Updated: Dec 10, 2022
“Just get over it.” It’s one of the worst things someone can say to a survivor of sexual abuse or rape. And yet how many times have you heard those words? Trauma sticks in the brain and the body and it doesn’t just go away. You can push it down and choose not to think about it, but it comes up in your life in unexpected ways and can destroy happiness.
Feelings of helplessness or worthlessness
Inability to sleep
Difficulty maintaining relationships
Difficulty with intimacy
Feeling overwhelmed by emotion or feeling hypersensitive
Not being able to say “no”
Numbing out with substances or binging
Isolating yourself from family and friends
Having broken boundaries
Emotional and psychological trauma is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter your sense of security, making you feel helpless and vulnerable in a dangerous world. Any situation that leaves you feeling this way can be traumatic, even it it doesn’t cause physical harm. Sexual abuse and rape causes emotional and psychological harm, and often physical harm as well.
An event will most likely lead to emotional or psychological trauma if:
It happened unexpectedly.
You were unprepared for it.
You felt powerless to prevent it.
It happened repeatedly.
Someone was intentionally cruel.
It happened in childhood.
When sexual abuse or rape occurs, a flood of cortisol is released. Cortisol prepares you for action and is a natural defense mechanism. Sometimes the cortisol response becomes “stuck” and your body is continuously overflowing with it, and this results in feeling constantly on edge and susceptible to the slightest possibility of harm, emotional or physical. In his book Mindsight, Dan Siegel writes “If we face an overwhelming situation in which we cannot adequately cope, cortisol levels may become chronically elevated. Traumatic experiences, in particular, can sensitize [our systems] so that even minor stresses can cause cortisol to spike.”
The cortisol response comes from a very old part of our brain, called the “Reptilian Brain”, which is where our survival instincts reside. The fight/flight/freeze/submit response comes from the Reptilian Brain and is our first defense mechanism. A second part of our brain, called the “Old Mammalian Brain”, is more evolved and holds images, emotions and the ability to form relationships. Because this part is responsible for forming relationships, any trauma that is held here can interfere with having healthy, satisfying relationships. The most evolved part of our brain is called the Prefrontal Cortex, or “Thinking Brain”. That’s where we analyze and make decisions about our lives.
The trauma response starts in the Reptilian Brain with the fight/flight/freeze/submit response. The Old Mammalian Brain holds the images you saw and the emotions you felt at the time of the trauma. The Thinking Brain is verbal and tries to make sense of it all, but often fails because the Reptilian Brain and Old Mammalian Brain are pre-verbal. Rational communication with the parts of self that most directly experienced the trauma, the Reptilian Brain and Old Mammalian Brain, is difficult to impossible. When someone tells you to “just get over it” they are speaking to the Thinking Brain and the other parts can’t hear the words or the logic that getting over something would be a good idea.
To heal from rape and sexual abuse, you need to speak to the other parts of your brain – the non-verbal ones. You can do this through psychotherapy, mindfulness, body awareness and body work. Eventually you will need to speak to all 3 parts of your brain and help them understand that the danger is past. Until then, the cortisol response will be ever-ready, ever-waiting to trigger.
I’ll speak more about approaches to healing the Old Mammalian Brain and Reptilian Brain in part 2 and 3 of this post.
Talking to and healing the Thinking Brain comes from psychotherapy – either individually or in a group. There is a part of survivors that craves to be seen, witnessed in their pain, and absolved of it. Groups can begin this process.