Sexual abuse can affect anyone of any age. The ongoing trauma that it can cause means that the effects can live on much longer past the events themselves. This article aims to explain how the brain responds to sexual abuse and to look at whether therapy can allow the victim of the abuse to move forwards.
What constitutes sexual abuse?
Sexual abuse is sexual behaviour using force or by taking advantage of another person over a period of time. It can range from touching or stimulation to full on rape. Equally devastating is sexual assault: sudden or infrequent force covering a short duration. Both of these are highly traumatic to the brain. However, it is the ongoing nature of sexual abuse that can be deeply affecting, especially if the abuse started young. Someone suffering from ongoing abuse forms patterns of behaviour to cope with the abuse. The effects can form harmful patterns that affect our behaviour in future situations or future relationships.
How sexual abuse causes trauma
If someone is living in fear and being controlled, this will lead to that person’s emotional needs being compromised. We all have a set of basic emotional needs that need to be well met to be mentally healthy. Needs such as control, security, intimacy and emotional connection are likely to be unmet and lead to PTSD. This means that even after the abuse has ended the effects can stay with us. These effects can lead to someone never feeling that they are safe. It can also result in them choosing abusive partners or even becoming an abuser themselves. The reason for this is the patterns that our brain stores in order to survive.
How PTSD and trauma are processed by the brain
We understand our whole world through patterns. We relate everything we see back to a similar pattern we hold and compare it to what we already know. So we may say, ‘that animal is like a cat but larger’, or ‘he looks like Brad Pitt only older’. Patterns enable our brains to save energy because they can run on auto pilot, allowing us to walk, talk and drive while allowing us to devote our energy to more pressing matters. Most incidents are processed by the brain and stored as memories in our hippocampus, our memory store.
Our brain’s limbic system is concerned with keeping us safe. If your brain perceives a situation is dangerous, then it takes a snap shot of everything connected with this event. This is stored in our amygdala, a part of the brain that acts like its security officer. So instead of processing the incident and allowing it to be stored in our memory store, it remains in our amygdala as part of the reference store it uses to keep us safe. This part of our brain is constantly scanning the environment to check for danger. Recognition of a trauma template triggers our stress response and possibly coping behaviour that we have learned.
Consequences of sexual abuse
When the brain experiences trauma it will set up patterns of behaviour that we unconsciously follow throughout our lives. With sexual abuse, it’s these unconscious patterns that can lead someone to struggle with intimacy or to have abusive relationships.
It may be that a former victim of sexual abuse is unable to form healthy and happy relationships. One reason for this is that they may not hold a pattern of what a healthy relationship looks like. Another reason for this is that our brains are programmed to try to complete the patterns that it holds. In this instance, the brain will look for partnerships that will complete the pattern of abusive behaviour. This is why it’s extremely common for someone to have a succession of abusive relationships. And these toxic relationships may well have a foundation in childhood.
Can therapy help?
The answer to that is yes and no. There are literally hundreds of different types of therapy. Some will be ineffectual, some will help and some can be extremely damaging. So what should you be looking for in therapy? It is imperative that the therapy aims to swiftly deactivate the emotion surrounding the memories. Simply talking week after week about the events is traumatic in itself and can even serve to deepen the trauma.
Talking therapies that raise the emotions surrounding traumatic events close the rational mind off. Any work done will be done whilst the brain is effectively in a state of high emotion. This simply underlines the need for the brain to retain the template since it will to all intents and purposes be fired straight back to the original events. Even some trauma therapy still works on this basis – that you have to talk it out and get down to the heart of the matter.
You don’t have to feel worse before you feel better
You have suffered enough! And it’s simply not necessary for you to have to suffer even more in order to tackle the issues. It is important that the techniques used allow the traumas to be accessed and deactivated in a calm way. This is not only less distressing for the client, but it allows the brain to review the events in context and process the emotion enabling the brain to stop using it as a template to keep us safe.
The Human Givens Rewind technique is one such technique and also has an added advantage. The client does not have to speak about what has happened. It is ok to give the therapist a very brief outline of what the trauma is without having to talk through any of the details, which many people find humiliating and distressing. Of course some people want to talk about their experiences and there is nothing wrong with that, as long as emotions are not continually raised without taking steps to deactivate the trauma.
Take a different path
Sexual abuse can mean that we find ourselves on a path we don’t want to be on. We view our life through the filter of any trauma we have suffered. Getting the right help can allow us to remove those filters and make healthy changes to our lives.
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With very best wishes