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Living in Fear: How a Retained Fear Paralysis Reflex can lead to a Lifetime of Anxiety

Updated: Jul 21

The Fear Paralysis Reflex is the first step to learn to cope with stress, develop the ability to feel safe and begin to explore the world. [1]


Chart of types of primitive reflexes

What are reflexes?


Reflexes are critical for survival as they cause the involuntary reaction that can brace you for an unexpected fall or trigger a cough when choking. Every baby is born with them. These first reflexes develop when your baby is still in your belly. They are called "primitive reflexes". Different kinds of reflexes correspond to different parts of the body, as well as mental health. The Fear Paralysis and Moro reflexes relate to perceived self-preservation and emotional well-being.


Fear Paralysis Reflex chart: When and Why it happens and what it looks like

What is the Fear Paralysis Reflex?


The Fear Paralysis begins at 5 weeks after conception. "The Fear Paralysis causes the fetus to stop moving, restricts peripheral blood flow, lowers the heart rate, reduces exposure to adrenaline and reduces the absorption of cortisol (the stress hormone). This is similar to a mouse feigning death when caught by a cat: heart rate and breathing slow right down so it can protect itself and zoom off and hopefully escape when dropped." [2] "Both the Fear Paralysis and the Moro Reflex are highly susceptible to being retained if a baby experiences stressors in-utero and/or just after birth". These include the mother smoking or using drugs, being in a constant state of anxiety due to domestic violence, birth trauma such as the umbilical cord wrapped around baby's neck, or physical or emotional separation from the mother. [3] Since this primitive reflex should disappear before the baby is born, premature babies are more likely to have an active Fear Paralysis Reflex than their full-term peers.


Chart of issues associated with retained Fear Paralysis Reflex

Symptoms of a retained Fear Paralysis Reflex


If you have ever wondered why a deer freezes when they see a car coming towards them instead of running away, that is the Fear Paralysis reflex in action. "When retained, this reflex is associated with fear of anything new. Symptoms include anxiety, tantrums, heightened sensitivity, breath holding, insecurity, obsession, and paralysis in times of stress." [4] People with a retained reflex are also likely to have "decreased stress tolerance, oversensitivity of the senses, motion sickness, difficulties with eye contact, acting out and temper tantrums in children, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, oppositional and aggressive behavior, elective mutism, excessive shyness" [5] Furthermore, they can suffer from general anxiety, depression, be insecure or have low self-esteem, feel overwhelmed, have excessive fear of embarrassment, separation anxiety, sleep and eating disorders, extreme fear of failure, perfectionism, and phobias. [6] If that wasn't all, retaining it means that the person is likely to have brain freeze under extreme stress, a lack of adaptability and potentially panic attacks and night terrors, sensory processing challenges, hypersensitivity to light/sound, finds change difficult, breath holding when worried/upset/stressed, and fear of not being in control. [7]


Chart of how to test for retained Fear Paralysis Reflex

How to test for a retained Fear Paralysis Reflex?


It is trickier to test for this than other reflexes because it usually disappears before babies are born, but there are some hallmarks of a retained Fear Paralysis Reflex such as your baby not wanting to be touched, cuddled or being swaddled. Also, your baby freezing when they experience unexpected lights, sounds or touch followed by crying.


What you can do about retained primitive reflexes

What can you do about a retained Fear Paralysis Reflex?


Active primitive reflexes can have life long affects. So what can you do about it? Awareness is the first step in prevention. Now that you know that a retained Fear Paralysis reflex can cause life long issues, you can monitor your baby's behavior. If you think that it is still active, make an appointment with your pediatrician. If they determine that your baby has any lingering reflexes, they will give you a referral to a specialist. Then meet with a pediatric occupational therapist, or therapist depending on their needs. Early intervention is the most valuable thing that you can do to help your baby.



Sources:

  1. Pamela Crljenica, LMSW, IMH-E® (III), "Understanding Retained Reflexes on the Impact of Relationships and A Guide for the Infant Mental Health Practitioner", Ledges Wellness LLC, Michigan State University School of Social Work Faculty, https://mi-aimh.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/D2-Crljenica.pdf

  2. "Sleep, anxiety, night terrors – and neuroscience", Move2Connect, https://move2connect.com/sleep-anxiety-night-terrors-and-neuroscience-2/

  3. Pamela Crljenica, LMSW, IMH-E® (III), "Understanding Retained Reflexes on the Impact of Relationships and A Guide for the Infant Mental Health Practitioner", Ledges Wellness LLC, Michigan State University School of Social Work Faculty, https://mi-aimh.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/D2-Crljenica.pdf

  4. Veronesi, Dr. Rachael, "Symptoms of Retained Neonatal Reflexes", April 6, 2015, Neuro Balance Chiropractic, http://www.neurobalancechiropractic.com.au/symptoms-of-retained-neonatal-reflexes/

  5. "Fear Paralysis Reflex", Blomberg Rhythmic Movement Training, https://brmtcanada.com/blomberg-rhythmic-movement-training/reflexes/fear-paralysis-moro-reflex/

  6. "Fear Paralysis Reflex (FPR)" Rhythmic Movement Training International (RMTi), https://rhythmicmovement.org/fear-paralysis-reflex

  7. "Sleep, anxiety, night terrors – and neuroscience", Move2Connect, https://move2connect.com/sleep-anxiety-night-terrors-and-neuroscience-2/


 

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