Better Understanding Trauma

Dec 06th, 2018

By Tasha Sands: Program Intern

The aftermath of sexual assault and its effects on survivors is often misunderstood.  Because not every survivor’s response or experience is similar, there are common misconceptions, about how survivors should react following an assault.  One misconception is the expectation that the survivor should report the assault immediately.  Another myth is that the survivor will appear battered, bruised and emotional following the event.  These misconceptions discount the impact of trauma

Why Does Trauma Have Lasting Effects?

Trauma is a normal emotional response to an extremely distressing event.  It is important to understand that trauma is a subjective experience defined by the survivor.  Experiencing natural disasters, acts of terrorism, car accidents or sexual violence are all events that can cause symptoms of trauma.  During a traumatic experience, primitive parts of the brain override the conscious mind.

When encountering trauma, the brain assess the threat and reorganize its function to address survival needs.  The body can engage a fight, flight or freeze response.  For instance, if the brain perceives danger, the hippocampus, the part of the brain that processes memories, stops performing its usual function and instead produces cortisol, a stress hormone that dulls pain. When the hippocampus stops functioning, memories are filed differently.  This makes the recall of an extreme incident challenging and can cause survivors to experience lasting effect of the assault.

Using What We Know about Trauma to Better Inform Care

Trauma-informed care (TIC) focuses on promoting environments of healing and recovery, by emphasizing providers’ awareness of the various symptoms of trauma.  This approach takes into consideration the individual’s personal history and the context of the survivor’s experience.[1]  Rather than practices and services that may re-traumatize, the TIC approach seeks to understand the individual as a whole and acknowledges the impact trauma has on recall, memory and emotions.1

Talking about Trauma with a Survivor

It can be difficult for survivors to replay events that cause unpleasant memories.  When discussing a traumatic experience with a survivor avoid assumptions about their current state.  Trauma-informed care benefits those providing support to survivors, because it takes into account trauma and allows providers the room to do their job more effectively.  If a survivor wants to disclose an experience of sexual violence, let them share their entire narrative without interruption.  Do not expect their memories to be in sequential order or have expectations of their emotional state. Allowing the survivor time to discuss their experience in their own words, provides extra support at they navigate the effects of trauma. 

Learn more about Trauma:

For those who want to learn more about the neurobiology of trauma, sign up for one of MCASA’s free Regional Campus Trainings.  For those who may interview survivors in a law enforcement, advocacy, or investigative capacity, or if you want to learn further about how trauma effects memory watch this video Trauma and the Brain on YouTube.  Additionally, The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) offers a FREE 1.5 hour course on the neurobiological and psychological implications of trauma and trauma-informed care in regards to survivors of sexual violence. To access this training visit https://www.nsvrc.org/elearning/12554.


[1] The National Sexual Assault Coalition Resource Sharing Project & the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. (2017). Building cultures of care: A guide for sexual assault services programs. From: https://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/2017-10/publications_nsvrc_building-cultures-of-care.pdf

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