How freezing and tonic immobility translate into movement


I was taught there were two main responses to the stress response: fight or flee. I never questioned the simplicity of this model, or the fact that having only two choices was rather limiting (if you have read any of the research on choice, you know there is a sweet spot between too few options and too many options. And yes, in case you are wondering, I went through a phase where I became curious about choice and read a handful of books and a few papers on it).

Anyway, back to this world where the only response humans have to a life threatening event is to either begin throwing punches or run away, slowly, since not very many of us train the skill of running fast. The odds don’t seem like they would be very good in certain circumstances, do they? I could write a disturbing scene here involving several people, one gunman, and a grocery store, but that would give me nightmares, so instead I will leave the details to your imagination, but let me ask you this: would you really want to fight the lone gunman if you are unarmed and untrained? Or would you really want to run away and draw attention to yourself without weighing your exit strategy? Probably not. So what would you do instead?

You would stop, freeze, become completely immobile and wait for an opportunity to get out.

The Freeze Response and Tonic Immobility

The freeze response is an opportunity to assess the threat, scan the environment, and prepare for whatever you need to do to survive. It’s different than the flight or fight response, which is a sympathetically driven stress response that results in an increase in heart rate, respiration, and pupil dilation. Freezing, on the other hand, is associated with the slowing of the heart rate and a reduction in body sway. It’s a strange combination of tense muscles and slowing down.

Another response to stress is tonic immobility, which occurs when an animal “perceives little chance of escaping or winning a fight”. Tonic immobility is like paralysis. It’s when the freeze response lasts longer than is necessary to benefit the situation, or could be thought of as missed opportunity to fight or flee. It’s when the gunman is across the store, distracted by the noise happening far away and you are right next to the door and could get out, but you can’t because you are frozen, unable to change position. Tonic immobility can have long lasting effects, including anxiety and dissociation.


Another form of the stress response is orienting, which is kind of like freezing, but with a little more activity. Let’s say you are being followed while walking home at night. Orienting might mean slowing down, scanning the environment, and deciding whether the person you think is following you poses a threat.It’s what happens when you hear a loud noise in the middle of the night and you, startled from sleep, slowly orient your body to the noise, assessing the situation before figuring out where to go and what to do.

The translation to movement

“Jenn, while this is interesting, what does any of this have to do with movement?” I am getting there. But first, take a moment to reflect on any trauma you have ever had in your life. Do you remember your response? Did you fight, flee, freeze, or some combination of the above? And if you’ve never had trauma, can you reflect back to any stories you have been told about trauma?

There are other forms of trauma we don’t necessarily think of. Things like surgery, for instance, can be a form of trauma. Think about it—someone cuts into your body and you are immobilized for a set amount of time. You can’t fight or flee. Basically, surgery is forced tonic immobility, and if you are forced to keep a body part immobilized for a long period of time, the tonic immobility is isolated to one area.

Remember earlier how I mentioned tonic immobility corresponds to dissociation? In this hypothetical surgery situation, the affected area becomes foreign, as though the body part doesn’t really belong to you.

I have a client I will call Greg. Greg is a medical doctor who had surgery on his rotator cuff and biceps tendon a few months ago. He went through physical therapy, diligently did his exercises, and still had sensation in his right arm (which also happened to be his dominant arm). The sensations Greg described and his uncertainty using his arm caused me to load it thoughtfully, slowly, in a variety of ways, without moving into the areas that he described as uncomfortable. By the end of our second session, after presenting him with information on trauma (which he ran with and began reading several books on), he said to me, “so surgery was trauma and my shoulder is experiencing PTSD. I never thought of it like that. Oh, and my shoulder feels much better.”

In the book, “The Unspoken Voice,” Peter Levine discusses how shaking is one way for the organism to work through a potential stressor. It’s moving through the freeze response to action, even if action isn’t needed. (This, of course, is the strange thing about some of the traumas we experience as humans. They aren’t always predator/prey related so there isn’t always a reason to fight or run away, even though the stress may have been very real.) So, the uncontrollable shaking that sometimes occurs after a traumatic event could be viewed as a way for the mind/body to use the pent up muscular tension from the freeze response in an actionable way to dissipate the muscular tension.

There are other form of somatic and movement therapies that are used with individuals who experience trauma, including thoughtful movement modalities, tapping, and open monitoring meditation techniques. The opposite of paralysis is movement, and the more of yourself you can feel, the more of yourself you will use.

I have witnessed the immobilization of body parts in clients how have experienced excessive blood loss after child birth, car accidents, and surgeries. I have also worked with individuals who experienced major trauma and need more than I can provide to work through their scars (abuse victims, I find, have a lot of holding patterns can be very difficult to improve). Creating a movement environment that is safe, yet challenges the individual to feel the limb/sensation of work/awareness helps people with trauma based holding patterns decrease immobility and begin to move in a more complete way.

I have a client I will call Angie. Angie had a serious fall at work that set off a cascade of symptoms, including a painful (and chronic), bout of sciatica. Angie’s symptoms were made worse by most things, including Pilates, which she really enjoyed.

Her doctor referred her to me, and when we first began working together, I was surprised by the heaviness on the right side of the body. This was the side she had fallen on as well as her dominant side, and it was as though her body was “stuck” there. The sciatica was on the right side; she walked to the outside of her right foot and the inside of her left foot.

Over the course of several months, I helped Angie feel different parts of herself, including her left side. I explained to her the left side needed to be more like the right in terms of heaviness and the right side needed to be more like the left in terms of lightness.

Her symptoms gradually improved and her movements became more balanced. Angie is prone to anxiety and cares for her aging mother, which causes stress. Her pain isn’t gone, but it’s much more manageable than it was.

Think of what the term “tonic immobility” connotes. It’s hypertonicity to prevent movement. If you only work on the side that’s immobile, you are missing a huge part of the equation.

I do this with Greg as well. I make him use his left arm, picking up kettlebells with it, reaching for things with it. The mere reminder that he has another arm he can use calms his nervous system down and gives his right arm an opportunity to relax.

There are interesting things you see with individuals who have experienced some type of trauma, like when the left arm reaches, the right arm will tense, or when the left foot lifts, the right shoulder will hike. The human system is an incredible interplay of past experiences, current physiological and emotional states, and psychic medium, predicting what is about to happen and how to respond. I think the role of coaches and movement professionals is often to be a mirror, to help people feel what is currently happening and offer alternatives, creating an opportunity to do the same movement differently.

Several years ago, I was riding my bike too fast, down a hill, when I came upon a garbage truck. I swerved to miss the garbage truck and ran into an oncoming car’s driver side mirror. The collision was strong enough that I took the mirror off with my left arm.

I didn’t think much about it, and while my arm was sore, I assumed with time, it would heal.

It did, and while I was able to move it in a variety of ways, but for years, it felt heavier than the right arm. There were times I could feel the exact place my arm struck the mirror. I tried a variety of things, including body work, strength work, and yoga, but it wasn’t until I began focusing on a) strengthening the opposite position it was injured in (which happened to be straight arm shoulder extension), and focusing on my right arm that the sensation gradually disappeared.

The thing with sensation is it creates a focal point for your attention, a place for you to return to, again and again, like a scratch you can’t quite get. When you are in the middle of it, it’s difficult to wrap your head around the fact focusing your attention somewhere else may be the key to creating less noise.

Trauma is strange, and almost every paper I have read on the topic notes how little research has been done on humans, the freeze response, and tonic immobility, which makes me sad. If you are a movement professional, listen to people’s stories. Listen to their descriptions of what they feel, and if are working with someone who has experienced trauma, create opportunities to feel something different.

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