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After My Sexual Assault, I Learned the 'Fight or Flight' Response Had a Third Option

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Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

For the longest time, I berated myself because I didn’t feel like I fought back “hard enough” when I was raped. If I look back, in truth, I did fight back. I tried to get away, but he was bigger than me. He was taller than me, and he was stronger than me. There was nothing I could do, so I stopped fighting. I stopped fighting and just froze.

• What is PTSD?

This wasn’t me saying it was OK. This wasn’t me “giving up,” as I had thought for so long. No, this was me doing what I had to do to survive and protect myself.

We’ve all heard so many times about the “fight or flight” response. That’s what I thought I had to do. I felt like I didn’t really “fight back,” if I didn’t choose fight or flight. What most people don’t know — what I didn’t know — is that the fight or flight response has a third option: freeze. In situations where you can’t fight the attacker off, or when you can’t run away, the only option you’re left with is to freeze. When it showed that fighting back would make my attack worse, I froze. This wasn’t me giving in. This was me surviving. When you freeze, your mind takes you away from the situation you are in. You dissociate as a survival technique to get through whatever is happening.

The world needs to remember the freeze response is totally normal and a completely understandable response to trauma. When I was questioned by a police officer, some of the first questions he asked me were: “Did you fight back? Did you scream? How hard did you fight back? Did you try to run?” I understand the police need to know these things to get the full picture, but he made me feel like I didn’t do enough to prevent my attack.

This was not true for me, and is not true for any other victim of sexual assault. It is never the victim’s fault no matter how much she fought back. Freezing is a normal brain response to trauma, and for me, was safer than fighting back. So, next time you hear “fight or flight,” remember the third “F”: freeze.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

Thinkstock photo via Transfuchsian.

Originally published: May 18, 2017
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