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What Happens When The Fight Or Flight Response Fail?

When children are suffering from traumatic stress and feel under threat the fight/flight response is activated for reasons of self-defense and self-protection from physical or psychological harm. The fight response may include rage, anger, or physical aggression whereas the flight response may include running away or otherwise trying to physically detach oneself from the source of threat and danger (such as a drunk and violent parent). 

Sometimes, however, these reactions, automatically triggered by lower and midbrain regions, fail to protect the child or provide a viable means of escape. 

So what happens when neither fight nor flight reactions can come to the rescue? 

The answer is a third stress reaction known as IMMOBILITY. This state can be likened to a sort of ‘self paralysis’ that puts the fight/flight response ‘on hold’ and may involve feelings including resignation, subjugation, deep despair, being ‘frozen’, helplessness, dissociation (including fragmentation of sense of self, derealization, and depersonalization), physical and mental unresponsiveness and fainting. 

This state is also sometimes referred to as tonic immobility or reactive immobility. 

In What Situations May The Immobility Reaction Occur?

The immobility reaction may occur, for example, when a child is being abused in the home and is too young to run away or fight back. Alternatively, trying to fight back or run away may enrage the abuser further thus increasing, rather than decreasing, the level of threat and danger to which the child is exposed. 

In such situations, going into a state of immobility that involves an almost total psychological shutdown may lessen the immediate impact of physical or mental pain associated with the abuse. 

Some theorists, such as, most notably, Pete Walker, author of ‘Complex Trauma: From Surviving To Thriving‘, also refer to a fourth defensive reaction to perceived, traumatic stress, namely the appease/fawn response. This response involves trying to placate and appease the person representing the threat.