The Brain On Trauma: Part One

Imagine for one moment that you are a police officer. You're responding to a call that someone has been sexually assaulted, and you're the first one on the scene to take the report from the victim.

Now ask yourself: If he or she were considered the "perfect victim," how would the person act? Are they crying? Do they have a perfect memory of the incident, with a linear story line and clear details? Are they pleasant and cooperative? If this is your expectation, you're likely to be quite confused, disappointed, and maybe even suspicious, about what you find when you arrive.

In reality, the survivor may not show any emotion at all. Maybe the only emotion the survivor shows outwardly is anger, and he or she reacts irritably to all questioning. Or, perhaps a more disorienting reaction occurs – the survivor is smiling and laughing uncontrollably. Perhaps the story jumps from place to place, and doesn't flow in sequence. To the logical brain, the survivor's reaction may not make any sense.

Whether they realize it or not, all responding parties go into their interactions with the survivor with a vision as to how that survivor should act. But the reality is, the way the body experiences trauma often directly conflicts with that vision, and creates some counter-intuitive, or even bizarre, reactions within the survivor. To understand why each of these reactions might occur, it's important to know how the body – especially the brain – responds to trauma.

Hormone Soup: A sexual assault is so traumatic to the body and the mind, the brain releases several different hormones to numb the pain. The main three hormones are adrenaline, opiates, and oxytocin. Adrenaline kicks the body into "overdrive," and causes a fight, flight, or freeze reaction, which will be discussed in more detail later. Opiates numb any physical pain. Lastly, oxytocin works to fight off emotional pain and increase pleasant, happy feelings. In rare cases, this can cause an extreme reaction, to the point where a survivor is laughing uncontrollably. Several other hormones, such as cortisol, may be released as well. This can be so overwhelming to the body, it can leave survivors feeling "out of it." The parts of the body that release these hormones can stay in overdrive up to 96 hours after the assault. Medical staff often call this phenomenon "hormone soup."

Fight, Flight, or Freeze: During the assault itself, the body reacts in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. Our bodies are wired to respond this way – for our distant ancestors, this "wiring" warned them of danger and helped get them to safety. There is no rhyme or reason as to which response a survivor will experience; but according to Rebecca Campbell's research, if the survivor has been victimized previously, they are more likely to freeze during future assaults. Society expects someone who is under attack to fight back; however, when someone is experiencing the "freeze" reaction, they have no control over their body, and cannot fight back. Adrenaline, the hormone that causes "fight, flight, or freeze," may make it hard for a survivor to concentrate and tell their story after the fact, and may even make the survivor irritable and argumentative.

Memory Loss: One part of the brain is responsible for sending messages to release most of the hormones mentioned above: the hypothalamus. Unfortunately, the hypothalamus is also responsible for coding our experiences into memories so they can be stored away. So when the hormones are released to protect the body from further harm, the hypothalamus works against itself. When hormone levels increase, the brain’s ability to retain memories decreases. In her research, Campbell notes that survivors can remember sensory aspects of the assault – particularly smells, such as an assailant's perfume or cologne. But until these memories are triggered, it may be difficult for a survivor to remember details, or tell the story chronologically. In the words of Rebecca Campbell, a traumatized brain is like a messy desk full of sticky notes – each memory is written on a sticky note, and only certain "triggers" will bring particular note to the forefront of the survivor's attention.

At first glance, this may seem like an overwhelming amount of complicated information to process all at once. But if you have one takeaway, let it be this: survivors don't always respond the way that the people around them expect them to. It's not because they're trying to be difficult, or because they're making up a story and are nervous about getting caught. It's because the survivor's body is doing its best to process an overwhelming experience. The more the people around the survivor honor that experience, the sooner the survivor will find safe space for healing.

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