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Neurobiology of Trauma

When people speak about reactions to trauma or crisis, they routinely offer up ‘fight or flight’ as a way to describe human response.  In actuality, this is an incomplete phrase.  Science tells us that the full phrase is “fight, flight, or freeze,” but somewhere along the way, the freeze response was dropped.  However, all three response methods are biological in nature, and an individual doesn’t have control over how their body will respond in a crisis situation.  The body will respond in a way that seems the likeliest to preserve its life. 

Many survivors who we work with at BARCC experienced this freeze response and explain that they were incapable of moving during the assault, let alone fighting off their attacker or fleeing the scene.  Despite the fact that freezing is a normal biological response, it unfortunately often causes a lot of self-blame and guilt for survivors.  They wonder why they didn’t react, and further, they wonder if by not reacting that consent was implied. Some might even ask themselves if they are partly to blame for the assault since they didn’t “assert themselves enough.”  It can take a lot of therapeutic work to understand that a freeze response is not a choice, but rather a biological response beyond the control of the survivor.

Society also blames survivors much more for the assault if they didn’t fight back or run away.  The actions of the perpetrator are ignored and offensive questions are asked about the survivor’s behavior:

  • Why didn’t they run away?
  • Why didn’t they try to fight the person off?
  • Why didn’t they fight harder?
  • Why didn’t they just leave?
  • The door was unlocked, why didn’t they escape?
  • Why didn’t they call for help?

In the recent South Boston case involving Amy Lord, there has been a lot of public criticism questioning why she did not flee or enlist help when the suspect, Alemany, drove her to several ATMs and forced her to withdraw money.  However, when we consider the impact that trauma can have on the body and an individual’s reasoning and logic skills, it is easy to see why Lord and others would respond in this manner.

Biologically, freezing comes from a person’s body recognizing that there is a threat and that it is life threatening.  The hormones that are released in this instance are focused on survival, and therefore a person’s ability to have rational thoughts is significantly impaired.  In other words, a person with an activated sense of danger cannot biologically carry out logical thinking.  Someone who would normally be able to think: “If I do X then Y will be the outcome” as a way to leave a situation will find themselves incapacitated.  Additionally, other chemicals released by the brain can block any pain (physical and emotional) as a survival technique, which leaves many survivors with a flat affect during and after the assault.  Society needs to start recognizing that the freeze response is both a perfectly legitimate and biological way to survive an attack.

While many of us believe that we know how we’d respond in specific situations, it is actually impossible to know how you will respond to a traumatic event like sexual violence. Even people who work as advocates for survivors and who talk regularly about different ways to respond are affected by their biological response to trauma.  A recent post by Jen Corey, a board member for Collection Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), discussed a sexual assault she experienced on the DC Metro.  CASS regularly writes about the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment on the metro and in public spaces in DC, and also advocates for better environments, policies, and responses.  Despite the prevalence rates in this area and others, many people continue to downplay their experiences or what happens to others.  Even though Corey’s own work focuses on ending sexual assault and harassment, she too froze on the train when she was assaulted.  She even describes trying later to convince herself that there wasn’t enough evidence and having to remind herself that it wasn’t her fault and that she had a right to make a report.  If it is this difficult for a professional who works to stop violence every day, imagine how hard it must be for people who don’t regularly engage with these issues?  Overcoming self-blame or making a report can be incredibly difficult.

Another thing we know from research is that trauma can impact people for a long time depending on their experience, age, and duration of violence experienced, in addition to a myriad of other factors.  An individual’s brain chemistry and structure can actually change, especially if the violence occurred during the young and formative years.  When people are stressed or experience trauma, hormones and other bodily-regulated chemicals can increase as a result.  For those who experience chronic trauma, these heightened levels of hormones and chemicals rarely go away or decrease over time.  The Adverse Children’s Experiences study demonstrates that children who experience trauma are more likely to experience adverse effects later in life.  These impacts include social and cognitive impairments, disease, adoption of risky behaviors, and early death.  The more trauma that a child experiences, the more adverse effects can occur. 

The experiences of trauma in childhood can impact the way someone responds to trauma as an adult.  While anybody can freeze up during an act of violence, it is a more common response for those who experience violence or abuse as a child.  As mentioned prior, our bodies will react in a way that will preserve physical life.  Therefore, if a method has worked in the past to achieve this end, it is more likely to be used again.  Children do not have the same independence, autonomy, or rights that adults do, and therefore the act of freezing up may be the only thing that their bodies know how to do to protect themselves.
Both the immediate and longer-term impacts of neurobiological changes in survivors is something that advocates have seen anecdotally for decades.  However, there is a lot of new scientific data and research to back up their experiences.  Hopefully the legitimacy that scientific data can bring to an issue will provide an increase in understanding for survivors and a better response from formal systems and society.

For those who want to know more about the specifics, Dr. Rebecca Campbell of University of Michigan presents all of this information and more in a webinar that is accessible and easy to understand.

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Posted by stacey

Stacey formerly served BARCC as the coordinator for Community Awareness and Outreach. Prior to BARCC, she worked for the Navy as a sexual assault response coordinator and volunteered for the DC Rape Crisis Center. She got involved with anti-rape work during college and has enjoyed doing both direct services and educational work.

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