Moro & Fear Paralysis Reflexes
We have two main responses to stressors as an infant: the Moro reflex and the fear paralysis response. Once we become toddlers, the Moro reflex becomes the Fight or Flight response that we are all so familiar with. When we encounter stress or trauma that is overwhelming to our system, these are the two physiological responses we have to deal with it.
Normally, when we encounter a stressor, the stress response activates for a short period of time and then releases. For example, if you hear a noise late at night while you're in bed, you might bolt up in bed and freeze. You hold your breath, can't speak, and your eyes widen with fear. This is the fear paralysis response. In another instance, you are sitting at a stoplight and are hit from behind. Suddenly, you feel a rush of adrenalin. Your heart starts to pound, you can't think clearly, and you find your fists tightening up. This is the Fight or Flight response. These two responses are meant to help us survive dangerous circumstances. They are meant to activate for a very short period of time and then release.
However, there are times when these responses can get stuck on. For example, a service member who is stationed in a war zone may experience life-threatening violence for years on end. The extended trauma can cause the Fight or Flight reflex to get stuck on. Extreme grief is a common trigger for the Fear Paralysis reflex. For infants with a developing brain, trauma or extreme stress at birth such as hypoxia from the cord around the neck or getting stuck in the birth canal can trigger either or both of these survival reflexes. This can have extremely detrimental effects on further brain development as it impacts the emergence and integration of further reflex patterns.
Image by jeff.snodgrass is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
The Fear Paralysis reflex can cause great challenges with speech and learning. When FP is present, we cannot access and produce oral language, so you may see a child diagnosed with receptive and/or expressive language impairment. They may have social anxiety or appear to be tearful and afraid of the world. Young children with an active FP may exhibit separation anxiety and cling to mom. FP causes a withdrawal from the world on some level for protection.