d sort of squat, but with her bad leg sticking up in the air. Our (female) dog started exhibiting the same behavior while the other dog stayed in our house. Pretty comical, but it also showed a self-awareness I hadn’t expected.

        And then there was my last dog who would wait until I was in the shower to get into whatever food I’d mistakenly left on the counter two or three hours prior. I never expected a dog to delay gratification like that, or to figure out that the shower was the one place in the house where I couldn’t take note of his misbehavior.

        There are also numerous examples (both studies and anecdotal reports) of various bird species adopting novel foraging behaviors based upon witnessing other individuals employing those strategies. These were not strategies one would chalk up to innate behavior, either. Things like figuring out how to pull the tops off of milk bottles to get at the cream that a particular population of neighborhood birds figured out.

        All of this, to me, points to a strong sense of self vs. other, and adopting the behavior of another strongly points to self-reflection on some level. Whether animals dissociate or not, I don’t know (never did a lit search on such a topic). But I don’t think that can be ruled out.

        • Hi Peregrine,

          I have no dogmatic opinions about dissociation in animals, and less actual knowledge about the matter. I suspect that there are at least two key issues here. First, “How intertwined are animal defensive responses and human dissociation?” The more that animal defenses are actually part of human dissociation, then, to that degree, animals would seem to have ‘dissociation’ that is similar to human dissociation. Second, however, is the issue of, “Is human dissociation truly different from animal defenses due to the qualitative difference in human consciousness vs. animal consciousness?” As I said to Scrappy, I am inclined to say “Yes” to this question.

          • Peregrine says:

            Ah ha. I’ve started reading your blog from the beginning, and I just hit the post where you distinguish between evolution-prepared dissociation and peritraumatic dissociation. These later posts start making a lot more sense now, and you may well have a point about there being a distinction–at least if you compare humans to non-primate species. I bet things wouldn’t tease apart so nicely if you started considering non-human primates–especially chimps and bonobos. It’s possible things might not tease apart so nicely if you consider animals such as dolphins that have substantial capacity for abstract thought. But if you start comparing humans to dogs and rabbits, I’m seeing where you could draw a distinction, now that I’m seeing the neurobiology in your earlier posts.

            I’ll keep reading and will eventually catch up. Interesting stuff! Thanks for taking the time to create this place, and for your responses to me (which I’m still digesting).

  3. Scrappy says:

    Oh gosh. I’m not trying to be argumentative but several points are jabbing into my skull on this and I think what you just said helped me understand why. “When something weird happens in us (i.e., a dissociative event), we immediately notice it (and have thoughts about it).” Not necessarily so, in my experience.

    It took many YEARS of dissociative experiences before I started to recognize a dissociative event and think about it. Before that my automatic reaction was to NOT think about it. Whatever shift or glitch occurred, my instinctual reaction was to pull myself together and move on as best I could ASAP. Notice it??? Think about it??? Barely if at all!

    Looking back on it, I can see that my reaction was to just pick up wherever I was and do whatever I could to go forward, but it wasn’t a conscious decision to ignore the loss of continuity or the chaos that came with a dissociative event. It just WAS whatever it was. Maybe it was because I was raised in a world where I often had no control over my life? I was used to it and it didn’t occur to me to question it when things went kablooey. I don’t think I had the mental energy available to do so. My sole, desperate focus was to hide it and keep moving, like a wounded feral creature dragging itself away from the highway of humanity. For YEARS.

    I also think I had/have some kind of thought process impairment, especially in conjunction with certain dissociative experiences. As I said in a previous discussion, the ability to think in words can go out the window when I dissociate. It seems to depend on which parts are reacting – the younger parts often lack language and communicate with bursts of images (some literal, some symbolic) or raw physical or emotional feelings, particularly pain and terror.

    Do you think humans who are not capable of language don’t experience dissociation? For example, someone who is very young, or deaf-mute, or raised with very little verbal language? And again, with someone very young, an infant, do you think they don’t experience dissociation because their minds don’t yet have “second-order noticing and reflecting” capabilities, or do you think humans have that from birth or even earlier, whereas animals supposedly never develop those abilities?

