CW: sexual assault, eating disorders.
The body holds trauma in ways that aren’t fully yet understood. Slowly, though, neurobiology and psychotherapy are intertwining to help further our understanding—especially as it pertains to victims of sexual violence.
As a survivor of sexual violence, a lot of my healing has involved learning why I was addicted to the spiral of destruction that the wrong kinds of company brought me. To better understand why this happens to victims of trauma, I spoke with psychotherapist Ailey Jolie, who specializes in sex therapy.
Jolie expressed frustration with how psychotherapy treats victims of sexual violence, acknowledging that there’s been little research on how trauma is stored. Still, there is a general understanding as to how trauma affects people’s lives. Importantly, it’s understood that survivors of sexual trauma often have changes in the part of the brain in charge of releasing cortisol. This causes dysregulation along an axis known as your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. When your HPA axis is so out of whack, it’s considered to be in "overactivation," which means it affects your fear reactions, neural pathways, and other brain activity. Psychological (and in particular, sexual) trauma also leads to a decrease in the size of a survivor’s hippocampus. Quite literally, surviving sexual abuse can decrease the size of your brain.
Accordingly, it’s no surprise that this all leads to cognitive function being impaired in survivors. This toxic cocktail of emotions and chemicals makes decision-making, self-care, and good choices extremely difficult. And all of this can lead to hyperarousal.
While I’ve written briefly about hyperarousal for Adolescent, I got to delve into the subject more with Jolie. She explained that, in this state, an individual’s central nervous system is constantly on the go, hypervigilant, and awake. A hyperaroused central nervous system is essentially bouncing on its toes, looking for the next threat. Individuals with such systems tend to seek out relationships and situations involving people with similarly highly activated senses. It allows for their hyperarousal to play off someone else’s—obviously creating a toxic environment. This can become a huge issue when looking at the way society still condemns a lot of sexual assault survivors, particularly those in hyperarousal. There are many common misconceptions about what a “normal” response to being sexually abused should look like. A woman who is sexually violated and immediately goes to the police is often going to be taken more seriously than a woman who waits to speak up, for fear of retribution or some other consequence. This moralization of responses to sexual trauma is part of why hyperarousal is still very misunderstood. Survivors experiencing hyperarousal don’t fit the cookie-cutter idea of what a “good victim” looks like.
Personally, I often found myself drawn into dangerous environments with the potential to be taken advantage of. I didn’t fully know who I was. I was reeling from a lifetime of trauma, and relying entirely on a body coiled with past regrets. The only neural pathways my brain knew how to use were the ones it had been walking its whole life: the ones of hyperarousal, the ones that told me I wasn’t good enough on my own.
Around this time, at the ages of nineteen and twenty, I met a guy on the internet. He was interested in me because I was anorexic, and he was very open about that fact. He was even more open about the fact that I was his side chick—and better yet, he was thirteen years older than me. My rational, logical brain knew this wasn’t the sort of person I needed in my life, and yet he was exactly the sort of person I was drawn to. Every time he reminded me that I could be thinner or better, the butterflies in my stomach flew to life.
Inside my brain, the biological aftereffects of my trauma were taking hold. My hyperarousal was causing my brain to mistake my uneasy, naturally fearful reactions for a sense of excitement and familiarity—for a sense of wanting.
This phenomenon—the idea that the things that made me nauseatingly uncomfortable also made me feel at home—has been referred to online as the "discomfort zone". Often used in discussions about self-help, the “discomfort zone” is defined as meaning you’re uncomfortable and uncertain in yourself, and so likely to change, learn, and grow. For victims of trauma, though, this simply isn’t the case. For us, this discomfort zone is just home.
We listen to true crime podcasts to fall asleep; we don’t feel at ease unless there’s a knot in our stomach; if all seems right with the world, something is very clearly off. Jolie comments that it isn’t uncommon for trauma survivors to only know comfort in unstable, deeply uncomfortable areas. If you’re most at ease when your life is unstable, you’ll know what I mean. You’re the sort of person that’s good in a crisis, because that’s the space you live in. Your brain only knows what help looks like when it is being offered by the wolf in sheep’s clothing.
An example of this that I always come back to is that when I was twenty, I took up smoking, just because the dead-end Irish guy I was fucking encouraged me to—even though I have asthma. In my early twenties, I felt like all I could do was emulate the toxic people in my life. I just kept leaning further into the chaos and destruction that seemed ever-present around me. Looking back, I know I felt that way because my brain was in a constant state of hyperarousal.
Sometimes, I still yearn for the taste of a little more rum on my lips, a little more danger. My fingers hover over the download button for apps I know will only bring me harm. I’m extremely fortunate to have muddled my way out of an abusive family, away from abusive partners, and into a completely loving relationship where the ground is solid and the world is safe. Yet parts of my brain still beg for the darkness, and sometimes I feel like they always will. Often, I have to stop, take a deep breath, and remind myself: this is my brain, on a biological level, just trying to cope the way it was taught.
I’m learning that discomfort isn’t a place where I should spend the majority of my time. Rewiring your neural pathways takes time, energy, and a lot of therapy. Jolie points out that oftentimes, the neural pathways leading to this discomfort zone have been so deeply broken in that a traumatized brain finds them hard to ignore. Breaking that cycle is difficult, because you’re trying to teach someone to walk a path they’ve never been taught when there’s a very well-defined path that feels safe right in front of them.
The traumatized brain can seem like a complex, broken beast. It isn’t. Part of me might always crave the intensity of emotion I feel around the wrong sort of people, but I also might learn how to navigate this so I don’t; my brain can make new neural pathways and new connections. The love, patience, and help of those around me has let me do things I didn't think I could. I'm comfortable in safe spaces. I know how to be loved. And every day, I learn more about what's best for my healing.