A retained reflex: working with fear

As part of my ongoing occupational therapy, I’ve been doing exercises on primitive (or neonatal) reflexes. I mentioned them briefly here. I was addressing the Moro, or startle reflex, and now I’m doing exercises related to the Fear Paralysis reflex…which is supposed to be integrated before birth but….didn’t with me. The Fear Paralysis reflex precedes the Moro reflex, and is defined by withdrawing and freezing in response to stress and stimulation.

I’ve been looking at the symptoms of a retained fear paralysis reflex and I identify with most of them. I took the list of symptoms from two pages: this one and this one.

  • Insecure, low self-esteem
    • Yes. I have definitely done a lot of work with this.
  • Depression/isolation/withdrawal
    • Yes.
  • Constant feelings of overwhelm
    • Yes, I do get overwhelmed easily.
  • Extreme shyness, fear in groups
    • I’ve always felt more at ease interacting one-on-one or in small groups. I’m more likely to freeze/shut down in larger groups.
  • Excessive fear of embarrassment
    • Yes.
  • Sleep & eating disorders
    • Sleep, yes. I’ve struggled with insomnia, especially when I was younger. Eating disorders, not so much.
  • Feeling stuck
    • Yes. I used to think this was primarily based on a belief I had, but perhaps it began with a feeling
  • Withdrawal from touch
    • I’m tactile defensive, so yes. I’ve definitely improved in this area, but if I’m overstimulated, my tolerance of touch is the first thing to go.
  • Extreme fear of failure, perfectionism
    • Oh yes, definitely. I’ve done a lot of work on this, too, and consider myself to be a “recovering perfectionist.” My healing/personal growth work has been helpful, and learning to teach Nia has been especially helpful in accepting imperfection and being softer with myself when I make mistakes.
  • Phobias
    • This is a very broad category. Which ones? What I can say is that I have a strong tendency towards being fearful, anxious, and hyper-vigilant.
  • Low tolerance to stress
    • Yes.
  • Constant state of anxiety
    • Part of me says that it’s been “consistent” but not constant. In any case, I would definitely say that anxiety has generally been a major factor for most of my life.
  • Tends to “freeze” when there is a threat, instead of fight or flee
    • Yes. And this also could happen in situations that weren’t exactly dangerous, like being called on in class (even if I often did know the answer).
  • Sensory processing issues
    • This goes without saying.
  • Hypersensitivity to light and sound
    • Definitely to sound, although that’s improved somewhat since beginning my iLS listening program. I’m not a fan of flashing lights, and my sensitivity to light skyrockets when I have a migraine.
  • Does not adapt to change well
    • Transitions are challenging for me. I can adapt, but it’s a slower process than I would have liked to admit in the past.
  • Overly clingy
    • My mom says that I was very attached to her, especially in my toddler years, to the point of clingyness.
  • Extreme fatigue
    • Yes. “I’m tired” has been one of my most common comments throughout my life. I tire easily, and I’ve also struggled several times with adrenal fatigue and precursors to chronic fatigue syndrome.
  • Deer in the headlights response
    • See “freezing.” Wide eyes, go silent, shut down.
  • Selective mutism (not speaking in situations where talking is expected, especially if speaking is already an established ability)
    • Not sure on this one. I had thought it was a conscious choice to not to talk to certain (or most) people in middle school and other times in my life, but what if it wasn’t entirely a choice?
  • Holding breath when upset or angry
    • Wait, breathing is expected in those situations?
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) traits
  • Defiant or controlling behavior
    • On these last two, generally, no. I definitely have done things to control my environment and reduce stimulation, but I don’t think I exhibit OCD traits. Defiant behavior depends on the environment, but generally I made an effort to behave well and blend in.

When I started doing the integration exercises for the Moro reflex, I definitely experienced some tense moments. As I begin the exercises for the fear paralysis reflex, I’m definitely experiencing occasional moments of high anxiety. Integrating these reflexes requires activating my strong startle or fear responses and sometimes it feels akin to poking at a wound so I can heal it. Luckily, it also involves some soothing exercises as well. As usual, I don’t know what changes to expect as I do these exercises. My hope is that I’ll be able to return to – or reach – a state of calm more easily.


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