    Having spent more time in my life in close relationships with animals (horses and dogs) than with humans, I wouldn’t discount animals so easily. I’m not a PETA freak, just saying my opinion is different from yours based on my own experience over the years.

    I love your posts and I’m really not trying to be difficult, just comparing what you’re saying with my own experiences. Maybe I’m just an oddball re the lack of ability to notice and think about dissociative events until fairly recently. Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve ever come to that conclusion =(

  4. Scrappy,

    Wonderful comment! Please know, I don’t sense you being difficult at all. You are, I think, wrestling with this with full sincerity and surprise at what my posts and comments evoke in you. I love it!

    I think that even babies can dissociate, but you are right, they probably don’t think about it. You have lived close to animals and have an intimate, emotional, and intuitive knowing of them — so I take your thoughts about them quite seriously.

    As for not noticing or thinking about your dissociative events, I absolutely believe you. And I suspect that you have many colleagues who have had similar experiences during much of their lives.

    By the way, I doubt very much that you are an oddball. Day by day, I still learn more and more about the experience of very dissociative persons. I learn when they spontaneously tell me something that I never thought of, or never thought to ask about.

    Thank you for teaching me (and the rest of us) about your experiences. Maybe your Comment will trigger some thoughts and comments from others.

  5. tracy says:

    UD: From the start, this has been a fascinating conversation re. dissociation and tonic immobility. It has me thinking about attachment. You wrote:

    “Every study that has examined this issue reports the same finding: trauma survivors who experienced tonic immobility have more posttraumatic symptoms than do trauma survivors who did not experience tonic immobility.”

    Given this, what connection might attachment status–more specifically disorganized/disoriented attachment–have to tonic immobility? Furthermore, what role does the amygdala play in tonic immobility?

    • Tracy,

      Tonic immobility is a hard-wired, biological response. That said, research has shown that various experiential factors influence the occurrence and length of tonic immobility in animals.

      The role of attachment in human tonic immobility is an interesting, and unstudied, question. From one perspective, we could hypothesize that insecure attachment of all kinds (perhaps, especially disorganized/disoriented attachment) might be more predisposed to tonic immobility. On the other hand, there is some support in the literature to hypothesize the exact opposite — namely, that secure attachment might predispose to tonic immobility because the attack and powerlessness is so shattering. This last perspective is what Ronnie Janoff-Bulmann was getting at (see her book, Shattered Assumptions).

      As best we know, tonic immobility is controlled by the ventral periaqueductal gray (vPAG), which is connected to the amygdala. Some people have argued that tonic immobility is a version of being ‘frozen with fear.’

  6. Peregrine says:

    More thoughts…sorry if they’re long. And perhaps they repeat points you’ve already been making. I don’t follow closely, and my doctorate was in the evolution of animal behavior, so I’m reading as a lay person, not practioner. I don’t always grasp your points entirely. My experience with these topics is as someone with C-PTSD. But I’ve studied predator/prey interactions in animals, so your blog fascinates me:

    If I think of rabbits, freezing is adaptive. They are smaller and more maneverable than their predators, and waiting until the predator is close and definitely set on attacking is the best time for them to run. So they freeze. But being dissociated at this point would be a Bad Thing. I wouldn’t expect a rabbit to dissociate (assuming they do) unless it was actually caught. At the point they were caught, I would expect dissociation–a mechanism to avoid suffering. Too late to run, might as well numb and preserve enough mental integrity that if an opportunity to escape comes up, the rabbit isn’t hindered by pain, etc.

    And maybe people aren’t so different. Don’t people without PTSD, dissociative disorders, etc. freeze if startled sufficiently, and orient on whatever startled them? But if there was no threat, they go on about their business–no trauma. And the entire thing is quickly forgotten, never to trouble them again. They didn’t even dissociate.

    But if whatever causes the freeze is a bigger problem–a high probability that you will be “caught” in some way (e.g. hit by a car, bullets, raped, emotionally abused, etc.), then you end up with dissociation in addition to the freeze. Of course, you have to be aware of the threat for sufficient time before it hits you in order to even freeze. If you aren’t aware of the threat until you are attacked, you’re probably heading straight into dissociation and not the type of freeze a rabbit does. But there is shock associated with sudden attack if things are bad enough, and that creates its own type of shutting down–i.e. freeze.

