Learning More: Tonic Immobility Part 3

In our final installment of our Tonic Immobility series, we will look at what you can do to help share this information, and how to respond when someone shares their experience with you.

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“I felt paralyzed”: breaking down a sexual assault reaction (Part 3)

Welcome back! In Part 1, we talked about a reaction that can happen during sexual assault called tonic immobility. Basically, this is a state of temporary paralysis where you’re fully conscious but you can’t move, yell, or feel pain. It’s induced by two things: extreme fear and either physical restraint or just the perception of being trapped. Last time, we learned that tonic immobility is a very prevalent reaction during sexual trauma, and that it’s strongly connected to several negative consequences for survivors like PTSD or self-blame for the assault. Today, we’ll talk through how you can use everything you’ve learned to create a more positive healing environment for survivors.


We’re learning more and more how common tonic immobility is in sexual assault cases, and how strongly it’s linked to negative survivor outcomes. What’s more, not many people outside of the research community know about this phenomenon, which brings another set of negative outcomes. Survivors who have been through this may feel deeply ashamed that they couldn’t control their body or resist the assault. There may be stigma from the public, with questions like “why didn’t you fight back?”. Police or juries may look for signs of resistance as compelling evidence that there was actually a sexual assault. But you cannot resist or fight back during tonic immobility; that DOES NOT mean there was no sexual assault. Experts have expressed that more public knowledge about tonic immobility would be highly beneficial in mitigating these problems. It’s our responsibility to lessen the burden of shame on survivors and validate their healing process—which means we should all dig deeper into this issue and keep talking about it. Sharing these posts can be a great first step to sparking more discussion.

Navigating conversations about sexual assault is already difficult, and understandably so. Having a “toolkit” of talking points prepared ahead of time can help make this easier and more approachable. Some of the most important pieces to bring to these conversations are empathy and validation for survivors. We must remember that there is no “normal” or “right” way to react to sexual assault. During traumatic events, the logic center of the brain is turned off and the alarm system is turned on—any reaction during that moment is an effort to survive that trauma. Sometimes this means resisting the person violating you. Sometimes this means feigning enjoyment of the assault. Sometimes this means your body becomes locked up. There are many different paths to getting through a sexual assault, and they are ALL valid.

The following reminders are written with a tonic immobility reaction in mind, but the empathy underlying each sentiment can be applied to any survivor’s particular response.

    • Know that this is a legitimate reaction.
    • It is not shameful that your body went paralyzed.
    • Your brain and body did what was necessary to survive.
    • It can be incredibly hard to share details of one’s sexual assault—thank them for sharing and acknowledge their courage in doing so.
    • They may or may not want to learn the “how” and “why” of tonic immobility. At minimum, validate their experience with the points from the previous section.
    • Ask (don’t tell) what kind of help would be best for them. 
    • Rather than call them out, call them in for a conversation.
    • Share the facts of tonic immobility and how our bodies are programmed to do this.
    • Emphasize that people may have unexpected reactions during highly traumatic events, but at the core of these reactions is an effort to cope and get through that trauma.

Consider how these reminders might be used or adapted to fit in your conversation “toolkit”. As previously mentioned, empathy goes a long way in supporting survivors both directly and indirectly. Learning how to better support victims of sexual violence is never over. Let’s use what we’ve learned here to continue having conversations and enacting change to fight against sexual violence.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Britta Koenen is a senior at St. Olaf College studying biology and women’s and gender studies. Her senior project involved researching, writing, and creating educational programs focused on tonic immobility. Contact her at britta.koenen@hotmail.com.