Understanding Trauma Responses

Last week I attended a training event entitled “Unveiling the Psychology of Sexual Exploitation and Domestic Violence” led by Zoe Lodrick, who has been instrumental in changing official attitudes to how victims are expected to behave.

It isn’t often that I imagine clients alongside me at a training event, but throughout the day I was struck by the wish that I could have brought some of them with me, perhaps prompting this blog. Those who have experienced domestic violence, childhood sexual abuse and exploitation and rape are very often victim blamed. A day doesn’t seem to go by when we do not hear a Judge, police officer, social worker or other representative of authority blaming the victims of abuse for their abuse. As a society we have a very binary split of “good” and “bad” victims. Good victims fight, kick, hit, risk death and serious injury, indeed the phrase “fate worth than death” was coined to show how society valued the mythical notion of purity over life itself. “Bad victims” come in many forms. They may be sexually active, use drugs, drink, be the wrong gender, be aggressive or unwilling to cooperate with authority figures, very often they belong to a minority group, and they may have not fought back in a manner that society demands.

Every single client I have worked with who has experienced some form of trauma blames themself at some time. They should have known better, they should have fought back, they should have screamed, they should have been a “good” victim. I often say shoulds are toxic. Perhaps never more toxic than when it comes to victim blaming.

One of the strengths of Zoe’s training was that she explained exactly why, from a neuroscience perspective, someone might behave in a way that those who blame victims criticise. It is impossible to summarise an intensive training day in one blog post, and I would recommend visiting her website. However, if I could sit all those survivors who blamed themselves for not being a good victim to listen to her lecture on how we respond to threat responses, I would do so.

This diagram shows the processes going on in the brain when we perceive a threat. The amygdala is a primitive part of the brain which has 2 functions, preserving our attachments and our physical integrity. To the amygdala there is only one “fate worth than death” and that is a rupture with someone we are attached too. Attachment is vital, because as newborns we are completely helpless. That quirk of evolution comes about due to our relative brain to body size. Anyone who has watched a newborn horse, or other mammal will be aware of just how helpless human babies are. We need our caregiver, and so we are hardwired to form a bond with them. If you wish to witness the devastating impact of not having this initial need to form an attachment met, the orphans of Romania bear heartbreaking witness. Zoe Lodrick used the example of stagnant water offered to someone dying of thirst, to explain the deep-rooted need we all have to have someone in our life who fills the need first expressed as a baby. If you do not know what Evian tastes like, or if you are dying of thirst, and (crucially in explaining how some repeat patterns of being abused), if both are the case, you will take the stagnant water.

So, we need people, those familiar with Maslow may be reminded of his hierarchy of needs, the things we need in place to not only survive but thrive. Our most primitive brain structures, however, are concerned with survival. When we are threatened, survival is the primary goal. Our amygdala will decide what course of action to take literally before we have a chance to think. Fighting, the “good” victim response, is far more likely to lead to physical harm than compliance or freezing. To the amygdala this is a good outcome. Add in the desire to preserve an attachment to someone important to us, and fighting or fleeing becomes highly unlikely. Freezing or complying (the “bad victim” responses) are actually far more likely,

We then have to consider that humans learn from experience, but not always in the way we expect. Consider the domestic violence victim, identified by their abuser as vulnerable, isolated by the techniques of coercive control. Society often tells us that if someone hit, raped, hurt or abused us, we would fight, even if it was a loved one. Society is wrong, not only ignoring the cultural messages (such as my mother must love me, so this is OK, or my partner is allowed to have sex with me without asking) but the brain chemistry and reactions which is telling us, do not fight, do not risk injury, comply, be still, and we will survive this. I am of course anthropomorphising to a degree, and it takes longer to write about what is happening than it actually takes to happen. Once this has been a workable strategy once, (in that you have not been killed, the brain is that blunt) and the attachment has been preserved, it will be the go-to strategy next time, and the next, and the next. Each time it works as a strategy, the victim has less and less chance of suddenly deciding to break away.

The important take away fact, particularly if you have been a victim of sexual assault, rape, or domestic abuse, is that decisions about how to respond are made without any input from the thinking, reasoning parts of the brain. Afterward the question why may cause immense shame. At the time the parts of the brain which can ask why are not even consulted. Once we add-on the victim blaming of society, attitudes towards certain groups, such as sexually active women, teenagers, sex workers, women of colour, LGBTQ people, it is easy to understand why people come to believe they deserved, or even caused their own abuse. Breaking this cycle is hard, and takes time. Working with clients who have experienced abuse and trauma often means being willing to sit with those feelings of being a “bad” victim. I am glad that people like Zoe Lodrick exist, to tackle the societal myths, and to train those who work with some of the most vulnerable in our society.

Victims are never responsible for their abuse, and surviving does not make you a bad victim. If you do not survive there will never be the opportunity to thrive.

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