    Maybe there are actually two kinds of tonic immobility, and that’s partly why the waters are so muddied? The kind that keeps you oriented on an attack with intent to escape if possible, and the shock that sets in if escape isn’t likely.

    So I tend to think it’s not the case that tonic immobility itself leads to PTSD symptoms. It’s that more severe trauma is more likely to trigger freezing that is not followed by escape and is more likely to result in dissociation. And I think that individual perceptions about how severe a trauma is vary, which is why some people experienced freezing and others don’t. Which is not to say that someone who didn’t freeze wasn’t traumatized–not trying to minimize experiences of those who didn’t freeze. It’s just that maybe on some level, the people who didn’t freeze had more hope/belief that they would survive/escape/be ok in spite of the trauma. So they experience a different outcome from their trauma than from someone who assesses their chances of survial/escape/being ok in spite of the trauma as less likely. Maybe those who are less likely to escape the trauma (or at least perceive their chances of escape as lower) are more likely to end up with PTSD, and that’s why there is a correlation between tonic immobility and PTSD symptoms.

    Of course, my underlying paradigm is a bit different from yours in that I think people are just another animal. Over and over again, people think they’ve come up with a way in which humans are different from other animals. And over and over again, studies show that we aren’t. It’s generally a matter of degree in certain characteristics in humans vs. animals and not presence/absence of certain characteristics. Not that long ago, for example, we thought that tool use distinguished humans. Lo and behold, chimps use tools. Even birds use tools. There are ants that farm fungus, so animals even grow and harvest their own food. And vampire bats engage in reciprocal altruism where they will feed other individuals that didn’t successfully forage on a particular night. The list goes on.

    For this reason, I generally try to understand people based on what I know of animals, and I don’t rule out animals experiencing things like dissociation.

    Anyway, I hope there was something useful in my ramblings. Interesting topic. Happy New Year!

    • Hi Peregrine,

      Thank you for taking the time to think and write analytically about all this. I consider your evolution-of-animal-behavior perspective to be invaluable. In fact, you complement very nicely what I am trying to do. Specifically, I am persistently, and as thoroughly as possible, focusing on the animal defensive-hardwired set of responses that unite human responses to those of other animals.

      I am trying to discover where animal defenses leave off and (human?) dissociation begins. I am trying to answer this question: “What is left over in human dissociation after we account for what is being produced by animal defenses?” A lot? A little? Nothing? A closely related question is: “Are animal defenses intertwined on an ongoing basis in chronic human dissociation?” Ken Benau, for example, has implicitly raised the possibility that some flashbacks trigger new bouts of tonic immobility. And so on.

      So Peregrine, as they say at AA meetings, keep coming back!

      • tracy says:

        You end your comment to Peregrine with:

        “Ken Benau, for example, has implicitly raised the possibility that some flashbacks trigger new bouts of tonic immobility.”

        I experienced this very thing many years ago. After an especially intense therapy session, I left my therapist’s office in a daze and walked to my car. I got in, put my keys in the ignition, rolled the window down (it was summer) and sat for a moment. The next thing I realized, several minutes had passed and I couldn’t move; it was as if I were frozen.

        I tried to move, to “snap out of it,” but I was unable to do anything but think and feel, and I was terrified. I didn’t know what was happening to me and I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. People walked past my car, and I thought about crying out for help, but I didn’t know if I could speak, and if I could, I didn’t know what I would say. I was terrified and vulnerable, and I didn’t want to bring any attention to myself, to the state I was in. I sat for about 1o minutes in this immobility. I knew I wasn’t paralyzed, but why I couldn’t move was truly horrifying.

        My saving grace? My therapist came out about 15 minutes after our session to walk her dog and, in passing my car, she noticed me sitting there. She came over and asked me if I was okay. I still couldn’t move, but I was able to tell her what was going on. She stood next to my car door and spoke to me for several more minutes, trying to get me back in my body, to get me to move a finger or my knee.

