Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, Week 2: The neurobiology of trauma

U.S. Air Force graphic

Story by Ava “AJ” Nicol, freshman at Riverdale High School. Image provided by U.S. Air Force.

Trauma is an experience that some people cannot fully comprehend. People who have never experienced severe trauma often have difficulty understanding what trauma survivors endure. Severe trauma can alter brain functioning, especially memory and emotional regulation. The stress caused by traumatic events such as assault and rape can lead to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), depression, substance abuse, and other health problems.  

Unfortunately, many teens that have experienced trauma from 16 years old or younger resort to using drugs to cope with the pain and memories, says PsychGuides.com. Trauma can cause problems like extreme anxiety, anger issues, post-traumatic stress disorders, and low self-esteem issues.

When it comes to extreme abuse, people’s bodies sometimes freeze, which means that the perpetrator can have complete control over the victim’s body, so the body is essentially in shock, similar to the way opossums faint or “play dead.” The shock and stress from intense fear can cause their bodies to shut down involuntarily. This can lead to memory loss due to the fact that the victim’s mind dissociates, and tries to focus on something else to take away from the damage happening to their body. The biggest factor that drives this occurrence is fear, says Dr. James W. Hopper, Ph.D. Fear can cause memory blocks due to what Dr. Hopper calls the “circuitry of fear”, which can lead to the brain focusing on something completely unrelated to what’s going on, or when the brain purposely leaves out certain memories so that you won’t remember the damage caused. In a Scientific American article from September of 2018, he states “Ignorance of how memory works is a major reason why sexual assault is the easiest violent crime to get away with.”

Dr. Hopper also describes brain-based physiological responses such as tonic immobility and collapsed immobility. Tonic immobility is a 300 million year old response that causes temporary paralysis where the victim cannot move or speak and occurs when the victim experiences extreme fear and perceives that escape is futile. A person can be in this state for hours. With collapsed immobility, a victim experiences an extreme drop in heart rate and blood pressure, which results in a loss of oxygen to the brain. They can feel sleepy, lose consciousness, and muscle tone. He demonstrates this phenomenon in a series of videos that show people passing out on extreme roller coasters. No one chooses these responses. It is the body’s way of surviving the perception of severe injury or possible death. It is also what leads to a misunderstanding of what we should expect survivors to remember.

Many people wonder why victims come out of trauma with guilt. This is due to the perpetrator, the way society treats that victim, and this misunderstanding of how memory works. The victim may become convinced that their experience is their fault because of things like what they are wearing or their attitude. Many people do not understand that when your body shuts down out of fear, the victim is unable to fight back. The perpetrator may make the victim believe that they dressed a certain way and that’s why he/she approached them. Or maybe they explained to the victim that they wanted what is happening to them, that they asked for it. In reality, no sexual assault is the victim’s fault. The guilt that comes out of the trauma can cause all kinds of issues for the victim, such as depression and anxiety issues.

The low self-esteem that comes after sexual violence is indescribable. The victim might feel dirty, like they are a disappointment, or that they are weak, all because of someone who wanted to use their body against their will. Some people become perpetrators because of being bullied or rejected multiple times. It’s not only girls that get assaulted, but boys, too. Helping someone to describe what happened to them is extremely difficult, and it’s difficult to know what to do. Making a survivor feel like they are in power over their own body takes time. Helping them means protecting them, helping them feel comfortable with you, and getting them anything they need to feel safe. Helping keep them safe is the first step to making them more comfortable so they can begin to heal. If you or someone you know needs help, go to loveisrespect.org.