In these troubled and changing times, where many people no longer dare to leave their home and are contemplating deconfinement and the idea of a return to normalcy with dread, I regularly ask myself this question. If you or if you know people around you who feel terrorized, in a state of extreme stress, who develop sudden fears and phobias, and tend to fold in on themselves, then it is quite possible that this primitive reflex may have been reactivated and inhibit their ability to resume a normal life after deconfinement.
What is the Fear Paralysis Reflex or FPR?
The FPR is a primitive reflex (see www.blossomtherapies.ch for more information on what is an archaic reflex) which starts in utero, around the 5th week of pregnancy; this is usually when the mom learns that she is pregnant.
This reflex is manifested by a reaction of retraction and freezing of the whole body which is triggered when the embryo is touched in the region of the mouth or navel or following a toxicity in the womb, or even environmental stress (a strong noise for example, stress experienced by the mother…). The embryo experiences a slower heart rate, a drop in blood pressure, hypoxia (lack of oxygen) and a slight fold around its center. The embryo then feels extreme fear and a breakdown in the system ensues.
Of the three response options available to our brain in the event of extreme stress in order to survive (flight, struggle or paralysis), the RPP therefore corresponds to the third response. Except that in normal times, it should gradually integrate and disappear completely when the source of stress disappears. When it remains active, it causes a series of very debilitating symptoms, which in the current context could be an obstacle to resuming a normal life.
Consequences of an Active FPR
When the FPR is active, it has very strong repercussions linked to fear, and all stress responses will go be either immobilization or dissociation. The consequences on behavior will be profound, and will have an impact on motor, emotional and cognitive levels.
From mutism to overflowing emotions, there are multiple possible reactions. But in all cases, people with an active FPR seem to be frozen in place and have a hard time putting one foot in front of the other.
When the FPR is triggered, there is a secretion of stress hormones: cortisol and adrenaline. People with active FPRs tend to be anxious, fearful, terrified and inconsolable as they feel powerless to deal with life’s challenges. This can lead to panic attacks and phobias, as well as an increase in blood pressure. Muscle tension in the neck and shoulders is also quite common. It’s difficult for them to take part in what’s going on around them. Anger is common.
Others may have trouble looking into other people’s eyes, because they are already overrun with the processing of all the sensory data coming in. To look someone in the eye would require emotional processing, which is unmanageable at the time. Some people have learned to compensate for this by staring intently at the other person without blinking.
Among other possible symptoms, there may also be:
- a very low stress tolerance threshold,
- sensory hypersensitivity to touch, brightness, sounds, sudden changes in the visual field, stimulation of the vestibular system or proprioceptive stimulation.
- nightmares, night terrors, or even noctambulism.
- Morbid thoughts about death or illness
- A withdrawal, as if the person has disconnected from the rest of the world.
People with an active FPR would like to be able to share their emotions, frustrations and fears, but are too paralyzed to do so. Instead, they put up barriers around them to keep others from getting too close, and prevent them from destabilizing them.
In short, the list of symptoms can be long and differs widely from person to person.
So what can you do if you suspect one of your loved ones has an active FPR after deconfinement?
Above all, people with an active FPR need to be listened to and heard in their fear, without judgment. They have no control over what is going on inside them, it does not depend on their will, even if we can sometimes doubt that when we are -ourselves- so far from such fears.
Life can often seem very complicated to them, since each small step is a mountain, and they feel a visceral fear in the face of almost everything.
Even if the protection barriers that these people have placed around them are sometimes difficult to penetrate, over time and with repetition, a lot of listening, compassion and communication, will enable to reassure them and make them feel secure.
But the most effective work takes place at the body level:
- You can therefore invite them to move. All the motor activities help to get out of the paralysis. A simple walk is already a big step towards feeling better.
- Massages are also a wonderful way to help them reconnect with their body. The pressures will allow them to feel content and secure.
- Working with the primitive reflexes integration method, in particular with very specific rhythmic movements and isometric pressures, will help to gently integrate this reflex. You can find more information on my website www.blossomtherapy.ch