        What finally got me out of this state? Her dog, a 50-pound wonder of bull terrior love and affection, decided to jump up through the window and onto my lap, jarring, wiggling, and licking me out of the paralysis. Once she had the dog back outside with her, she focused me on getting home safely. I was able to get out of the car, get back in, start it, and feel secure about driving home.

        I understand this as an experince of being posttraumatically triggered into tonic immobility. I will look into Benau’s work–thanks! And thank you for engendering such conversation and welcoming both survivors and professionals, and survivor/professionals alike, into the conversation.

        • Tracy,

          Thank you for sharing this incident of being unable to move after an intense therapy session. A few years ago, I would not have thought about this as tonic immobility. Instead, three ideas would have come to mind. First, the simple thought of, “Oh, paralysis, a conversion symptom.” Second, “Hmmm, does this person have DID; does she have a paralyzed alter?” Third, “Wow, she can’t move! Is this a reliving of frozen terror from a past trauma.” Now, with tonic immobility on my radar screen, I have a fourth thought: “Hunh! Can current flashbacks trigger tonic immobility?” And finally, a broader thought: “Can flashbacks trigger other immediate dissociative phenomenon (other than tonic immobility)?”

  7. Scrappy says:

    “Is tonic immobility an aspect of peritraumatic dissociation?”

    I’m going to say: Possibly. I suspect it can be, but don’t think it always is. We can have dissociation without immobility of any kind, after all. After my initial spookiness on exploring the therapist situation I described earlier, curiosity got the best of me and I just haddddddd to nose around in it. I guess sometimes I just need some time to find the right way to approach something like this on my own. And I might need to take a different route to get to the information than someone with a “normal” human mind would.

    For example, my initial response to trying to figure out where the immobility came from in the therapy session was to try to remember what the little one was saying right before the mental BSOD occurred. I got that “don’t go there” feeling and decided I couldn’t explore in that direction at all. But I couldn’t entirely drop the subject either, as it nagged at me. Then I realized there might be other ways to approach it. So I tried something my therapist has encouraged me to do on numerous occasions: I asked another part about it.

    I’m very “outside” focused but some parts are very “inside” focused and we each can have different strengths, problems, and awareness. There is one part in particular who seems to usually know what’s going on inside and has been coordinating with the doctor for the past couple of years. I figured she would be the one to ask. She gave permission to post the following transcript. My name is abbreviated as Sa, hers is M, and the child part is St.
    Sa: M, I want to know something for the blog I read. Can you explain what happened that day that we were trying to help St calm down, and then I smelled that horrible smell, and couldn’t move? That was the day I got so angry at the Dr I sent her a mean email and said I wouldn’t talk to her anymore? Remember?

    M: I remember. I smelled it and couldn’t move either.

    Sa: I didn’t know that. Do you know why we couldn’t move? I don’t want to think about it in a way that makes it happen again. I just want to know why it happened.

    M: That happened because the little one’s fear was stronger than our ability to focus and calm. St has strong memories and fear, which is why we had kept her away alone for many years. Dr wanted her to be brought out and put with older parts to help St feel safer and calmer. But it was harder than we expected. She panic and affect me, and you and others so we felt what St felt. She couldn’t move when it happened to her and couldn’t move when she was re-being that time, and her energy was strongest so it reacted the whole body. I tried to stop it but could not. Sorry.

    Sa: You experienced the flashback too?

    M: Yes.

    Sa: Do you always experience flashbacks when another part does?

    M: No. Almost never. But more likely with the very young ones with most pain. That’s why I try to keep away from them. If I am affected it can go through the whole system. Remember how disrupted we were for days? Not good.

    Sa: Yeah, that sucked. I didn’t even want to think about it until I started reading about this lately.


    ****Detail has been kept minimal but if you may be triggered by incest situation you may want to skip the rest of this post****
    M provided more details about why St reacted that way, but she chose to write it for me because that made it easier for her to control what information I got, and she said that would circumvent the flashback. Apparently she was right because I didn’t have any problem reading this:

    M: Better you read this part not talk about it for now. Answer to your question is St thought Dr was grandmother or grandfather friend trying to get her out of her safe place to go back to grandfather. Then she panic and re-being grandfather rape her. She had pass out some times when that happen. It was after she pass out in the re-being, I recover enough to give more energy to you and N so you talk to Dr.

