Fight, Flight, or Freeze Reactions

“When human beings are faced with danger, their adrenal glands flood their bodies with either adrenaline or noradrenaline. Adrenaline energizes the body in the fight or flight mode; noradrenaline creates a freeze reaction, or the numbing of the body and the emotions. This freeze reaction also can be caused by the endogenous opioid system, one of the body’s natural calming systems, which diminishes physical sensations and the intensity of emotional reactions.

As a result of these involuntary physiological reactions, during a sexual assault, the woman doesn’t have the power to decide whether she is going to fight back, try to run (flight), or go limp (freeze). His/her adrenal glands and neurohormones do. The same holds true when she is exposed to a reminder of the assault, also called a “trigger.” When exposed to a trigger, even if she is safe, her body responds as if she is being attacked.

If she responds with an adrenaline surge, leading to a fight or flight reaction, she may experience symptoms such as the startle response, insomnia, anxiety, irritability, and increased nightmares and flashbacks. If she responds with a noradrenaline urge, she may have a numbing or freeze reaction. Or, she may alternate between the symptoms or fight or flight reactions and the symptoms of a freeze reaction.”

(The Rape Recovery Handbook, Chapter 4, Coping Skills)

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A little more on RTS (Rape Trauma Syndrome)

I find that knowing what reactions are normal in rape victims helps me understand that the feelings I have are normal and that I am not alone. I already posted another article on RTS that I compiled from a few websites, but this one helped me understand a little more and, for me, anything helps. I hope that someone reading this can be helped, even in the least.

Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that often affects rape survivors.

Not all rape survivors will experience RTS. Different women respond to the trauma of rape in different ways. Some women will experience severe RTS, while others have few symptoms or none at all. ALL rape survivors need to be believed, taken seriously and supported, regardless of whether they experience RTS or not.

Experiencing some or all of the symptoms of RTS does not mean you’re crazy. The symptoms of RTS can be very powerful and distressing. As a survivor, it may feel as if you’re going crazy, but that is a normal reaction. If you are supporting a friend or family member who has been raped, you may find the survivor’s behaviors puzzling or upsetting. HOWEVER, the symptoms of RTS are a NORMAL reaction to a traumatic experience, and they will fade over time with proper care and support.

A survivor’s individual response to rape, and the degree of RTS they experience depends on many factors:

  • If the victim knew and trusted the rapist
  • If family and friends are supportive and patient, or blaming and unhelpful
  • Treatment by the police and justice system, should the victim choose to report the attack
  • Age and previous life experiences
  • Cultural and religious background
  • The degree of violence used by the rapist
  • Injuries, illnesses or disabilities resulting from the rape
  • Whether the rape brings up memories of past traumas
  • The victim’s emotional state prior to the rape
  • The victim’s practical and material resources

Remember: Every rape situation is unique and it is very important to treat each rape survivor as an individual.

It is next to impossible to completely forget about a rape. Many survivors lose or suppress memories of all or part of the rape, but it is not forgotten; however, the memories will almost certainly resurface later, and the survivor will need to face them.

If the victim is very young, or experiences the rape as especially traumatic, they may block the memory of the rape even as it is occurring. They may not consciously recognize that they has been raped or may not experience any symptoms until months or years later, usually when another life event, such as a first sexual relationship or another trauma, triggers the memories. Once the memories return the survivor will never forget what happened, but will learn to live with the trauma. Recovery takes time. Survivors must allow themselves to remember the rape and feel whatever feelings it will bring, even though this is often very difficult and painful. They need to work through the experience, and integrate it into their lives so they can move on.

Physical Symptoms of RTS

  • Shock: usually an immediate response. May include: numbness, chills, faintness, confusion, disorientation, trembling, nausea and vomiting
  • Sleep problems: unable to sleep, sleeping more than usual, or other changes in sleeping pattern
  • Eating problems: no appetite and subsequent weight loss, or compulsive eating and subsequent weight gain
  • No energy or too much energy
  • Physical illness: the stress may weaken the immune system and making them more vulnerable to illness. The rapist may have infected the survivor with an STD, or other illness. A general feeling of “unwellness” is normal
  • Physical pain: this may be as a result of injuries inflicted by the rapist, or a physical reaction to emotional pain
  • Cardiovascular problems: heart palpitations, breathlessness, tightness or pain in the chest, high blood pressure
  • Gastrointestinal problems: loss of appetite, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, dryness in mouth, butterflies in stomach, feelings of emptiness in stomach, etc.
  • Exaggerated startle response: over-reacting to sudden noise or movement
  • Over-sensitivity to noise

Cognitive Symptoms of RTS

“As if” feelings or flashbacks: re-experiencing sensations that were felt during the rape, or actually reliving parts of the experience in memory or dreams.

  • Intrusive thoughts: sudden or forceful “intrusive” memories of aspects of the rape. Constantly thinking about the attack.
  • Memory loss: the survivor may be unable to remember the rape or parts of it; this is usually temporary, although it can last for many years
  • Poor concentration
  • Increased alertness
  • Speech problems: stuttering, stammering or other difficulty talking
  • Indecisiveness
  • Difficulty problem solving
  • Nightmares
  • Violent fantasies
  • Revenge fantasies

Behavioral Symptoms of RTS

  • Crying
  • Avoiding reminders of the rape
  • Pretending that it never happened
  • Neglecting themselves or other people
  • Increased washing or bathing
  • Self-blame
  • Fear of being alone
  • Not socializing or socializing more than before the rape
  • Relationship problems: the survivor may be irritable, argumentative or easily upset; they may withdraw from people they felt close to before the rape or form sudden new connections; they may grow overly dependent on others or become too independent.

Survivors may experience sexual problems after the rape. They may not want sexual contact of any kind, or may no longer enjoy it – this may be exacerbated if their partners blames them or are impatient with their recovery; alternatively, they might become more sexually active than before.

Survivors may make drastic changes in home, work, school or relationships; this can be an important part of helping them feel safe and in control again.

  •     Substance abuse
  •     Emotional Symptoms of RTS
  •     Denial
  •     Numbness or lack of emotion
  •     Rapid, inexplicable mood changes
  •     Shame
  •     Guilt
  •     Feeling dirty
  •     Anger or desire for revenge
  •     Fear
  •     Nervousness and worry
  •     Being easily upset
  •     Powerlessness and loss of control
  •     Grief and loss
  •     Feeling “different” from other people
  •     Loss of Self-esteem
  •     Losing interest in life
  •     Depression
  •     Suicidal feelings

RTS symptoms change over time.  In the first days after the rape, survivors usually experiences shock. They may be visibly upset, or may appear calm and reluctant to talk. Once the shock has passed there may behave as if nothing has happened. This is called denial or apparent adjustment and helps the survivor block painful memories and feelings that they may not yet be strong enough to deal with. This phase can last for weeks or months or even years, but is almost always followed by a long phase of active healing, during which the survivor will probably experience other RTS symptoms. With care, attention and time, the symptoms will decrease and finally disappear completely.

Many rape survivors who experience symptoms of RTS, may find it helpful to talk to a counselor trained in working with rape victims. A counselor can help them deal with the strongest symptoms, or to work through memory loss. Other survivors may find that the rape brings up other underlying problems, and in these cases, more help may be needed. If you would like to find a capable counselor, contact UASA or another women’s help group.

For more information contact United Against Sexual Assault (UASA). We offer a 24/7crisis line for victims and also offer training, education and information about rape and other forms of violence against women, teens and children.

http://uasasonoma.org/services/rts.html