At a recent conference about trauma and the brain’s response to it, Bonnie Martin – a licensed professional counselor who specializes in brain-based therapy, based in the Washington, D.C. area – made this statement regarding survivors of trauma, specifically survivors of abuse who suffer from mental illnesses:
There is nothing wrong with this person. There is something wrong with what happened to this person.
A large percentage of children and adults who have been victims of abuse and/or assault develop a mental illness [or more than one, e.g. depression, anxiety, personality disorders, paranoia, eating disorders, PTSD, etc.] Everyone copes with trauma differently and no one should be shamed for how they have chosen to cope and survive. However, one common theme in victims’ behavior is confusion or an inability to properly remember the events surrounding their assault(s). During the trauma, a victim will enter either “fight, flight, or freeze”. The brain’s activity changes as a way to protect itself. Later, remembering specific details or following a linear chronology as they tell their story can be very hard for many victims.
Because complex trauma and the brain is a fairly new study, the majority of people a victim will come into contact with do not have a proper education on how the brain is affected – in the moment and in the aftermath – by trauma.
A relatively new area of the literature on human response to trauma, particularly the trauma experienced during sexual violence, is that of “tonic immobility.” Defined as self-paralysis, or as the inability to move even when not forcibly restrained, tonic immobility has long been studied in non-human animals as the “freeze” response to extreme stress. Recently, it has been observed in the laboratory as a stress response in humans, as well. This finding explains the reaction of many victims of sexual violence, who report that they felt like they could not escape, even when no weapon was present.
Additionally, due to an entire cascade of hormonal changes, which includes oxytocin and opiates, associated with pain management, adrenaline, commonly associated with “fight or flight,” and cortisol, functional connectivity between different areas of the brain is affected. In particular, this situation affects pathways important for memory formation, which means that an individual can fail to correctly encode and store memories experienced during trauma. While an individual generally will remember the traumatic event itself (unless alcohol or drugs are present in the system), these memories will feel fragmented, and may take time to piece together in a way that makes narrative sense (Kathryn Gigler, source linked above).
It is not uncommon for family, friends, law enforcement, etc. to disbelieve a victim because their story has discrepancies or changes over time. It may appear to them that the victim is lying or merely seeking attention and cannot keep their story straight. In reality, to be simplistic, the brain is working to retrieve data that was potentially temporarily “lost” or suppressed during the trauma and, in the process of remembering and healing, that information will not be clear or linear. Inconsistencies are not lies but evidence that a traumatic experience has occurred.
Behavioral patterns in individuals who have experienced sexual violence mirror those seen in other traumatized populations, like combat veterans. This pattern of symptoms, known as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, can include emotional numbness, intrusive memories of the traumatic event, and hyperarousal (increased awareness of one’s surroundings, or constantly being “on guard”).
Research shows that the majority of individuals who experience sexual assault demonstrate at least some of these symptoms of PTSD immediately after the assault and through the two weeks following the assault. Nine months after the assault, 30 percent of individuals still reported this pattern of symptoms. Overall, it is estimated show that nearly one-third of all victims of sexual assault will develop PTSD at some point in their lives (Kathryn Gigler, source linked above).
There is nothing wrong with a victim of sexual or domestic abuse, of rape or sexual exploitation. What was done to them is what is truly wrong. Their reactions and behaviors – however confused or disjointed they may seem – are the body’s natural response to trauma.
For information related to trauma and children’s brain development, read The Amazing Brain.
For more information on PTSD and victimized behaviors:
Why Victims Don’t Report and Why Shaming Them is Detrimental
The Role of Environment and Response in PTSD Recovery
Understanding the Behavior Common to Survivors of Sexual Abuse
Understanding and Identifying Dissociation in Children and Adults
Understanding Post-Trauma Guilty and Shame