    Hope that makes some kind of sense to anyone else reading it. Several of us who can communicate have some internal language that we understand, which might not translate all that well. M uses the word “re-being” basically meaning flashback. She has some trouble with language in general and communicates more with images and feelings, but she’s improved on words a lot in the past few years. Not all parts can communicate internally, either. The one who interacts most with outsiders doesn’t “hear” inside much at all. We kind of ignore each other usually, but sometimes will leave notes back and forth to coordinate things since the Dr got her doing that at least.

    • Wow, Scrappy,

      You are pushing the envelope. Yes, by definition, tonic immobility would seem to be one kind (but not the only kind ) of peritraumatic dissociation.

      Your immobility in your doctor’s office was a direct reliving of a previous time when ‘you’ were frozen in terror. Sorta makes sense, doesn’t it?

      And then, you brought up a whole new peritraumatic phenomenon — passing out. Sometimes that part would pass out when those events happened. Bruce Perry reports that some traumatized, dissociative children faint when asked about their trauma. Perry equates dissociation with major activation of the parasympathetic nervous system — which drops heart rate and blood pressure, sometimes so much so that the person faints.

  8. Peregrine says:

    Oh, what the heck. This is probably not what my therapist intended when he said I need to share what I’m feeling with other people, but if this helps the practitioners here help other people…

    You asked: You said you were overwhelmed — With anger? Fear? Pain? Grief? What? Can you say more about your inability to speak or move? Can you say more about your awareness of what was happening?

    My response: I was feeling all of the above (anger, pain, fear, grief) during the session. But what overwhelmed me was when my therapist (“T”) said the pain I felt was the pain of clinging to the fantasy that “A” (who I was about to cut ties with) will change. T and I have talked before about my belief that A will change, but I hadn’t really accepted it as fantasy. An exchange with A the prior week had finally shown me T was right and made it hard to retreat to the fantasy. So this time, when T pointed out I was clinging to a fantasy, the fantasy began to shatter.

    As the fantasy started to shatter, I was about to cry HARD. And I hate crying. Between the fantasy starting to shatter and feeling myself on the edge of sobbing HARD–it was too much. Like the fantasy shattering was going to shatter my identity and grasp of reality.

    How was I going cut ties with A if I shattered? I can’t. The thought of sending the email to cut the ties with A felt like it could cause the very shattering I felt was going to happen as the fantasy began shattering in T’s office.

    Add to this that I feared A would stalk me by phone/email when I cut ties. Also feared physical stalking–but intellectually believed that wasn’t likely.

    Damn. I can’t fall apart like this. I simply can’t afford it right now. I HAVE TO GET THROUGH THIS. I have to be strong both to email A, and to withstand whatever onslaught results.

    So that massive crying that was about to start and all this internal chaos had to be shut down, and shut down FAST. I swallowed the sob (which I intended to do), and physically froze in the position I was in (which I didn’t intend). Hands to face. Eyes slammed shut. Body entirely tensed up (only know this from T asking me to check in w/ my body during earlier, less-extreme immobility). Barely breathing.

    As my body froze…hmmm. Harder to describe my internal state. All the “noise” from my thoughts and the crying stopped. I felt myself pull inside to where it was very quiet and I was insulated from my body and T’s office. Now sometimes when I pull inside, it’s dark and scary, and (at the most extreme) I hear screaming (even though I’m not), and I feel I’m going to fall over the edge and shatter. Maybe that happens when I don’t want to pull inside and I’m fighting it? But this time, I felt I needed to hide in there so I could stop the crying. So I was shutting myself down mentally—all the internal things threatening my referential integrity (database term—the rules governing the structure of a database). Quiet, quiet. Shut down thought. Shut down emotion. Shut down fantasy and reality. Stop the shattering. Find the internal center of balance, and just sit there, quietly, until the world stops spinning and it’s safe to come back out. It was a minimal state of existence. Only the very core of who I am remained. All the extra stuff got shut down to protect the core.

