Immobility in the Defense Cascade
The above video captures some essential elements of hardwired trauma responses. Notice how stiff the mouse is at the start of the video @0.00 and 0.09 mins – a dissociative, immobilised state and a perfect example of ‘tonic immobility’. Later @0.29 it is in the ‘freeze’ state of ‘flight-or-fight on hold’ where the body is still but there is quick breathing and orientation to the environment. Finally, @0.51 we see it go into ‘flight-or-fight’ and attack the cat. These are all stages of the ‘defense cascade’ outlined by Kozlowska et al 2015.
The mouse survived.
Two passages from Peters Levine’s excellent book ‘In An Unspoken Voice’ help us understand why a mouse would attack a cat – not a rational response:
As They Go In, So They Come Out: The Rage Connection
‘Similarly, when a well-fed household cat catches a mouse, the latter, restrained by the cat’s paws, stops moving and becomes limp. Without resistance from the mouse, the cat becomes bored and will sometimes gently bat the inert animal, seemingly trying to revive it and restart the game anew (not unlike Jimmy Stewart slapping his swooning heroine to bring her out of her faint). With each reawakening, chasing and reactivated terror, the mouse goes deeper and longer into immobility. When it does eventually revive, it frequently darts away so quickly (and unpredictably) that it may even startle the cat. This sudden, non-directed burst of energy could just as easily cause it to run at the cat, as well as away from it. I have even seen a mouse ferociously attack the nose of an astounded cat. Such is the nature of exit from immobility, where induction has been repetitive and accompanied by fear and rage. Humans, in addition, reterrorize themselves out of their (misplaced) fear of their own intense sensations and emotions.
This is similar to what may happen when catatonic psychiatric patients come out of their immobility. They are often extremely agitated and may attack the staff. I once had the opportunity to work with a patient who had been in a catatonic state for two or three years. After carefully sitting by his side (getting closer, over the period of several days), I spoke to him softly about the shaking and trembling that I observed with people and animals when they come out of shock. I had also talked with the chief psychiatrist, and he agreed that they would not give him an injection of thorazine (or straitjacket him) if he came to in an agitated state, unless he was clearly dangerous to himself or others. Two weeks later l got a call from the psychiatrist. The man had begun to shake and tremble, started to cry and was released to a transitional living situation six months later.
To review, fear both greatly enhances and extends immobility and also makes the process of exiting immobility fearful and potentially violent. An individual who is highly terrified upon entering the immobility state is likely to move out of it in a similar manner. “As they go in, so they come out” was an expression that Army M.A.S.H. medics used when describing the reactions of their war-wounded patients. lf a soldier goes into surgery terrifed, and needing to be held down, he or she will likely come our of anesthesia in a state of frantic and possibly violent disorientation.’
Levine 2010 pp61-62 (Italics from original, bold added.)
The Fear of Exiting Immobility
‘In the wild, when a prey animal has succumbed to the immobility response, it remains motionless for a time. Then, just as easily as it stopped moving, it twitches, reorients and scampers off. But if the predator has remained and sees its prey returning to life, the story has a very different ending. As the prey comes back to life and sees the predator standing ready for a second (and this time lethal) attack, it either defaults to all-out rage and counterattacks, or it attempts to run away in frantic non-directed flight. This reaction is wild and “mindless”. As I mentioned in Chapter 4, I once saw a mouse counterattack a cat that had been batting it about with its paws (bringing the mouse out of its stupor), and then scurry away leaving the cat dazed, like Tom-cat in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Just as the immobilized animal (in the presence of the predator) comes out ready for violent counterattack, so too does a traumatized person abruptly swing from paralysis and shutdown to hyper-agitation and rage. Fear of this rage and the associated hyper-intense sensations prevents a tolerable exit from immobility unless there is education, preparation, titration and guidance.’
Levine 2010 p88 (Bold added.)
A huge thanks to Renee Hella from Body Intelligence Vancouver. She shot and uploaded the video, she thinks the cat was distracted by the camera. It is also a stout cat.
Kozlowska K, Walker P, McLean L, and Carrive P (2015) Fear and the Defense Cascade: Clinical Implications and Management. Harv Rev Psychiatry. 2015 Jul; 23(4): 263–287. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4495877/ Accessed 2015-10-28
Levine P. (2010) In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.