People react in different ways to stressful and dangerous situations, including sexual violence. These include biologically linked responses such as fight, flight, freeze, fawn, and separation, each designed differently to protect us from danger or harm (Van der Kolk, 2014). When these natural reactions to high stress or danger are disrupted (that is, when a traumatic situation prevents someone from taking actions that help them get out of a stressful or dangerous situation), the brain responds to stress. Continuing to secrete chemicals, the body’s trauma response continues long after the actual event has passed (Van der Kolk, 2014).
During a traumatic event such as sexual assault, fear circuits in the brain take over, replacing the prefrontal cortex’s normal decision-making processes with instinctive, survival-based reflexes. This means that a person who has experienced a traumatic event such as sexual assault may not react the way they would or expected to react under other circumstances. (i.e. unable to move, disassociate, go on “autopilot”, etc.) (Hopper, 2016). Many people who do not fully understand sexual violence and its effects on those who experience it wonder why someone did not “fight back” or “flee” during a traumatic event. This misunderstanding can lead to victim blaming, which hurts victims and continues to enable the perpetuation of sexual violence. As we begin to learn more about how the brain responds to trauma, it can help us understand why many survivors do not respond as expected during traumatic events.
Traumatic experiences also influence how the brain encodes memories of traumatic events. The brain may overly focus on some elements of an event, encoding them with explicit details, while bypassing other details that may be poorly encoded or not encoded at all. (Hopper, 2016). This can make it difficult to recall traumatic events, but this does not indicate a lack of trust, and it is important that a person can survive and minimize harm when the brain is under extreme stress. It’s just a neurological tendency that aims to keep it low (Hopper, 2016).
Trauma causes extensive changes in the nervous system. The human brain and body continue to function as if the trauma were still going on, continuing to secrete hormones and fire brain synapses associated with the fight/fight/freeze response, keeping the body in a constant state of stress. (Van der Kolk, 2014)). It takes a lot of energy to keep your psychological and physiological responses under control to the ongoing build-up of neurobiological distress, and when the brain and body try to control this distress, it can lead to fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue. It can cause various physical and psychological symptoms such as , and other autoimmune diseases, anxiety, depression, etc. (Van der Kolk, 2014).
Many Ways People Can Be Healed
This does not mean that going through trauma is a life sentence of hardship and suffering. Healing from trauma does not undo what has been experienced, but as an ongoing process there are many healing paths that can be taken. Finding a way to heal your body, mind and spirit/self is a unique and highly personal process.