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Understanding trauma and our brains

Experiencing any form of sexual violence can be a very traumatic experience. How our bodies and our brains respond to the experience depends on a lot of different things. For example, how we learned to deal with trauma from a young age, how much support we feel from our friends and family, how long the abuse went on for, as well as many other things. Everyone’s experiences are unique to them.

However, how people’s brains respond to trauma in the moment can be very similar. People will often go into flight, fight or freeze mode, aka "survival mode". We have no control over whether this happens or not, it is an instinctual response – much like a deer freezing in headlights.

The hippocampus stores our memories for us, but during a traumatic event it often stops working and so is not able to store the traumatic event properly. This means it isn’t able to perceive the threat as over and as having survived it – it still feels current and present. The amygdala assesses danger and controls our survival mode. This part of the brain can get stuck during a traumatic experience and remain activated. Therefore, the threat continues to invade the present as we are unable to perceive it as happening in the past – we are still responding as if we were under threat. This can often lead to a chronic state of hyper-arousal, where we are constantly assessing for danger, feeling on edge, and unable to manage our emotions. This in turn can lead to anxiety, panic, exhaustion, muscle stiffness or pain, concentration problems, sleep problems, and/or a constant inner experience of threat.

Survivors of sexual violence have often told us that they feel a lot of self-blame because of how they responded to the sexual violence. The most common way to respond is to freeze – yet we often imagine that we will fight back or run away if we are faced with something dangerous. But we have no control over how our brains and bodies respond to danger: the brain quickly assesses what is the best tactic for survival and often this means freezing (much like many animals do in the wild when faced with a predator). This may be because to fight back could result in us being harmed even more, or because there is no safe way to run away. Although freezing can feel like "doing nothing to stop it", it is actually your body's way of keeping you as safe as possible.

The impacts of trauma go on to affect survivors long after it is over. One way of understanding this impact is with “the window of tolerance”:

window of tolerance

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During times of trauma or stress, people can go outside of their window of tolerance and enter hyper or hypo-arousal. When the person is triggered after the event, they experience the same responses:

This means that, if you have experienced trauma, you might go into the fight/flight response or the freeze response in everyday life. This can lead to anxiety and dissociation.

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For more information, you can visit the Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis website.