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.