The Brain on Sexual Assault

By Wendy Canova, LCSW

Sexual assault is a serious, traumatic event for the survivor of the assault. Their mind and body know that the individual is in danger and thus goes into survival mode. Survival mode can be a “fight” response, a “flee” response”, or a “freeze” response. The brain picks up on cues to decide which survival mode it needs to enter. The individual has no control over how their brain chooses to respond to the attack. When it comes to sexual assault, survivors are often asked “Why didn’t you fight back? Why didn’t you just leave? Why did you ‘let’ them assault you?” The answer to these victim-blaming questions is this: the brain decided it was the safest option at the time. An assault can turn deadly if a survivor fights their attacker and the brain knows this. In some situations, the brain deems it safe enough to fight or run from their attacker and so that is what it tells the body to do.

At its core, the purpose of the brain is to keep the body alive. The human brain has always done this, starting back with cavemen. Relationships, emotions, and philosophical thoughts were not needed by cavemen; they just needed to survive. As time went on, our brains developed and now, as a species, we have logical thoughts. We have a prefrontal cortex. That is what make us different from other mammals whose brains are still focused on survival.

When it comes to experiencing trauma, the brain no longer needs the prefrontal cortex, so it shuts it down. It also shuts down the cingulate, which is known as the self-regulation center. This is where we regulate and work through our emotions. The brain also decides that it no longer needs the insula, or the interoception center. This part of the brain is what connects the mind and body and the only connection that the brain needs while the body is being sexually assaulted is to tell the body to either fight, flee, or freeze. The hippocampus is also shut down; the brain is saying that it’s too busy to worry about storing memory. It can only focus on survival. So, the only part of the brain that is being full active is the amygdala, or the fear center. Intense fear is incredibly helpful to humans. It is what drives us to stay alive.

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So, if this is what is happening in the brain during a sexual assault, what is happening in the brain after? Sometimes, it can become difficult for the brain to know when it is safe to come out of survival mode. The prefrontal cortex, cingulate, insula and hippocampus may come back “on,” but they are highly dysregulated. The dysregulation of these systems is what causes survivors to feel anxiety, fear, depression, confusion, hypervigilant, they struggle making decisions, their emotions don’t match the situation that they are in, they don’t remember their attack or they remember it in fragments that are out of order, they have body aches, nightmares, flashbacks, they feel disconnected from their body, and they are re-living the trauma over and over again.

Trauma makes a serious impact on the brain and body. Sexual assault is one of the most common types of trauma with 1 in 3 women experiencing some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Survivor’s brains are literally not the same as they were before they were assaulted. That is why there are so many affects of trauma. That is why they can’t “just get over it”. This is why they need support, love, therapy, and to know that they are not alone.

This is just a brief introduction to the effects of trauma on the brain and the body. There are a lot of thoughts, emotions, and struggles that come from being sexually assaulted. This may seem scary and the reality is that it is scary. It’s scary that this is happening to so many folks and their abusers are not getting consequences. But, the point of this education is to scare you enough to want to get involved in prevention efforts. It’s to scare you enough to motivate you supporting your friends and family who have been sexually assaulted.

And for survivors, this education is for you to know that you are not “crazy”. The effects that you are experiencing from your assault are real. You are not alone in this experience. You are having a normal reaction to an abnormal event. Your brain can rest from helping you survive and recover, and its systems can go back to regular functioning. You can feel safe again. There is hope and healing.