Fear Paralysis Reflex: Why my Child Experiences “Deer in the Headlights,” Fear, Anxiety, Night Terrors and Phobias
This article provides helpful information for parents who have children that may have retained the Fear Paralysis Reflex and other primitive reflexes. Affiliate links are included for your convenience. Integrated Learning Strategies (ILS) is a learning and academic center. As a reminder, ILS is not a health care provider and none of our materials or services provide a diagnosis or treatment of a specific condition or learning challenge you may see in your child or student. If you seek a diagnosis or treatment for your child or student, please contact a trained professional who can provide an evaluation of the child.
In a recent 2009 study it was discovered that one in six kids have some type of sensory processing issue. One in six? Wow! Many of those kids are still being misdiagnosed with ADHD or other disorders and may not be getting the specific help they need. There are many hypersensitivities that children with sensory issues have and must deal with on a daily basis. For example, they may have hypersensitivities to sounds, touch, light, temperature, taste, smell and balance.
Another area that we must take a look at when we talk about sensory issues is anxiety. When a child with a sensory processing disorder has or experiences a high level of anxiety or is seen to be anxious for no apparent reason, it could be caused by a retained or active Fear Paralysis Reflex (FPR) or active Moro Reflex.
As you become more familiar with retained primitive reflexes, you will find that your child can retain these reflexes after the period of time that they should have been integrated into the higher processes of the brain. If your child struggles with sensory issues, they could have retained the Moro reflex that plays a lead role in the physical protection of the baby and can cause a fight or flight response.
The Fear Paralysis Reflex is also one of the first reflexes to develop in your child. It emerges at five to seven weeks in utero. This reflex is followed by the Moro reflex. Both are developed in the fetus before birth. The FPR and Moro reflexes have a unique relationship. The FPR appears first, but then starts to integrate or lay dormant (like an inactive volcano) as it develops into the Moro reflex.
Lack of Integration
The Fear Paralysis Reflex is really the key to all other reflexes and lays the foundation for all others that develop in your child. It is intended to develop in the fetus, integrate into the Moro reflex, and then “disappear” before birth. The integration of the FPR before birth is far-reaching because it supports the emotional well-being of the child.
If the FPR does not follow the intended route development and remains active, the child’s system may be locked in a state of fear. There may be chronic phobias, severe anxiety, deer in the headlights response, inability to adjust to social and emotional changes, and even panic attacks later in life. The active FPR manifests itself not only in the waking hours of a child’s life, but also during sleep. This may be one of the causes for night terrors that children with sensory issues often experience. When the FPR does not inhibit before birth, the child typically lives life through a filter of fear.
What is the Fear Paralysis Reflex?
The important aspect of the FPR is its amazing ability to be the protective shield for both the mother and the unborn baby. The FPR performs the essential task of fear paralysis (from where it gets its name) when there is a threat. When there is something that threatens the mother, the FPR reflex automatically reduces the demands the fetus places on the mother’s system while she responds to the specific danger. The FPR accomplishes this by immediately surging through the following:
- Causes the fetus to experience immediate motor paralysis (no movement)
- Restricts peripheral blood flow
- Lowers the fetus heart rate
- Protects the fetus by reducing exposure to adrenaline
- Reduces absorption of the stress hormone cortisol
In Symphony of Reflexes, Bonnie Brandes states that fear paralysis causes a disabling fear that combines with a decrease in respiration, heart rate and muscle movement. This reflex is connected to the parasympathetic nervous system.
What to look for in your child
If the Fear Paralysis Reflex is retained after birth, it is usually characterized as the appearance of overall withdrawal from the child’s surroundings. This does not always mean quiet withdrawal. Many times a child that sees fear in everything and will scream and yell loudly in the face of any new or uncomfortable situation. Here is a list of behaviors that may manifest itself in a child with a retained fear paralysis reflex:
- Low tolerance to stress
- Constant state of anxiety
- Tends to “freeze” when there is a threat, instead of fight or flee
- Sensory processing issues
- Hypersensitivity to light and sound
- Does not adapt to change well
- Overly clingy
- Extreme fatigue
- Deer in the headlights response
- Selective mutism (not speaking in situations where talking is expected, especially if speaking is already an established ability)
- Holding breath when upset or angry
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) traits
- Defiant or controlling behavior
In the Classroom
A student with a retained Fear Paralysis Reflex reacts by freezing when confronted with a new challenge or situation in the classroom. Contrastingly, a child that does not have a retained FPR responds to the same situation with possible apprehension, confusion or an attitude of “bring it on.” Different reactions are within normal ranges, but the child living with an active FPR may give up easily and withdraw mentally, making it very difficult to learn. A body that is in constant stress and fear may transition into everything around it being overwhelming. Panic attacks and anxiety episodes may also plague a child, especially within the school environment.
What Causes a Retained Fear Paralysis Reflex?
Experts feel there are risk factors associated with a child holding onto the Fear Paralysis Reflex instead of the reflex naturally integrating into the Moro reflex before birth. Like the rest of the primitive reflexes, the FPR can remain active if the developing brain and central nervous system do not integrate to the next level or milestone. A list of known risk factors during pregnancy that sometimes causes a baby to retain the FPR mentioned in Symphony of Reflexes includes the following:
- Chemical and other harmful substances consumed during pregnancy (smoking, alcohol consumption, harmful medications, drug addictions)
- Trauma or injury during pregnancy
- Highly stressful pregnancy, premature at birth, C-section delivery
- Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in siblings
- Emotional disorders in parents
The fear paralysis reflex, if active in the child, is a major inhibiting factor to emotional and developing progression. Our bodies are amazing and they store history. If the child is in a constant state of fear and anxiety, they will always remain in protection mode. The child will hang onto their defense mechanisms for survival, even when there is no logical threat.
How to integrate Primitive Reflexes
As you monitor your child’s development, if you notice traces of Primitive reflexes that remain in your child, which prevent your child from fully developing, they may need exercises to help their Primitive reflexes “go to sleep” so their other reflexes can support their development. If the reflexes are not integrated, you may continue to notice delays in your child’s learning or side effects that may cause toe walking, W-sitting, bedwetting, anxiety, fear, poor balance and coordination, underdeveloped vestibular and proprioceptive systems, and trouble with motor planning. If these reflexes are absent, this is an indication that the nervous system is underdeveloped.
The Retained Primitive Reflexes 101 e-Course provides beneficial exercises and contains videos, instructions and pictures that may help integrate retained Primitive Reflexes. The e-Course is only offered two times a year so join now to save your spot!
To try more activities that may help your child with their learning development, join our video membership. We now have three new options available:
- Pick and choose which series works best for you for one price.
- Sign-up for our monthly membership to gain access to each new series on a monthly basis.
- Register for our annual membership to gain access to all the videos.
Depending on what option works best for you, each series is typically only $1 per video. Each video series allows you to track your progress and reach certain goals you set with your child. To join, click here.
Integrated Learning Strategies is a Utah-based center dedicated to helping mainstream children and children with learning challenges achieve academic success. Our services provide kids with non-traditional tutoring programs within the Davis County, Kaysville, Layton, Syracuse, Farmington, and Centerville areas. Areas to find Integrated Learning Strategies include: Reading tutors in Kaysville, Math tutors in Kaysville, Common Core Tutors in Kaysville, Tutors in Utah, Utah Tutoring Programs
15 Jan 2020 - Emotional Grounding
10 Sep 2019 - Development