Why Don’t Sexual Abuse/Assault Survivors Fight Off Their Attackers?

My name is Dr. Colleen Cira and I am a Licensed Clinical Psychologist who specializes in Women and Trauma, so I’ve worked with hundreds of people struggling with sexual trauma.

Interview Dr.Colleen Cira

  • Trauma can be defined as an event that overwhelms our ability to cope. Several very predictable things happen in our brains and bodies when we experience an event that overwhelms our ability to cope.

    • Our brain, without our awareness or permission, decides that we need to fight or run from the threat.  This is our parasympathetic nervous system kicking into gear.

    • If our brain decides that neither are possible without risking our lives, then we move into freeze mode.  This is the “deer in the headlights” mode where we have one foot on the gas at the same time as the other foot is on the brakes.  Lots of internal stress and tension, but no movement. In this mode, we are waiting to see where our moment is to fight or try to run again.

    • And when something about the situation overwhelms us completely, we move into submit mode.  This is the “possum playing dead” mode where we submit to whatever bad thing is happening to us.  To be clear, THIS IS NOT A CONSCIOUS CHOICE. This is not something that we decide. Our brain decides this, within nanoseconds, and is completely out of our control and unknown to us.

    • When this happens, our brain floods our body with chemicals that act as an anesthetic to protect us from any pain we might be experiencing. Our brain also paralyzes our bodies and literally makes it difficult to move in the hopes that our perpetrator might think that we are dead and lose interest.  In this phase we might dissociate, which means our bodies are there, but the rest of us is somewhere else.

  • Based on this information, it becomes a lot easier to understand why survivors reacted the way they did.

    • Did they fight off their attacker?  That was because their brain made a split second decision that fighting might work.

    • Did they run?  That was because their brain made a split second decision that running might work.

    • Did they NOT fight or run or say no or scream?  That was because their brain made a split second decision that their LIFE WOULD BE IN DANGER if they did any of those things.

  • Bottom line: Once the nervous system takes over, we as conscious, rational adults are no longer in control and our animal brain moves into the driver’s’ seat.  But acknowledging that we as conscious, rational adults don’t always have full control over our decisions or our bodies is a difficult and potentially scary concept to understand and accept, so we victim-blame instead.  The problem though is that it’s remarkably unkind to do that and also factually inaccurate.


Dr. Colleen D. Cira, Psy.D. received both her Masters and Doctorate from the Illinois School of Professional Psychology and has been practicing in the field since 2001. Dr. Cira is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and the Founder and Executive Director of Cira Center for Behavioral Health, PC a boutique group practice with locations in Chicago and Oak Park that specializes in Women’s Issues/Health and Trauma. Dr. Cira is a trauma and anxiety expert, clinical supervisor, writer, speaker, consultant, activist, wife and Mommy to two little ones.


Dr. Cira’s Profile on Media Ambassadors: https://www.mediaambassadors.com/dr-colleen-cira

Dr. Cira’s Practice Website: www.ciracenter.org

Jo Allison
Success In Media

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