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Recovery from Sexual Trauma: Why do I still feel this way?

Survivors of sexual trauma often blame themselves for how they reacted during a traumatic experience. This can contribute to intense feelings of guilt and shame after the event. The truth is however, humans have no control over how they respond during trauma and are often left confused as to why these reactions continue long after the trauma has past.

Learning about how the body responds to trauma is the first step towards lifting blame and shame and provides an understanding of, and context for, managing trauma symptoms.

What is the fight-flight-freeze response?

The body has a remarkable primitive survival mechanism as part of our evolutionary design. Both animals and humans possess flight, flight and freeze responses that are triggered when dealing with fear and trauma. These automatic responses allow us to instinctively assess and deal with situations that we perceive as a threat to our survival.

How the brain responds during trauma

When detecting a threat the amydala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus which acts like brain’s command centre. This area of the brain communicates with the rest of the body via the autonomic nervous system which controls the automatic and involuntary functions in the body.

The effects of the fight, flight & freeze response

When receiving the alarm, the slower to respond, thinking part of the brain (neocortex) goes off-line and the autonomic nervous system takes charge to help keep us alive. This response triggers the adrenal glands to release chemicals and hormones (i.e. adrenaline and cortisol) into our bloodstream which sets off a chain of physiological changes in the body ready for the fight or flight response. Some of these include:

  • An increase in heart-rate and blood pressure providing increased blood flow to the body’s vital organs and major muscle groups in readiness for action.

  • Breathing becomes more rapid and small airways in the lungs open to facilitate increased oxygen to the brain. This in turn, increases the alertness of sight, hearing and other senses.

  • Pupils dilate allowing more light to enter the eye contributing to tunnel vision and a loss in peripheral vision.

  • The liver releases glucose and fats into bloodstream, supplying energy to all parts of the body to increase speed and strength.

  • Veins in the skin constrict to send more blood to the major muscle groups (responsible for the “chill” sometimes associated with fear) and increased sweating assists to regulate body temperature.

  • Non-essential systems (like digestion and immune system) shut down to allow more energy to power the body to safety.

All of these physiological changes happen so quickly that we are not even aware that they are occurring. As soon as the amygdala sounds the alarm, these reactions happen before the brain’s visual centres have had an opportunity to fully process what is happening.

Symptoms of the freeze response

When we feel overwhelmed by the danger and perceive that there is no hope of fighting off or fleeing from the situation, the freeze response is activated.

The freeze response is often experienced as the body ‘shutting down’ or ‘freezing’ in order to keep us safe. Symptoms of the freeze response can include feeling numb, passing out or experiencing an inability to move which is protective in nature; anaesthetising the body against the pain of an attack. Sometimes people experience dissociation, where they disconnect from their physical or emotional reality and as such, may not have clear memories of the traumatic event. These responses are instinctive, automatic and outside of our control.

Survivors are often blamed by others or themselves for perceived ‘inaction’ during a sexual trauma. They frequently experience guilt or shame for not having ‘run away’, ‘screamed’ or having ‘fought off’ the perpetrator during the traumatic event. The reality is, that when the autonomic nervous system assesses that ‘fighting’ or ‘fleeing’ is hopeless and that these actions may further endanger the person, the freeze response is automatically activated. How you respond during trauma is entirely outside of your conscious control.

When symptoms continue after the trauma

While the fight-flight-freeze response is a normal, physical response to extreme fear or trauma, for many survivors the effects continue long past the traumatic event. When exposed to multiple or repeated traumatic experiences (such as in the instance of child sexual abuse) high level of stress chemicals can contribute to changing brain circuitry and trauma can become ‘trapped’ in the body. This can result in an increased sensitivity to trauma triggers and the fight-flight-freeze responses automatically activating even when there is no actual threat present. Given this, it is of no surprise that post-traumatic symptoms often resemble characteristics of the fight-flight-freeze survival responses.

Flight responses can often present as:

  • Anxiety

  • Panic attacks

  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

  • Chronic pain

  • Hypervigilance (being on guard/alert to danger)

  • Avoidance of places, people, thoughts or talking about the trauma

  • Relationship, trust and intimacy issues

  • Self medicating with drugs or alcohol

  • Easily startled or frightened

  • Sleep difficulties

  • Emotional distress

  • Exhaustion & fatigue

  • Concentration difficulties

Fight responses often look like:

  • Irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behaviour

  • Self-destructive behaviours

  • Deliberate self-harm

  • Relationship difficulties

Freeze response can manifest as:

  • Emotional numbness

  • Dissociation, zoning out, shutting down

  • Depression

  • Lethargy and fatigue

  • Disorganised thoughts

  • Nightmares

  • Lack of interest in activities previously enjoyed

  • Hopelessness about the future

  • Recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event

  • Reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks)

  • Memory problems, including not remembering important aspect of the traumatic event

Some people tend to remain on high-alert presenting with anxiety, avoidance and flight related responses, whilst others tend to shut down and zone out such is common when experiencing freeze. Others can swing between all of the fight, flight and freeze survival modes, all of which can be exhausting and debilitating.

The important thing to know is that fight-flight-freeze responses are normal, automatic and protective in nature. Whilst post-traumatic symptoms can be very challenging and uncomfortable, they can be managed and are not permanent. It can be a huge relief to know that you can retrain and rewire the brain to release fear and hypervigilance and embrace safety, calm and control.

People can and do heal from trauma.

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