Fight, Flight, or Freeze

By Irene Smith DLA Energy Public Affairs

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The information that comes into the victim's brain and body during a sexual assault is traumatic. It is threatening. It is horrifying. It is one of the most psychologically damaging forms of crime that anybody could experience according to research on the neurobiology of sexual assault.

The neurobiology of trauma, its emotional and physical manifestation and how it affects sexual assault survivors over their life-span, was the topic of a Defense Logistics Agency Energy lunch and learn session May 1.  

“I thought it was important for supervisors and other Energy personnel who receive sexual assault reports to understand how these processes can impact the victim and why victims may wait to report the incident,” said Stephanie VanRiper, DLA Energy’s Sexual Assault Response Coordinator. “During a traumatic event, our brain encodes trauma in a scattered way as opposed to in the linear fashion when not under stress. I wanted supervisors and other Energy personnel to understand that; they may have someone tell them they have been sexually assaulted and it sounds like a ‘lie’ when, in fact, it’s because of that scattered encoding that the victim can’t recall the event clearly.” 

Heather Turner, the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Coordinator, led an interactive discussion on how the brain is impacted by trauma. The brief was based on the research by Rebecca Campbell, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, Michigan State University

“Anyone can experience sexual assault, it’s not gender specific,” Turner said. “Trauma is interpreted by the body as a life-threatening experience. Sexual trauma can negatively affect a person’s mental and physical health, even many years later.” 

Neurobiological changes can make memory consolidation and recall difficult.

Symptoms of sexual trauma include disturbing memories or nightmares, difficulty feeling safe, depression or numbness, problems with alcohol or other drugs, problems with anger, irritability, sleeplessness and physical health problems, she said.

There are many different regions of the brain that are impacted by trauma. The first two are neural mechanisms that have to do with hormones and emotions that might be happening during the assault. 

During trauma, the brain releases high amounts of hormones that work at cross purposes within the body; catecholamines, cortisol, opiates and oxytocin. 

“This combination of hormones acts as a signal that the body is experiencing a traumatic event and helps the body deal with it,” Turner said. “Catecholamine is the adrenaline that fuels the flight or fight response. Cortisol provides the energy and opioids prevents pain. Lastly oxytocin promotes good feelings. At the same time, the same hormones make it very difficult for the brain to remember and record the traumatic event.”

The second two are neural mechanisms that have to do with encoding, processing, and the memory of the assault. 

The hippocampus and amygdala play critical roles in the processing and encoding of a traumatic event, Turner explained. The hippocampus is the brain structure that processes information into memories and helps to establish long-term memory. The hippocampus encodes the information and then consolidates it.

“Traumatic events are harder to process because they are associated with emotional responses,” Turner said. ”As a result of the impaired abilities of the amygdala and hippocampus to encode and consolidate memories, survivors may have trouble accurately remembering the assault. Emotions may change very rapidly and the survivor may exhibit rapid mood swings.”

The majority of sexual assaults are committed by people victims know.

“Often, it’s the betrayal of trust after a sexual assault that causes the long-lasting effects of post traumatic symptoms or disorder,” Turner said.

Many people have heard of the fight or flight response, but during a traumatic event there is also a freeze response, Turner explained. The freeze response is a mammalian instinct and it is basically like playing dead.

“Sometimes that is the safest thing to do,” Turner said. ”This freeze response results in tonic immobility known as ‘rape induced paralysis’ where the survivor cannot move and is rendered immobile by the traumatic event. The paralysis is caused by extreme fear and physical contact with the perpetrator.”

Patience is key because the survivor may have difficulty remembering the event and may have unpredictable emotions, Turner said.

Renée Ferranti, DLA’s SAPR program manager, attended the brief and said educating our workforce on this topic will help create a safe and trusting environment when a victim comes forward and discloses an assault.

“It is so important that our supervisors and managers have a basic understanding of the impact that sexual violence has on an individual,” Ferranti said. “Every person and situation is unique, and it is so important to recognize that there is no ‘standard’ way to respond to, or cope with, trauma.” 

Educating the workforce of neurobiology of sexual assault is a step forward in understanding the needs of victims of sexual assault.

“This event culminated an extremely successful Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month,” said DLA Energy Commander Air Force Brig. Gen. Albert Miller. “The intense focus for an entire month should serve to remind us that every month ... or rather EVERY DAY, we should be doing our best to create an environment that prevents any instance of sexual assault. That is my charge to you ... make DLA Energy that place.”  

If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, please call the DLA Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-841-0937 or the DoD Safe Helpline at 1-877-995-5247.