The Brain Under (Sexual) Assault

BrainNobody can tell you how it feels. Maybe you can’t even make sense of how it feels yourself. Your feelings — along with what feels like most of your organs — might be twisted in knots so bad you want to throw up.

What happens to your brain after surviving being raped? Understanding that might be one of the first steps to long term healing. Your brain, let’s not forget, is one of the parts of you most affected by sexual assault. It’s where the effects, trauma, memories, and any restoration of your sense of emotional self are going to take place, after all.

According to a leading clinical psychologist with experience in psychological trauma, the key is what the brain does when it’s afraid, and it’s not what you think. “Evolution has selected for brains that, upon detection of danger or attack or even the perception of them, rapidly shift to running on reflexes and habits,” says Dr. Jim Hopper.

No sexual assault is the same, but whether it’s an unknown lunatic with a knife dragging a screaming woman into the undergrowth or (more common by orders of magnitude) someone known to and trusted by the victim and not necessarily involving physical violence, Hopper says the brain falling back onto reflexes and habits is a universal response.

It calls into action what neuroscience has called “defense circuitry” resulting in not just the shift to automatic reflex and habit, but rapid impairment of our powers of reason, which Hopper says can be “taken offline within a couple of seconds.” Hopper continues, “It happens when the defense circuitry unleashes a surge of stress chemicals into the prefrontal cortex, the brain region that allows us to think rationally — to recall the bedroom door is open, that people are in the room next door — and make use of that information.” Says Hopper, “Despite our dominant role on the planet we evolved as prey, and when a predator is upon us, stopping to think is fatal.”

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