…Paralyzed. Seized. Blank. Immobilized. Stiff. Vertigo. Stuck. Overwhelmed. Isolated. Not fully here. Confused. Foggy. Memory loss. Detached. Shut down. Sullen. Dissociated. Apathetic. Without words. Shut down. Going through the motions. Absent. Still. No movement. Limp. Can't explain. Nausea. No control. Listless. Numb. Tired. No emotion. Can’t think. Rumination. Gone...
Experiencing sexual harassment, misconduct, or abuse in sports can be traumatic. Whether a survivor has endured a singular trauma or repetitive and complex trauma such as in the case of grooming, the brain and body respond, cope, and remember. Hardwired and designed for survival, our brains and bodies react to situations automatically to keep us alive. These instances can then be coded as traumas or traumatic experiences in our nervous systems. Remember, what may be traumatic for others, may not be for us, and vice versa. For a review of the definition of trauma, how to support yourself or a survivor in a trauma-informed manner, or find trauma-informed support please visit this blog post.
For survivors of sexual assault specifically, questions and judgments often pop up regarding ‘Why didn’t I fight back?’ or ‘Why didn’t they stop it?’. Such queries can lead to shame, blame, and compound negative impacts and evoke the need for greater understanding, awareness, and compassion for our bodies and nervous systems. The lack of physical resistance or tonic immobility by no means indicates that consent was given, but is an evolved predator defense, “a biological marker denoting a victim’s non-consent.”
Trauma responses are involuntary and unconscious ways our bodies innately choose to cope and survive. This includes how we physically, mentally, and emotionally react in the short and long term. Your nervous system will fire in such ways to protect yourself. In cases of sexual abuse, ongoing trauma, and complex trauma, freezing commonly helps individuals shut down in the moment and afterward. This looks like blocking out emotions and becoming a neutral palette to not rial things up and avoid potential greater harm. Pain is compartmentalized, fragmented, and pushed away to be dealt with later.
How do we respond to trauma?
We each can respond to trauma in a variety of ways. Most well-known are the fight or flight trauma responses; but we may also freeze, fawn, or flop. There is no right or wrong, or good or bad way that we respond to traumatic events, rather our instincts kick in. Due to our cultural and societal conditioning, identity dynamics, and environmental resources, we each may have a propensity to different response styles. This could be due to power imbalances, gender dynamics, our unique complex histories, and even intergenerational trauma. Regardless, our body responds in what it believes is the best way to keep us alive. It is up to us later to note if we are stuck in trauma response or if it has turned maladaptive.
These trauma responses may happen in the direct wake of trauma, shortly after, and in the long term. For example, in the immediate, the fight response may look like physically combatting an attacker, freezing may look like stillness or hiding, flight can present as running away from the incident, fawning can appear as going along with things, and flop can look like blacking out or losing consciousness.
After the trauma, these responses may linger or get reactivated. And, you may experience patterns of more than one trauma response over time. This happens as your brain and body’s connection to the trauma seizes, heals, intensifies, is triggered, restimulates, or is compounded by additional trauma. In this context, the fight response may appear as overall aggression or bullying others, freezing may present as constant dissociation or not being in one’s body, flight may look like avoidance via addiction, busying oneself, or distractions, fawning can show up as people pleasing and muting one’s needs, and flopping may be physical shutdowns like fainting.
What do trauma responses feel like?
You may or may not recognize it is happening at first. As Dr. Paul Conti, author of Trauma: The Invisible Epidemic says “trauma hijacks.” It insidiously takes over the nervous system and brain function and can happen gradually or suddenly sometimes even without our awareness. You may notice that you fluctuate between feeling like yourself or completely overwhelmed and overloaded by sensations, thoughts, and emotions.
When we experience triggers or are restimulated in the present moment in a way that connects us back to a trauma we can feel such trauma responses. This could be the sound of a car backfiring, a medical exam, a certain smell, a specific word or phrase, or a type of touch. Your brain can link or hold onto a myriad of details from a trauma that may spur the trauma brain pattern to reactivate. You may exhibit age regression in which you flashback to the age you were at the time of the trauma.
These triggers can be highly disruptive to one’s system. It's as if you just got strapped into a roller coaster ride without wanting or consenting to.
On a cellular level, scientifically, trauma changes the brain and body. Some refer to this posttraumatic state as “trauma brain” versus the previous or status quo “executive functioning brain.” Throughout the process of healing from trauma, survivors may fluctuate between states of this stress response trauma brain and baseline non-stressed modes of functioning. One’s nervous system may exhibit more of the trauma response or be stuck in a ‘trauma loop’ and as healing occurs the survivor’s nervous system will regain homeostasis.
All of this occurs based on our perceptions of safety and threats. Like all mammals, our parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems work together making up our autonomic nervous system guiding us into different states of being that support our survival. From rest and digest to social engagement we rely on our vagal tone to regulate and support our daily ways of being. We need both our parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, neither is bad; it is when we get stuck in one for a long time that wreaks havoc - we want to have agility between the two states.
Why do we respond to trauma in such ways?