    Mainly what I remember is quiet, and the sense that I was safe in there. I felt frozen in time. Nothing mattered. The outside world and being in T’s office and T were irrelevant. Stasis.

    You asked: Can you say more about what you meant by “I simply couldn’t muster up much of a response“? Is that an inability to think? A loss of motivation and initiative? Or what?

    My response: I heard T’s voice gently repeating the last thing I had said, prompting me to go on. I wanted to respond, because he’s trying to help me. (I think if I found him threatening, or if he’d said it too loudly, or if what he said upset me, I’d have screened him out.) So I tried to uncurl and talk. Tried to open my eyes—maybe did a little? Maybe lifted my head slightly away from my hands. But my muscles were too clamped down and I didn’t have control over that. Tried to talk, and it came out as a silent whisper—my vocal cords were similarly clamped down, and I had no control over that. That startled me. Had no idea I wouldn’t be able to even talk. So I stopped trying and thought to T and myself “I have to stay calm and stay inside, and this will clear. When it clears, I’ll respond.” (I’ve had meditation training, and that kicked in to keep me calm when I realized I couldn’t move. Hmmm, and as I type this, part of why T pointing out that clinging to the fantasy caused the pain overwhelmed me is that when he said that, it reminded me of what I learned in meditation, which drove the truth further home. Especially since he referred to me having said essentially that earlier in the session.)

    It felt to me like the part of myself that was trying to pick up the conversation and talk to T was the very part being shut down, and that’s why I couldn’t speak.

    Things cleared, and I responded, but (I think) not where I’d left off. I was calm and in a difference place mentally. Oh, and new imagery emerged that I didn’t have before. I saw a mental image of an animal that could freeze but still be well-defended. After that, if I felt afraid of what A might do when I cut ties, I saw/heard that animal in my mind and knew A couldn’t get to me—I’d ignore attempts to contact me. I wouldn’t break my decision to cut ties. Yes, I have quite the imagination!

    This was mid December, and I’m still feeling rather out of it and am having trouble focusing. I think I’m pretty dissociated more often than not. But maybe slowly starting to process all of this.

    A has left me alone so far, though, which is good, and somehow I’ll work back through. In the long run, I’m further ahead for having cut ties, and there was going to be a price to pay in doing that, regardless.

    • Peregrine,

      This is a remarkable, detailed account of the frozen shutdown that you experienced in therapy a few weeks ago. What strikes me most about it is the largely voluntary/motivated quality of your shutdown and internal retreat. What happened sounds distinctly more intentional than the involuntary, spontaneous phenomena of tonic immobility or evolution-prepared dissociation. The shutdown had a purpose — to stop the crying and what that might do to you.

      It has been a couple of weeks since that day, and yet you’re “still feeling rather out of it and…having trouble focusing.” You think you’re “pretty dissociated more often than not.” All of that falls under the heading of persisting dissociation, not peritraumatic dissociation. Hence, I think you are describing genuine clinical dissociation, rather than a hard-wired animal defensive response (that includes some dissociative phenomena).

      I’m also struck by what you taught yourself to do when you were younger. You have a lot of ability to focus and a lot of determination to accomplish your goals. I suspect that you have developed your dissociative skills in much the same way that you taught yourself biofeedback as a child.

      • Peregrine says:

        Your comment got me thinking about how much of this was voluntary. I can often choose to shut down crying. And I think it is true that I’ve developed dissociative skills. But this particular shutdown may read more intentional as written than it actually was. I don’t think I could choose to shut down this far so rapidly. (If I meditate, sure, I can get there sometimes–or darn close.)

        The main thing that drove me inside to this degree was the fantasy starting to shatter. I didn’t choose to respond this way–T’s comment triggered me into it. But knowing myself and my situation as I do, I knew that at some point during cutting ties with A, I’d face this big of a shutdown. How to get through that?

        Think of the shutdown as a massive ocean wave coming toward you. You can either try to brace against it, in which case, it’s likely to pick you up and smash you down onto the rocks, doing a lot of damage. Or you can accept that a wave is going to hit, hold your breath, and dive into the center to ride with the energy. You’ll get tossed around and end up with sand up your shorts. Maybe some scrapes and bruises. But that’s better than smashing into the rocks.

