Me Too: Understanding Trauma Reactions to Sexual Assault/Abuse

The following is written with sexual assault and abuse survivors in mind, but the general concepts listed below have generalizable applicability to other forms of trauma and psychological abuse as well. At times, I will be making distinctions between the mind and the body for the purposes of providing a cogent explanation of the nature of trauma and the human experience. Most, if not all, researchers agree that the mind and body are not separate or split as was once surmised; the entire system works together as a whole. That said, at certain points, I will be speaking about the mind and body in separate, metaphorical ways in hopes to provide greater understanding of trauma and its effects. 

Those who have not experienced trauma struggle to comprehend the pervasive nature of trauma and that fact that trauma often does not end after the actual threat has expired. The nature of trauma is traumatizing. What has been evolutionarily built into our bodies for protection during dangerous situations does little to offer psychological protection after the actual threat has passed. We are hard-wired for flight, fight, or freeze survival responses during traumatic experiences. Essentially, our bodies take over and certain parts of our minds shut down to some extent. This is instinctual; we do not have a choice, and trauma does not wait for consent. This built-in protective mechanism (whether it be freeze, fight, or flight) aims for survival - period. What happens afterwards, however, is a type of miscommunication between the mind, body, and the environment in that the “all clear; it’s safe now” message is not received or understood by the body which then remains on high alert. In other words, the body simply does not get the message that “the coast is clear” so that we may relax and rest now. It is possible that even years or decades later, the body continues its job of remaining on the lookout, on active duty, and on heightened alert. 

Thus, hyperarousal and hypervigilance are common PTSD symptoms specific to a body trying to protect itself long after coming ashore and reaching safety. And ironically and quite unpleasantly, the body continues to respond to certain environmental stimuli (triggers) in such a way that perpetuates the sensation or experience of abuse as if it is happening in the present moment. This functions like a form of retraumatization because the body is responding “as if” the trauma is happening again and again, sending the same signals to initiate the fight, freeze, or flight response and associated experience of trauma. While it is trying to do the best it can do – to offer protection – it definitely feels like the exact opposite. In this way, we can really appreciate how debilitating trauma truly is for the traumatized, for the original traumatic event essentially becomes reexperienced in the body, on some level, every time the body feels triggered. It only takes one traumatic event to multiply into hundreds or even thousands for many survivors.  

Consequently (and quite unfairly), the body may become experienced as an unexpected source of continued threat. For some, the body may become associated with the place where trauma happened, and pain was left. For others, it feels more accurate to describe it as a crime scene, making it difficult to return to in order to re-inhabit and reclaim as their own. In other words, we become afraid of what is happening inside of us, and therefore, afraid of our own internal reactions and parts of ourselves. Ultimately, we end up trying to disconnect further from ourselves as if we can somehow divorce the mind from the body. Such unconscious dissociation strategies and avoidance behaviors are hallmark signs of traumatic responses or reactions (other common symptoms of PTSD). During the actual traumatic event(s), it is common for the mind to disconnect or dissociate from the body, leaving the body behind in search of safety and protection. Some survivors describe it as an experience of being detached and observing the events from a safer distance. Others describe it as an experience of having gone so far away from the body that there is no memory of witnessing the event(s). While dissociation is a complex and varied phenomenon, it remains a protective function of the mind that also is built-in to protect us during terrifying experiences. It is natural to not want to witness or experience such terror. If part of us can escape, why wouldn’t we? Well, dissociation allows us to do that during those traumatic moments. Afterwards, it often becomes an ongoing symptom experience that manifests when triggered by environmental stimuli in daily life.

Additionally, dissociation may be conceptualized further as the mind's experience manager whose job it is to herd and sort through various types of experiences (including memory fragments and traumatic material) in an attempt to reduce the potential for psychological overload. Having the totality of myriad states of experiences in conscious awareness at any one time would be too much to humanly process. Therefore, for those with trauma histories in particular, the mind works adeptly to detain and encapsulate overwhelming, traumatic material that has yet to be formulated or assimilated into our overarching sense of self who is known to us (as us) on a conscious level.

If one understands the ways in which the body and mind work together and also do not work together to provide survival protection during trauma, then one should understand the ways in which the normal, day-to-day memory-making channels and encoding processes are compromised during trauma. In short, evolutionary, physiological responses take over the entire system to ensure survival. Simply put, trauma memories are not made in the same way that regular memories are made for other meaningful events in our lives. Trauma is memorized differently, so to speak, in ways that may not make sense to others (for example, those asking questions or wanting to know what happened). Essentially, certain parts of the brain are bypassed or overridden during the experience of trauma, as the body is trying to downregulate itself to survive, so what is “remembered” is fragmented and without context or comprehensiveness. It often is sensorial and feeling-based, for the body was there and knows what happened. It senses and feels. It remembers. Therefore, in no way should survivors be criticized for not cognitively and consciously remembering the so-called “whole story.” Trauma does not allow for it. Trauma does not leave people feeling whole. It provides little to no context for what happened, leaving the survivor with bits and pieces of the trauma story without a clear beginning, middle, and end. It is analogous to being left to interpret a book with only a few words or sentences in it, maybe part of a chapter. Where are the words? Sometimes, there are none until therapy.

Trauma therapy (or therapy for PTSD) should provide a safe place and a safe relationship to begin the healing process that seeks to carefully understand, manage, and reduce pain and suffering. It works best when the therapeutic relationship creates a kind of space that specifically allows for the safe negotiation and management of all aspects and experiences of trauma. So much about trauma has been left neglected and untreated; so much has been left hurting in the form of the unspoken, unseen, unknown, unheard, unwitnessed, unformulated, and unprocessed.

The therapeutic relationship must care for all of these things; there is no fragment too small. In cases of trauma, both the body and mind must be listened to and valued as communicators; the entirety of oneself is trying to speak. Therapy must translate and do so meaningfully, for there is a trauma story to finish writing. There are words to be found by two people (therapist and client) engaged in meaningfully experiencing a powerful process of healing and growth. This process assists in the recovery and repossession of what trauma once compromised so that new ways of relating, living, and being become possible. Therapy provides the space for the traumatized mind and body to meaningfully reconnect and feel like a whole, complete self again, thus making sense of the what has been experienced before, during, and after trauma. Given that trauma originated in the context of another, it stands to reason that healing would come about in the context of a different kind of other – the kind that seeks to help rather than hurt. Feel free to read my other related writings on trauma located on this website if they might be helpful to you.   

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