From more of a psychological, emotional, and mental perspective, we respond to traumas by fighting, flighting, freezing, fawning, and flopping to protect ourselves and preserve and prioritize our overall functioning and survival. The brain and body have inherent knowledge and processing capabilities based on internal resources and external safety factors, triaging activities of daily living and healing. Maladaptive coping patterns may emerge with efforts to numb the pains of addressing the roots of the trauma to get through the day-to-day and serve one’s hierarchy of needs. This means that our bodies and minds will naturally do their best to triage basic survival needs before delving into Pandora's box of healing unresolved trauma.
Evidence of such internal processes is described by Richard Shwartz’s Internal Family Systems, which denotes how parts of one’s self are protector parts called ‘firefighters’ and ‘managers.’ The primary job of these parts is to keep us in control and keep our ‘exiled’ or traumatized parts away.
Spiritual and religious frameworks have also discussed coping with trauma in similar language describing the roles of the heart being guardians, functions, and emotions. If trauma, emotions, or wounded parts flood the system or self, a survivor cannot function day to day.
That is where coping strategies and healing come into play to address the trauma, help alleviate the severity of distress and symptoms of the trauma response, and support the survivor in integrating the traumatic experience, accessing resilience, and finding a new way to function healthily. Our internal systems want to do their best to protect us from things we may not be ready to handle at a certain time.
How do we heal?
Healing occurs when we either reach a boiling point or when we innately feel that there is a safe or appropriate outlet or container of support to process and heal. Until we have the necessary conditions, the time and space to heal, the potential overwhelm of unpleasant emotions will be benched or pushed away. This is one of the reasons why survivors exhibit delayed disclosure later in life; why others may not access therapy or embark on their healing till certain times or conditions are met in our lives; or that healing is accessed when circumstances become very dire.
It is of utmost importance that we treat ourselves and our nervous systems with kindness, honor, and patience. They have done their job to keep us safe and we cannot judge or force the process or timelines of healing but rather we control helping support creating conditions for healing. Again, there is no right or wrong or good or bad way to manage such atrocities we face in our lives and the aftermath that plagues our minds, bodies, and psyches.
As mentioned, healing from trauma is deeply personal and no two survivor’s journeys are the same. It can be extremely hard to navigate the healing process and imagine a new normal is possible. But, even in the darkest of times when hope seems non-existent, against all odds, our brains, and bodies, with smart and loving attention, can access our innate abilities of neuroplasticity and resilience to heal, adapt, and even thrive again.
With time and healing, triggers may still be present but be less impactful as the survivor develops a regulated nervous system and positive coping strategies. If you feel that you are in a trauma response or being restimulated, you can try these four things in the moment to support yourself. In time, as you gain more insight and awareness into your brain and body’s patterns in feeling and processing trauma, these tips will be easier to implement. It takes practice to recognize your body’s automatic response, meet yourself with compassion and grace, and gently support your system into calm in the present moment. The action steps below may seem silly, simple, or may be hard at first, but each is evidence-based and a free method to support your nervous system.
Activate perception. Say and identify to yourself “I am having a trauma response.” This is where you can invoke mindfulness skills and even just one degree of separation. This helps you have a dual perspective – part of you goes through the involuntary response, as the other part compassionately observes and notes.
This helps your physical system re-anchor in the present moment and helps build your mind-body connection. Dr. Hilary McBride, in The Wisdom of Your Body, suggests grounding via your senses by naming one thing you taste, two things you smell, three things you hear, four things you can touch, and five things you can see. You can also place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest, or gently rub your thighs or arms. Some people find tapping to also be helpful. Perhaps try drinking a glass of water or splashing water on your face to anchor and come back to the present moment.
Either in person or over the phone, let someone know what you are going through while you are experiencing the trauma response. This also connects you to be present and can help you co-regulate with someone else’s nervous system that is not experiencing a trauma response. Accessing a safe and kind social connection or community in these moments can help our systems calm down, access a touch point with the present, and receive compassion. Sometimes we may feel that we are too much or bothering someone, but the reality is that people like to be there for us and feel needed. Calling a therapist, or a free and confidential helpline or hotline in these scenarios as well can be extremely valuable to get support in real time. The paradox is that though we were harmed in relationship, we heal in relationship.
Deep and slow breathing, cold exposure, singing/humming/chanting, massage, stretching/yoga, gargling, and laughter are all research-backed exercises that support your vagal tone and your body's natural regulation. Take it slow and try one of the listed activities that are accessible to you as a method of maintenance, prevention, or in-the-moment support.
Drink some water. Lay down. To best support your healing process, the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies recommends that you set yourself up for success with intentional healthy eating, sleeping, socializing, and mental practices. By going back to the basics, focusing on routine and simplicity, you can support your nervous system for deep emotional work and give yourself a strong foundation from which to stand up again. Rely on the fundamentals - grab a glass of water, and a nutritious snack, and try lying down for a few minutes.
The trauma response pattern will unlock and unravel as our systems experience and process the conditions for healing when they are ready. As we practice embracing and taking care of ourselves, we gently surrender to reprogramming our nervous systems via discharging and releasing trauma stored in our bodies and creating new neural pathways.
There are ever-increasing options of therapeutic modalities that are trauma-informed for when you are ready. One size does not fit all. Click here for a list of signs indicating that professional support may be helpful or needed. If you are in crisis, need immediate support, or for more information on reporting please visit our crisis resources.
Kathryn McClain, MSW, MBA
Program and Partnerships Director at #WeRideTogether