Sexual Abuse: Why You Can't "Just Get Over It" - Part 3
Linnea Butler is the founder of Bay Area Mental Health
You are not alone.
Healing from sexual abuse and rape requires working with every part of the trauma experience – instinct, emotion, images, and thoughts.
When faced with a life threatening experience, primitive instincts kick in – fight, flight, freeze, submit (see part 1 and part 2 of this blog). These instincts help you survive the encounter, but leave evidence behind in the form of body memories. The cortisol response that was triggered by the original trauma, can be re-triggered any time. That means that if you see a person that reminds you of the perpetrator or smell something you smelled at that time, for example, your body will involuntarily release loads of cortisol and it will feel like you’re right back in the moment the trauma occurred. The Thinking Brain knows that you are in the present time, but the Reptilian Brain (instinct) and Old Mammalian Brain (images and emotions) are telling you otherwise. Effective treatment for PTSD and sexual abuse involves all three parts of the brain.
Traditional psychotherapy addresses the Thinking Brain and can be very helpful. By working with the Thinking Brain you can begin to piece together the story into what’s called a coherent narrative, meaning you have filled in the gaps in memory. You can also learn and practice coping skills, such as deep breathing, guided relaxation, and reality testing (checking to make sure you are in the present and not in danger). You also gets insights from the Thinking Brain. Recognizing patterns that repeat in your life and connecting those patterns back to experiences you had in the past. This all helps you make sense of the situation.
Trauma treatment with the Thinking Brain helps with:
- Learning coping skills
- Developing insight
- Getting educated about trauma and sexual abuse and the resulting effects on your life
- Developing a coherent narrative
The Old Mammalian Brain is non-verbal and stores the images, smells, sounds, and emotions from the traumatic event. Art therapy and EMDR are approaches that are sometimes used to helps process information stored in the Old Mammalian Brain. Remember though that these images and emotions are stored in body memory. A somatic (body memory) psychotherapy approach is the most effective one for working through this part of the trauma experience. For example, remember a time when you were triggered by something. Can you also recall what was happening in your body at the time? Were you sweating? Heart racing? Was there trembling or were there strange aches showing up? The body has a weird way of telling us that something is going on. It doesn’t necessarily make sense to our Thinking Brain, but it’s very real.
When was the last time you got sick from a cold or the flu? Were you going through some kind of stress at the time? During stressful times our immune system shuts down, making you more susceptible to illness. The same thing happens when you are triggered but a traumatic memory.
Somatic psychotherapy uses mindfulness to help you become aware of what your body is telling you. It’s like listening to a little child who is screaming and crying and feels all alone. Often all that child really needs is to be held, listened to and soothed. That’s how mindfulness of the body can help you heal.
The Reptilian Brain stores instincts for survival – fight, flight, freeze and submit. The active defenses, fight and flight, are often truncated during sexual abuse. You are in danger and fighting back or running away could actually increase your chances of being hurt. So the passive defenses can sometimes be the best possible response to the threat. Far too many survivors of rape and sexual abuse blame themselves for not fighting back harder. But the truth is, their inner wisdom helped them survive by choosing the best defense in the situation.
Let’s go back to the truncated response and again remember a moment that you felt triggered. Perhaps you feel your legs freezing up. In the moment of the assault, you may have wanted to run but couldn’t. A somatic psychotherapist can work with body awareness and help you experience that feeling of running or pushing away or fighting back. That’s your body communicating to you that today, now is a different moment that back then, and that you are empowered. This is deeply healing and speaks to the deepest part of your psyche.
Using approaches to heal all three parts of the brain- Thinking Brain, Old Mammalian Brain and Reptilian Brain is a path for deep, transformative healing from sexual abuse.
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