O'Halloran, M. Sean

Committee Member

Helm, Heather M.

Committee Member

Softas-Nall, Basilia

Committee Member

Henderson, Angela


Applied Psychology & Counselor Education


University of Northern Colorado

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Place of Publication

Greeley (Colo.)


University of Northern Colorado

Date Created





264 pages

Digital Origin

Born digital


While tonic immobility is a phenomenon well known and documented in the animal world, far less is known about its physiologic correlates and manifestation in human beings. This study examines the experience of tonic immobility from the perspective of seven women who have survived a sexual assault accompanied by tonic immobility. It yields a description of the experience of tonic immobility and how it is construed by survivors using phenomenological methodology. Results indicate that themes associated with the experience include a period of initial overwhelming confusion, feelings of terror, a desire to distance oneself from the experience, an intense desire to avoid visual contact with the perpetrator's face often accompanied by periods of eye closure, an inability to volitionally control body movements or vocal response, an urge to flee, experiencing physical numbness during the crisis, changes at the moment of vaginal penetration, differences in attending during immobility, crystalline memories of the perpetrator's departure, confusion immediately after an assault ended, a gradual return to volitional movement, shaking during recovery periods, muscle soreness in the days and hours following tonic immobility, vivid memories associated with the experience, a period of experiencing feelings similar to tonic immobility during consensual sexual encounters, and negative impacts on subsequent relationships. Individual textural descriptions and individual structural descriptions for each co-researcher follow. A composite textural-structural description of the experience of tonic immobility also emerged. Implications for theory, research and practice are discussed. Recommendations for future research include research into several of the facets of the phenomenological experience of TI, any cognitive contributions to TI including the ways in which attention is directed during the experience, the contributions of physical sensations, especially vaginal penetration, to TI, and the experience of muscle soreness after an experience of TI.

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