Peo­ple re­act in dif­fer­ent ways to threats of vi­o­lence

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Health | Lifestyle - Padraig O’Mo­rain Padraig O’Mo­rain is ac­cred­ited by the Ir­ish As­so­ci­a­tion for Coun­selling and Psy­chother­apy.

Imag­ine you are alone in a room in an empty house late at night. You are read­ing a book. The room is dark apart from the light from a read­ing lamp.

Sud­denly, you hear the door han­dle be­gin to turn. What do you do? You freeze. That’s what you are pro­grammed to do. The prim­i­tive freez­ing re­sponse is prob­a­bly meant to make you less de­tectable to what­ever is out­side. It also switches you into sur­vival mode.

We’ve been hear­ing a lot about sex­ual as­sault and rape and I think it’s help­ful for tar­gets of such at­tacks to know some­thing about our built-in re­sponses to fright­en­ing, threat­en­ing sit­u­a­tions. It can help them to step away from self-crit­i­cal thoughts about why they re­acted in one way rather than another.

In a sex­ual as­sault, as with the shock­ing re­al­i­sa­tion that some­body else is in the house, you have less con­trol than you think over your im­me­di­ate re­ac­tions. This is so even though our au­to­matic re­ac­tions – such as freez­ing – don’t al­ways turn out to be the most help­ful. For in­stance, in the case of a sex­ual as­sault, that freez­ing could give the at­tacker time to press for­ward.


The freez­ing also gives time for your whole sys­tem to switch to de­fence mode. This turns off the cre­ative, an­a­lyt­i­cal part of your brain be­cause you don’t have the time to sit there gen­er­at­ing ideas.

We’ve all heard of fight, flight or freeze as re­sponses to an at­tack. How­ever, you are un­likely to have the men­tal space in which to work out which of these to choose. As Dr Jim Hop­per, a teach­ing as­so­ciate at Har­vard Med­i­cal School who works with trau­ma­tised peo­ple in the mil­i­tary and in civil­ian life points out, your de­fence sys­tem will al­most cer­tainly trig­ger one of your ha­bit­ual re­sponses.

The tar­geted per­son, man or woman, whose usual re­sponse to co­er­cive sit­u­a­tions is to sub­mit, rea­son or plead (and most of us would be in one of those cat­e­gories) is more likely to sub­mit to, rea­son with, or plead with, their at­tacker than to strike back. They do this au­to­mat­i­cally – re­mem­ber their cre­ative sys­tem has shut down. The per­son whose ha­bit­ual re­sponse is to fight is more likely to fight back and have a bet­ter chance of avoid­ing sex­ual as­sault but a greater chance of phys­i­cal in­jury.

If it looks as though noth­ing is go­ing to work, the per­son may freeze or go limp for the du­ra­tion of the at­tack. Again, this hap­pens au­to­mat­i­cally.

All of this is why soldiers and oth­ers who face life-threat­en­ing sit­u­a­tions prac­tice and prac­tice and prac­tice. Their aim is to have their sys­tem de­fault to the re­sponse they prac­ticed when­ever they are un­der threat, be­cause their cre­ative sys­tem won’t be avail­able.

When it comes to mem­ory, the per­son’s per­cep­tion sys­tem may fo­cus on a de­tail – a smell, a cur­tain in the room, what the at­tacker is say­ing, for in­stance. Other de­tails may be dis­re­garded so later it may be im­pos­si­ble to give a com­pre­hen­sive de­scrip­tion of the event. Add to that the flood­ing of the mem­ory-form­ing part of the brain with a stress hor­mone (no­ra­drenaline) which can tem­po­rar­ily over­whelm the ca­pac­ity to form mem­o­ries and one can see why it can be so dif­fi­cult to give de­tailed ac­counts later.

Know­ing about our built-in re­sponses to threat­en­ing sit­u­a­tions can help peo­ple to step away from self-crit­i­cal thoughts

Peo­ple of­ten put off re­port­ing sex­ual as­sault or rape – when a rapist is some­one you know and even liked it’s easy to be­come con­fused about what hap­pened and even to doubt your­self. More­over, the prospect of a rape trial can be fright­en­ing.

In my opin­ion what you need to do in a sit­u­a­tion like this is to go to a rape cri­sis cen­tre to get the help you need. It isn’t un­usual for peo­ple to seek such help years af­ter the as­sault has oc­curred. Re­gard­less of whether the at­tacker is go­ing to end up in court, re­mem­ber that you need all the sup­port you can get and find­ing that sup­port could be the best thing you have ever done.

Search “Jim Hop­per phd” on YouTube for more in­for­ma­tion. Also the #whyi­did­ntre­port hash­tag on Twit­ter is worth look­ing up.

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