Tw: Please note this article might make you uncomfortable or trigger you as it delves into very sensitive topics about sexual abuse. Please proceed cautiously.
You wake up in a cold sweat. It’s the second time this week and it’s only Wednesday. You had“ the” dream again! The one where you’re in your old childhood bedroom, and you just dozed off to sleep, when you wake up feeling like you cannot breathe. A hand is covering your mouth and a man’s voice is whispering in your ear! You don’t remember the words but you remember the touch, it’s like a thousand insects crawling all over you. You wake up unable to breathe and in your adult bed sweating. You slowly begin to orient yourself and realize your all alone, in your own home. As your heart goes from feeling like it’s about to jump out of your chest to slowly returning to it’s normal rhythm, you know that there is no going back to sleep this night. You get up, grab something to eat, and turn on the tv.
For many survivors of trauma, especially survivors of sexual abuse, having bad dreams are common. Usually spurred by a triggering event. This can be something as overt as the Brett Kavenaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford hearing thats have been in recent news, to something as innocuous as getting a whiff of cologne that is the same smell as the person who harmed you. These triggers are powerful reminders of a trauma that happened a long time ago but once activated you feel like it’s happening to you again in the present.
There are also those survivors who don’t ever remember anything about their childhood sexual abuse until they get a triggered and suddenly they are in a full blown panic. Feeling confused as to why their heart is racing and they are petrified. Over time little memories begin to trickle in, overwhelming and confusing you. Is this something that happened? When did it happen? Why didn’t I remember until now? I must be going crazy!
Let me tell you, you’re not going crazy and you are not crazy! You’re experiencing a very common trauma response, and the good news is that you can get help to process, heal, and move on from hold these memories have on you.
What is memory?
So what exactly is memory? Why is it that we remember somethings very clearly and others not so much?
The truth is that memory is incredibly complex and encompasses different systems. As you read about memories it can often be overwhelming and confusing, with all the scientific jargon. But an expert on neuroscience, Dr. Bruce Perry, I think describes memory the best. Dr. Perry describes memory as,“ the capacity to bring elements of an experience from one moment in time to another…” (https://childtrauma.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Memories_of_Fear_Perry.pdf) As he further explains in the article this is the basis of how all cells in the body reproduce, it’s what we know as cellular memory, and it’s partially responsible for making us who we are (think combination of nature vs nurture argument).
In essence the neurons in the brain make connections, which are carried by cells that travel throughout our body. The more experience we have with someone, the stronger the connections are made. From there are brain learn to quickly make associations between things that have occurred in the past and what is happening in he present, in order to direct us in acting. This all happens within seconds, in the lower parts of the brain, before we even think about it. As babies when we are learning to walk there is stumbling as our brains learn to make connections between all the cells in the body. As adults we don’t have to think about walking, it’s reflective now. This is an example of how memory works.
Finally, memory is also affected by whats happening on the outside as well as what’s going on, on the inside. Emotions, happiness, fear, embarrassment, etc are also at play when it comes to what we remember and what we don’t. Lastly, memories are more than what we think (cognition) and feel (emotional memory), and also include physical memory (motor-vestibular memory).
The interconnection between memory, childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault, and the Stress Response System
The news has been really hard to deal with as of late. We have the Brett Kavenaugh Supreme Court nomination and Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford testifying that he sexually assaulted her some 30 years prior. He says he didn’t do it! She says he did! People in this country are torn. Family members are not talking to each other! Colleagues are disagreeing! Everyone claims they want to know the truth. Survivors of similar experiences are being re-traumatized with all this talk. So what’s a person to do?
Well, being the good (cliched) therapist I am, I cannot tell you what to do, but I can give you a little more insight into how memory during trauma works. My hope is to help you, the survivor, feel less alone and more understood, while providing you, the non survivor with some education around it all. My hope is that there will be a little more compassion for those who have experienced sexual abuse and sexual assault, and a lot less judgement of their experiences.
When most of us think of memory we are thinking about cognitive memory, the things we consciously think about. But remember, all cells have memory. This means that different parts of our body also have memory. Here’s a real world example we’ve all experienced. You’re riding in the passenger seat of a car. The driver of the car is speeding along when the car in front of you stops suddenly. You, the passenger, slam your right foot down on the bottom of the car, to the right side of the car where the beak pedal would be. In this moment you’re not thinking, “ Hey I’m not even driving, relax”, you’re responding to the information that is coming at the time. This reflexive action occurs because you experience fear (by the two cars getting closer together), information coming in through your 5 senses (mostly sight, but also sound), and compare it to past memories of similar situations. Once the car stops, you may notice your heart racing and you might even sweat. You may then laugh at yourself, feeling you were being ridiculous. But when you think about it, how in control where you in this moment of your behaviors? The answer not in control at all.
