The Effects of Sexual Assault on the Brain and Body

While it is common knowledge that sexual assault can be traumatizing, many people do not fully understand the profound effects it has on a survivor.

As a society, we do not always discuss the immediate and long-term impact on the brain and body, but it’s important for both survivors and the people who support them to learn more about these effects. Our brains and bodies are connected; and when our bodies are affected, we also experience changes in brain function and chemistry.

Here is how sexual assault can impact a person physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Tonic Immobility

When someone has become a victim of sexual assault, they may experience their body freezing up during the event. This reaction is known as “tonic immobility,” which means that the body has diminished voluntary mobility. It is not a failure to act or respond. It’s actually an adaptive survival response. You may have heard this described as the “freeze” response in comparison to “fight or flight” reactions to danger.

However, experiencing a “freeze” response may leave a survivor feeling like they should have tried to fight back somehow. Many people are unaware that this response is completely natural, and our bodies instinctively do this to keep us safe. We have developed this reaction because it actually maximizes the chances of survival.

Memory Impairment

There are many reasons why it can be hard for sexual assault survivors to report what happened to them. They may fear that nobody will believe them. Some do not want to recount the experience and feel like they are being re-traumatized. And others might struggle to remember exactly what happened.

This is called memory impairment, and it’s another survival response. In times of distress, the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that responds to stress and fearful emotions, takes over and redirects attention. During an assault, attention may shift as a coping mechanism, making it hard to recount what happened.

Guilt, Shame, and Confusion

The majority of sexual assault survivors actually know their perpetrator in some capacity. This heightens the feelings of guilt, shame, and confusion in relation to the assault. Survivors may feel like they should have spotted red flags earlier or that they somehow signaled that they wanted this to happen. Worse even, sometimes others may blame them for has happened, which can be particularly harmful because it reinforces rape culture and victim-blaming.

For that reason, it’s crucial that they understand they’re not responsible for the assault. Even knowing the perpetrator does not indicate fault on the survivor’s part.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

It is common for survivors of sexual assault to experience post-traumatic stress disorder in the months or years following their assault. They may be triggered by people, places, or objects that serve as reminders of what they went through. PTSD can be very debilitating, and it affects both the brain and body. It often manifests itself through panic attacks, flashbacks, feeling on edge, withdrawal, difficulty sleeping, muscle tension, avoiding certain social situations, and much more.

How to Go About Seeking Support

Survivors of sexual assault who feel that their mental and physical health has suffered as a result should not hesitate to seek professional help. There are many different treatment options that are very effective.

While it can be hard to take that first step and ask for help, opening up to someone who will be understanding and supportive can be a relief. Simply talking to friends and family is usually not enough. It’s best to seek the support of someone who can provide professional guidance.

Sexual assault is a heinous experience. If you are struggling with the aftermath of such an assault, talking to a therapist can allow you to process your complicated emotions and make progress on your healing journey. We invite you to reach out to us to find out how we can help.

Author: Priyadarshani (Priya) Loess, Ph.D.

Priyadarshani Loess, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist at Portland Psychotherapy. Priya specializes in working with adults who have experienced sexual assault, as well as who have depression, social anxiety, and health anxiety.

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