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Why Do We Freeze and Lose Our Voice During Trauma?

People often ask why a victim didn’t just leave a situation, or why they didn’t speak up, right away—or why the victim’s story wasn’t cohesive.

So, let’s talk about Tonic Immobility and Broca’s Area, and I’ll keep it (relatively) brief, so the next time you come across these statements from people, you can whip this out. (or, perhaps, you are processing guilt or shame from your own trauma)…read on…

Tonic immobility is a state where we literally cannot move. Colloquially, this is often called a “freeze” response, as in “fight, flight or freeze.”

Scientifically, it is defined as follows: “Tonic immobility is a temporary state of motor inhibition believed to be a response to situations involving extreme fear.” (source)

So, freezing is a physiological response—not just “a choice to not leave the situation.”

During trauma, there are neurobiological changes that impact memory consolidation and recollection—so victim stories can seem to “not make logical sense” to a listener. Broca’s Area, for example, is a region in the brain that affects speech production and language comprehension. In trauma, this area shuts down.

This can be summed up well by this quote from trauma expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk,

Without a functioning Broca’s area, you cannot put your thoughts and feelings into words.Victims of assaults and accidents sit mute and frozen in emergency rooms; traumatized children ‘lose their tongues’ and refuse to speak.”

Our brains and bodies are fascinating. And they do so much to protect us. And yet, many of these protective mechanisms are very confusing and misunderstood—which leads to victims being re-victimized by assumptions, accusations and skepticism—or their own doubt that they could have responded differently.

It’s time that we, collectively, understood these physiological responses, so that we can better support victims of trauma.

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5 Responses to Why Do We Freeze and Lose Our Voice During Trauma?

  1. Sharon Johnson November 18, 2017 at 2:33 pm #

    Yes! How can I read or learn more about this?

  2. Sharon Johnson November 21, 2017 at 3:28 pm #

    Thanks Susan! Great article as was yours as well. I knew some of this but not all of it. Extremely enlightening! Thanks for sharing and helping me put more of the pieces to the puzzle together! I always look forward to your blog posts.
    I know we talked about doing some CBT via Breathwork before and my goal is to do that later next year with you.: )

    • Susan Shehata
      Susan Shehata November 30, 2017 at 5:09 pm #

      Thank you Sharon! I look forward to working with you, when the time comes.

  3. Sharon Johnson November 30, 2017 at 10:54 pm #

    Thanks Susan! Likewise! One thing that stood out to me when I met with you to do my core story session was a question you asked me upon my arrival. I had dropped my phone and the battery had fallen out and I was trying to get it back in and was feeling out of sorts. You obviously sensed what was going on inside me and you asked me if I was easily rattled. I think I said “maybe.” The answer I would give now is a resounding “Yes”!

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