Northwest College

Neurobiology of Trauma

Sexual violence can cause trauma to the victim. A trauma-informed approach to understanding sexual violence considers the impact of trauma on neurological, physical, and emotional levels. It realizes the wide-spread impact of trauma. 

Chemical Surge

According to the Association of Title IX Administrators (ATIXA), the neurobiology of trauma involves how the brain responds to trauma by releasing chemicals into the body in response to the actual or perceived threat.

This chemical “surge” is autonomic, meaning it cannot be controlled. While it impacts a person’s response to a perceived trauma in the moment, it may also corrupt the ability to recall the traumatic event (ATIXA, 2016).

Tonic Immobility 

Common responses to trauma are to fight, flee, or freeze. The technical term for freezing is called “tonic immobility.”

According to The Blueprint for Campus Police: Responding to Sexual Assault from the University of Texas at Austin, “tonic immobility,” also known as sexual assault-induced paralysis, is caused by a flood of hormones that activate in response to a threat. This freeze response may be more common in victims that were previously assaulted. They are literally “scared stiff (Blueprint, 2016).

Varied Responses

ATIXA states that the chemicals released into the body during a traumatic event may stay in the body for 96 hours, and triggering events, such as an interview with police or campus security, can reactivate this response.

The chemical surge may help to explain why some reporting parties have a flat, disinterested expression or may laugh inappropriately. These seemingly counter-intuitive responses cannot be controlled; they are a result of the body’s defense mechanisms and whatever chemicals the brain has released (ATIXA, 2016).

Because a victim does not appear emotional does not mean that person is not feeling emotional. There is a wide range of emotions a victim may experience, and this range is normal (Blueprint, 2016). 

Fragmented Memories

When individuals experience trauma, according to ATIXA, their encoding and grouping of memories are affected negatively, resulting in non-linear accounts of what happened.

In other words, they experience jumping around or fragmented memories of the event. Traumatized people may make inconsistent statements; this is a normal reaction to trauma.

It can take up to 200 days for the brain to retrieve and reorganize the information from a traumatic event into something coherent, which is one reason why there may be a delay in reporting. When alcohol is involved, memory may be further impacted.

A traumatized person needs a couple sleep cycles prior to an interview process if that person chooses to report (ATIXA, 2016).

Sensory Information

Because of the trauma, victims’ brains are better at remembering sensory information, according to The Blueprint for Campus Police. Asking “who,” “what,” and “where” questions are not as helpful as asking victims about what they remember hearing, tasting, smelling, touching, or seeing (Blueprint, 2016).

Further Resources:

If you or someone you know has experienced an act of sexual violence, consider contacting any of the following resources to aid with the healing process: