The Freeze Response: How I Handled The Trauma Of Sexual Assault

My thoughts became rigid — frightened to wander into past memories.

Trigger warning: sexual assault

When I speak at colleges about my own story of sexual abuse, I never forget how difficult it was for me to even speak the words, "I was sexually abused." It took me an even longer time to believe it, or to understand it could happen to me. And what took so much longer than I ever could have predicted was to believe that I was sexually abused...and it wasn't my fault.

Many survivors know that being sexually assaulted was not their fault. Now, I'm one of them. But the question I've worked to answer after a decade of healing and processing what happened to me is: "Well, then why didn't I do something?"

I had heard this dozens and dozens of times — in my own head and with students who have opened up to me during my programs. Many victims of abuse, molestation, and domestic violence often feel a guilt that they need not feel. For months after my voice teacher molested me, I beat myself up, thinking "Why did I do that?", "What was I thinking?", and "Something must be wrong with me."

It also took me a very long time to accept that a mentor and father figure in my life had violated our trusting relationship. I kept replaying the events that occurred in my mind, telling myself I must have done something wrong — why else would he have done this? I must have instigated something...I blamed myself, convinced that no one could take advantage of me if I had not invited it.

I couldn't shake the shame I felt, no matter how hard I tried to forget what had happened. The more I tried to block my memories, the more anxious and confused I became. I became a space cadet — hardly feeling at all. This was how I protected myself. This way, I couldn't feel the sense of loss and betrayal. I couldn't feel the shame that this was my fault. My numbness started to alarm my friends and family, to whom I insisted that nothing was wrong at all. I kept this secret hidden inside, burning in my gut, hidden from those I loved.

The more I tried to repress what had happened, the more anxious I became, until I couldn't handle keeping these secrets locked up so tightly. Shocked, upset, and overwhelmed, I was living in three worlds — part of me functioning normally in school, keeping up my grades, and telling people I was fine; part of me replaying traumatic memories in my head, beating myself up for not saying “no,” for not running away, for not fighting back; part of me in a numb, apathetic space of disconnect — a place I created in my head as a survival instinct. If I created a frozen, numb space to exist in, I could alleviate the sense of shame I felt.

When I turned 18, I finally spilled everything to my mother. I was so afraid of what she might say, or if she would judge my actions. I was embarrassed to say words like "sex" and "molester" and "rape" out loud. My mother was shocked. But she still provided me with the one solid anchor that I needed. No matter what I told her I had done, what he had done, what details I could remember, or what I confided in her, she reassured me with the certainty only a mother can have: “It was not your fault.”

Reaching out to someone I knew and who loved me unconditionally calmed my anxiety. Telling someone what happened made my dark secret come to light. I became open to viewing my abuse in a different way — I was willing to take some of the responsibility off of myself. My mother and I started reading about trauma.

I learned that in the face of trauma, you have three responses: fight, flee, or freeze. I could have immediately fought back against my abuser, yelling "no" or defying him in some way. I could have run in the other direction, but I was so shocked, I froze. Like a deer in the headlights, I couldn't come to terms with the idea that a man that I trusted as my mentor could turn into a monster in the blink of an eye. I mentally left the situation, disassociated from my body, and became a passive bystander to a trauma that my body was directly involved in.

I learned that the physical sensations of guilt register in the same way that shame and helplessness do in your body — so when a person feels helpless in a situation, the body automatically pairs that sensation with guilt. When you undergo any kind of trauma it causes a disturbance in your energy flow — suddenly, you are unable to feel those emotions that once came so naturally at. My body stopped breathing the same way it used to — a big knot of tension evolved in my chest and remained there like a cocoon. My thoughts became rigid — frightened to wander into past memories. I put up a daze like four safe walls that protected me from being consciously present in the abuse, and that daze stayed with me, with or without him. I lived in a world separate from everyone else.

I realized my numb response to my assault, my nervous energy, my sweating fits and anxiety attacks were not something to be ashamed of, but rather, a proud and victorious survival strategy.

In a wonderful book, Waking the Tiger, Peter Levine writes:  

"All mammals automatically regulate survival responses from the primitive, non-verbal brain, mediated by the autonomic nervous system. Under threat, massive amounts of energy are mobilized in readiness for self-defense via the fight, flight, and freeze responses. Once safe, animals spontaneously 'discharge' this excess energy through involuntary movements including shaking, trembling, and deep spontaneous breaths. This discharge process resets the autonomic nervous system, restoring equilibrium." 

Suddenly, I felt understood. Now, when I work with survivors, I help them realize that their reactions to trauma and assault are natural human reactions to be applauded. The real work comes from taking that nervous energy, formerly an essential trauma survival skill, and turning it into productive healing energy — energy that, once redirected, can build a new, beautiful world for the survivor.

I finally see my world in color again. I told myself "it wasn't my fault" until I believed it. And once I felt these words resonate in my body and in my soul — I liberated myself. I had nothing to be ashamed of. And I had every right to reclaim my life, my aliveness, and to move on and experience the world in all of its radiant colors once again.

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