Likewise, when a person experiences a traumatic event they are initiating this same body’s defense mechanism, the Stress Response System (fight-flight-freeze), that I just described above. The fight-flight-freeze responses are important adaptive responses to overwhelming, perceived threats to your life, which is largely out of your conscious control. In cases of children, who depend on adults for their survival, having an adult sexually violate them triggers their Stress Response System. The brain rapidly takes information in through the five senses, processes it, compares it to past experiences, and determines how to proceed. This all happens on an unconscious level and within seconds (similar to pressing your foot on the imaginary brake pedal).
Your brain during trauma
You see during a traumatic event, the top of the brain, the prefrontal cortex is shut down. The prefrontal cortex develops last and is responsible for executive functions (abstract thinking, rational thoughts, inhibiting impulses, etc). What is active during trauma is your limbic system (emotional part of your brain) and your brainstem (the part responsible for controlling basic body functions such as heart rate).
Think of your prefrontal cortex as your inner voice. Once the prefrontal cortex is shut down, which occurs in life threatening situations such as sexual abuse and sexual assaults, you no longer have control over your body. Your body is responding purely on instincts. The result is that your inner voice is not available to tell you to remember details such as what the person is wearing, what day or time the attack is happening, and how you got to that place.
The only thing that matters in this moment is survival. The body responds and reacts as the attack on the body occurs, your responses are out of your control once you reach this terror level. If you take nothing else away from this blog, please understand this, as it’s so vital in you, th survivor, not blaming yourself and honoring you bodies ability to save you. In fact this system is something we all have that serves to keep us all alive.
The lower systems of the brain pay attention to information coming in through the five senses as well as whats happening inside your body. This is what gets encoded in your motor vestibular memory. This is why years down the line you have a visceral reaction to certain colognes, men in general, or women of a certain age. Your midbrain (brainstem and limbic systems) have encoded these signals as threats due to those sensations and the traumatic incidences from your past.
Thus, when you encounter something that resembles your past trauma, your body quickly takes action to protect you. The Stress Response System kicks in and you feel a loss of control. With a lot of work, you can actually slow this mechanism down, and effectively rewire your brain and break the trauma bonds.
So where to go to next
The reason survivors don’t remember every single detail of their traumatic event is because their Stress Response System has been activated and all attention gets focused on survival. Anything not“ needed” to aid in your survival or self protection is not paid attention to, and thus there is no memory associated with it. This is why after 5 years, 15 years, 30 years, or even 50 years, a survivor of sexual abuse or sexual assault can remember the face of the person who harmed them. The brain records this memory because it needs to signal the body to respond in a self protective method if you come into contact with that person again.
Also things like date, time, what you’re wearing, etc are actually housed in cognitive memory, which goes offline when you’re experiencing a traumatic event. Whereas your emotional and physical memories are completely online during the traumatic event. You may also be able to remember some details, such as being raped in the fall, due to the emotional emotion associated with change of season.
Sexual abuse and sexual assaults are incredibly common in today’s world and survivors have to deal with the effects long after the trauma has subsided. One of the hardest thing for a survivor to experience is the feeling that no one will believe them. So they often keep quiet and try to move on with their lives. But without an outlet, both a mental processing and physical release from these traumatic memories, a survivor continue to feel it’s effects long after it is over. The intensity of the symptoms experienced by the survivor is individual, based on both a persons chemical make-up, positive relational bonds, and other experiences. But even with this no ones trauma is“ worse” than another. If you are suffering because you experiences sexual abuse or sexual assault in your past, whether it was related or single insouciant or it happened repeatedly, your pain matters. You can and do deserve healing.
If you are a survivor of sexual abuse or sexual assault, who is feeling overwhelmed by thoughts and memories of your abuse please reach out for help. If you have a child, teen, or even a friend who has reported to you that they are a survivor and they are having a hard time please encourage them to seek professional help. I have dedicated my professional career to helping survivor’s heal, and I’ve witnessed firsthand how life changing therapy can be. To learn more about me and my practice go to my website at: https://jessicalangtherapy.com