        I didn’t create the wave. The motivated/intentional/voluntary part is where I dove into the wave, and aligned myself to ride with it and hide inside its energy. If I truly had control, I would have stopped the wave from hitting me at all. But I don’t have that kind of say in things, and this was a massive wave. Nor do I always have the ability to ride the wave–sometimes I’m smashed on the rocks.

        Read much of what I wrote above as self-talk to keep myself calm to ride the wave and move in the same direction its energy was pushing me in. You asked about my awareness as this happened–that’s more what I was trying to address. Awareness does not equal control.

        • Peregrine,

          The differences between a voluntary behavior, an involuntary reaction, and choosing to go along with an involuntary reaction are important, I think. These are dissociative phenomena that the person usually does not give much thought to. My questions about are an effort to get folks like yourself to look at it more closely and to try to put it into words. I definitely agree that awareness is not control.

  9. Peregrine says:

    Another thing to mention–since it might relate to this discussion. For me to say I couldn’t control my muscles is saying a lot. I self-taught myself biofeedback when I was a child. I didn’t know that’s what I’d done (it was a game), until I went for biofeedback training eleven years ago and the therapist and I discovered there wasn’t anything to teach me. At least as far as voluntary muscle goes. Since I already knew that, I asked if he’d help me learn to control my heartbeat, and he declined.

    I can also suppress my corneal reflexes. You know the glycoma test where they touch your eye with that instrument that has a circle of blue light at the end? The eye doctor first puts an anaesthetic drop in your eye, since most people would blink. My doctor doesn’t do that. I feel the instrument touch my eye, but I simply don’t allow myself to blink. I think it’s a kind of voluntary dissociation, actually. Or at least it feels a lot like dissociation to me. I stumbled into this as a child–curious about what my eye felt like. And kept trying until I could touch it without blinking.

  10. Peregrine says:

    Meant to say “My doctor doesn’t do that with me.” I’m one of only two patients he’s ever had that could do this. Everyone else gets the drops.

  11. M F says:

    A short, layman’s answer (to your original question at the top) – from how it “feels” to me, looking back

    It “feels” to me as if it is a form of dissociation, but almost the other way around from usual. So whilst frozen everything else – your surroundings, etc – except the traumatic incident unfolding is perhaps dissociated, resulting in intense… noticing?… of only the traumatic incident. Everything else is beyond unimportant – what is happening is wholly and completely concentrated on although you are completely powerless to do anything to stop it.

  12. Ck says:

    Hi Dr. Dell,

    I just want to thank you for your research and publishing this information in a manner that is easy to understand. Reading over these posts about TI and dissociation, particularly during rape, has really helped me better understand my own experiences with these things.

    I know from my own personal experience that I involuntarily “froze” and could not move or even lift my arms to push the offender off and during that time or perhaps directly after realizing I could not move I remember it was though I was looking down on the event from above and seeing it from the outside of my body.

    I hope that one day psychology/psychiatry and other health professionals will have a deeper understanding of these things and equip themselves to help those who suffer through these issues during and after a traumatic experience. It’s exciting to know that these phenomena (?) are being studied and even helping people like myself understand better what happened to me!

  13. Professor says:

    I am similar to the two patients with early child trauma who become immobile or sleep a lot during the rexperiencing parts of complex PTSD. What at home, I feel the battery is running very low, so I will often sleep. At work, where one holds expectations of oneself and is prompted to remain alert, if I am experiencing intrusive emotions that I don’t want and that won’t help me to work, I “loose time.” I experience time as moving faster than usual. I feel as though the inner conflict between “me” and other parts of me consumes time. I look up at the clock, and much time has passed, yet the conflict has not been resolved.

    I have read in posts on forums that many working people with childhood trauma and complex and dissociative PTSD have experienced this “time loss” during dissociation. I think my body is also less mobile, but NOT immobilized. I may be typing, thinking, or just unaware that I am not moving. Usually I am sitting, and I am able to talk to other people if interrupted. However, I have learned that the voice comes out monotone and slowly.

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