The Brain on Trauma: Part Two
The previous blog post focused on how the brain responds to trauma in the days following a sexual assault. If you have not read this post, please do so if you'd like a more complete view of what survivors experience in their bodies.
Along with the way the body responds to trauma, it's equally as important to know how to respond when the survivor discloses the assault to you after the fact. The first response a survivor gets when disclosing will determine what they share, and with whom, in the future. Here are some considerations for when a loved one discloses:
1. Listen without judgment. Now is not the time to ask questions about what they were wearing, how they ended up alone with the assailant, how much they had to drink, and other less meaningful details. Rest assured that whatever questions you're asking in your head, the survivor is asking them as well, only louder, and with more shame attached. Now is also not the time to push them to call the police – rather, you can calmly explain their options, if you know what they are. If not, RAINN can connect them to someone who does.
Let the survivor lead the way and share what they want to share. If the survivor doesn't want to discuss certain details, don't push them – it could be re-traumatizing for them to process the experience all over again before their body has determined that the threat is no longer present. As stated previously, this can take up to 96 hours after the assault. Certain phrases can help here:
If you're ready to talk, I'm here to listen.
You don't owe me any details. You can share whatever you're comfortable sharing.
The who/what/when/where doesn't matter to me. I'm just thankful you're safe now.
2. Believe them. Even if the story doesn't seem to make sense. Even if the narrative jumps around all over the place. Even if you feel the survivor's emotional reaction doesn't match how they "should" be feeling. Being believed helps reinforce the sense of safety the survivor lost, and can help silence the alarm bells their body has activated.
Your responses should show that you believe them:
I'm glad you told me.
That sounds like a scary experience. Thank you for telling me.
3. Encourage self-care. At first, survivors may seem to show the typical symptoms of depression: not sleeping, not eating, and not keeping up with typical hygiene. Perhaps the person struggles to even get out of bed, or feels too scared to leave home. This may be because they feel detached from their own body, and don't notice that they're neglecting their hygiene; it also could be an attempt to make themselves less attractive, and in their mind, less vulnerable to another assault. Survivors also may have trouble sleeping because they can't the memory of the trauma out of their mind – even during sleep.
However, special attention to self-care can help a survivor reintegrate the feeling of being present in their own body. Many survivors find yoga, art, meditation, and engaging with a spiritual/faith-based community helpful further down the line of their healing journey. But in the early stages, giving encouragement about the little steps survivors make to take care of themselves in simple ways can go a long way later. Here are some helpful phrases:
You got out of bed today. That's a good first step. Maybe tomorrow you can try going outside for a little while, if you feel ready.
You showered today. I'm glad you made time to take care of yourself.
I know you don't feel hungry, but I'm proud of you for eating to take care of your body anyway.
What would make you feel safe enough to get some sleep?
4. Encourage safety. If the survivor knew the assailant prior to the assault, they may feel tempted to contact the assailant in the weeks following the assault. The survivor may be searching for an explanation of what has happened to them, or they may not want to believe someone they cared about could ever hurt them. Although both reasons are valid and understandable, to a support person, it can seem alarming.
The survivor may engage in other potentially unsafe behaviors – using drugs and alcohol, reckless driving, having unprotected sex, and many others. It's important to understand that trauma rewires how the brain understands danger. It may be that the only time the survivor feels anything at all is when they're in danger and the adrenaline is pumping through their body. To them, this may seem better than feeling numb.
It may be tempting to prevent the survivor from self-destructive behavior at all costs, but it's important to let them know they have the freedom to make their own decisions, while encouraging them to take necessary safety precautions. When someone is assaulted, it strips that person of control over their own body. Sometimes, loved ones earnestly believe they're protecting a survivor by making decisions for them - but ultimately, taking away the power of choice from a survivor can be just as damaging as the assault itself.
Here are some methods for encouraging safety in a nonjudgmental way:
I don't agree with your choice, but I respect your right to make that choice for yourself.
Have you thought about the consequences that could come of this decision? Are those consequences you can live with?
How can you get what you want/need and stay safe?
I'm worried about your safety. If you're stuck or feel unsafe, please call me.
5. Be prepared for substance use/abuse, and don't shame them. As previously mentioned, many survivors turn to substances to deal with their pain. To them, their body's response to the trauma feels like an outright betrayal. They may feel like strangers in their own bodies. That feeling can become overwhelming to sit with over long periods of time. As a result, many survivors turn to drugs or alcohol to make themselves feel better physically. This can feel effective in the short-term, but over long periods of time, symptoms will return and could worsen. It's important not to shame the survivor; instead, ensure their safety as efficiently as possible, and provide resources for somewhere to turn if and when they decide to seek treatment. This can be for local AA/NA chapters, counseling agencies, or any other resource that fits the survivor's needs best.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but touches on the main issues that many survivors struggle with post-assault, as they begin to pick up the pieces after the trauma they've experienced. Supporting a survivor's needs isn't a perfect science, but the ultimate question is this:
What can I do to help this person feel safe in their own body and mind again?
This answer will be different for everyone, as healing may look different for everyone. But healing itself can partially be found in giving the survivor the freedom to decide for themselves what safety looks like.