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Tonic Immobility: A Response To Childhood Trauma

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What Is The Tonic Immobility Response?

Our stress responses are the legacy of millions of years of evolution – evolution turns us (and all living courses) into ‘survival machines’ and our stress response (when working correctly) is a vital element in our survival ‘tool kit’.

Most of us are familiar with the stress response known as the ‘fight or flight.’ response. This evolved because if our distant ancestors were threatened by, say, a wild animal, they would respond physiologically (due to increased adrenalin production etc) in a way that helped them to fight the danger off, or, (more likely) run away.

However, if neither the option of fighting or running away is feasible (e.g. because the threatened individual is very young), another stress response is likely to be activated which is called TONIC IMMOBILITY.

When the tonic immobility response is activated, the following physiological responses occur:

– REDUCTION IN HEART RATE

– REDUCTION IN BLOOD PRESSURE

which results in :

– THE BODY BECOMING COMPLETED SLOWED DOWN/ALMOST PARALYZED

– THE THREATENED INDIVIDUAL ENTERING A KIND OF MENTAL TRANCE

tonic_immobility

However, whilst s/he is still consciously aware of what is going on, s/he will also feel:

– CUT OFF FROM REALITY (this is sometimes referred to by psychologists as ‘DEREALIZATION’)

– CUT OFF FROM SELF (this is sometimes referred to by psychologists as ‘DEPERSONALIZATION.’)

The threatened individual feels like an observer of his/her own perilous situation, rather than being directly and personally caught up in it. This serves to protect him/her from feeling the intense and distressing emotions which would normally accompany a very frightening event.

This stress reaction, like the ‘FIGHT/FLIGHT’ response, HAS ALSO DEVELOPED AS A WAY OF PROTECTING OURSELVES FROM DANGER. At first, this may seem counter-intuitive, almost as if we have made ourselves a ‘sitting duck’.

However, in our evolutionary past, the response may have helped (if no other option were available to us) because, if a wild animal were threatening us, and we became immobile and totally passive, we may have been perceived as harmless, or, even, as already being dead. Hopefully, this would lead the predator to losing interest.

HOW DOES SUCH A RESPONSE HELP THE CHILD?

The same response may be activated today, if, for example, a child is feeling extremely threatened by, perhaps, a drunken and raging father (or mother). In response to the danger, the child, in no position to escape or fight back, may ‘freeze’ so as to reduce the likelihood of provoking actual physical attack and, also, psychologically ‘cut off’ to prevent being overwhelmed by terror. As alluded to above, the child may feel s/he is a distant observer of the situation, rather than being physically present.

Such a state is sometimes called a ‘DISSOCIATIVE’ state (click here to read my article about this phenomenon) and, because the child mentally ‘disconnects’, s/he may, in the future, have no memory of it.

However, following such a traumatic incident which has led to this state of TONIC IMMOBILITY, great emotional distress can also emerge – indeed, this can be a precursor to the development of post traumatic stress disorder (click here to read my article on this).

It is also important to note that the tonic immobility response can lead to an IRRATIONAL FEELING OF SHAME AND GUILT as the victim may, unnecessarily, torment him/herself by asking him/herself why s/he did not put up a fight, even though s/he was clearly in no position to do so.

Both post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and irrational shame and guilt can be significantly alleviated by therapeutic  interventions such as cognitive behavioural therapy (click here to read my article on this).

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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