Healing Gaia

Sexual Assault and the Neurobiology of Trauma

The information presented by Diana Tikasz should be mandatory for all police officers, lawyers, and judges throughout Canada.

By Doreen Nicoll
Published March 24, 2016

Yesterday I spent the morning having breakfast with friends in a room full of like-minded women and men. We came together at the invitation of the staff at Nina's Place, the Regional Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centre of Halton region in Ontario. They had arranged for Diana Tikasz, MSW, RSW to talk about the neurobiology of trauma as it relates to of sexual assault.

Serendipity truly intervened when these wonderful women planned this event, because they had no idea that the verdict in the Jian Ghomeshi trial would be announced the next day, nor just how relevant the material presented would be to everyone in the audience.

I'd like to share highlights from Tikasz's presentation, one that should be mandatory for all police officers, lawyers, and judges throughout Canada.

Our brain works on three levels. The reptilian brain stem is in charge of basic functions like breathing and heat rate. The mid or limbic brain is also called the emotional brain. Together they make up the unconscious brain. The neocortex is the most recent part of the brain and contains the characteristics that make us human.

The fight-flight-freeze response is basic to our survival and unconsciously driven. However, not everyone is aware that freezing is the most common response to sexual assault.

The amygdala activates the fight-fright-freeze response to danger, stores traumatic or implicit memory, and is not conscious. The thalmus receives information through the senses and sends it to the amygdala and prefrontal cortex.

The hypothalamus communicates to the pituitary gland to have adrenals release hormones to respond to threat. The hippocampus is the centre of memory and learning. All conscious memory must be processed through this section of the brain. It encodes and stores information into memory. This area is highly sensitive to stress hormones, which obstruct its ability to function.

The prefrontal cortex is the executive centre of the brain. It's responsible for decision-making, planning and reasoning. It's also highly sensitive to stress hormones, which impede its ability to function.

The autonomic nervous system contains the sympathetic nervous system in charge of the fight or flight response, as well as the parasympathetic nervous system responsible for relaxation or homeostasis. When the sympathetic and parasympathetic are activated at the same time, the freeze response kicks in.

That means there are two routes for fight-flight-freeze. The slower route is through the cortex, where analysis can take place. The other is the fast and unconscious route through the unconscious brain.

The hippocampus and amygdala are extremely sensitive to stress hormones, which can impact the ability to recall details and events. This results in fragmented memory that will not be chronological.

The amygdala or right side of the brain deals with implicit memory. That's where traumatic memory is encoded during threat and hormonal flooding. It's unconscious, speechless, emotional, sensory, and automatic.

The hippocampus or left side of the brain deals with explicit memory that is linear. It's where regular memory is stored. It doesn't work during periods of intense emotions, like those experienced during traumatic events. It's conscious, verbal, cognitive, factual, descriptive, chronological, and develops around three years of age.

When victims freeze, it's not a matter of being impassive, but rather a very active survival response beyond conscious control. Emotions may appear flat or strange with huge swings in intensity, due to hormone combinations and levels that may last 96 hours.

Ideally, more in-depth interviews should be postponed for two or three sleep cycles, especially because it's known that the meeting itself will trigger elevated hormonal response no matter when it takes place.

This really means victims of sexual assault are not fabricating experiences and details, rather they're undergoing neuro-biological processes that affect their experiences and memories.

As Tikasz notes, "Neurobiology helps explain victim behaviour to helpers, responders and victims. It helps all of us avoid blame or disbelief. It also helps victims re-establish a sense of personal control and safety."

This also explains why some of Ghomeshi's victims exhibited what has been called unusual behaviour like sending photos, letters, emails, and continuing to circulate in the same social circles.

We know that of every 1,000 sexual assaults in Canada:

Low reporting is due to a combination of issues, including the fact that the majority of sexual assault offenders are known to their victim. This greatly impacts a victim's ability to resist or report what happened or even name it as violence.

The issue of victim credibility and reliability is drawn into question on a regular basis by the police, lawyers, and judges without a clear understanding of how information and experiences are processed; stored or not; and recalled during and after sexual assault.

At the same time, offenders and the violent incident itself go unchallenged. What we failed to see in the Ghomeshi case was:

Ghomeshi was found not guilty on four counts of sexual assault and one count of choking. The focus was on the credibility and reliability of the women's reporting of events before, during and after the incident.

Based on Tikasz' presentation, there are very plausible reasons for the different versions of events, remaining in contact with the alleged assailant, and continuing to move within the same social circles.

Every day, survivors of violence interact with abusers. Reasons include: not wanting to cause problems; being uncertain about whether the incident was in fact violence; hoping the relationship will improve; feeling responsible for improving the relationship; having an emotional attachment to the accused; wishing to maintain other relationships connected to the offender; or seeking explanation for the violent behaviour.

In response to the Ghomeshi verdict, the Ontario Coalition of Rape crisis Centres is reaching out to those affected by sexual violence in Ontario:

We affirm, as we have from the very beginning, that sexual violence cases are not often resolved through the criminal justice system. With these realities in mind, we reach out to survivors of sexual violence, their support people, and to anyone who may find themselves as a bystander in situations of sexual violence.

If something has happened to you, there are people who will believe and support you. You can talk to a trusted friend, family member, or contact a sexual assault centre support line. If you are considering reporting, we can help you think through your options. If you are not considering reporting, that's okay too. All calls are free and confidential. You can access a sexual assault centre from any community across Ontario: go to www.sexualassaultsupport.ca.

Every woman who lives through a sexual assault is brave so make sure that you:


Doreen Nicoll is a feminist and a member of several community organizations working diligently to end poverty, hunger and gendered violence.

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By FletcherG (registered) | Posted April 01, 2016 at 12:45:19

Sadly, judges still seem ignorant to the reality of women's experience of sexual violence. Men who choose to be violent know they are very likely to get away with it.

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