Trigger Warning: These conversations can stir up difficult and complicated feelings, memories, and experiences. Reach out to the National Sexual Assault Hotline if you are in need of immediate support at 800-656-4673.
Sexual violence is a trauma that leaves immediate and long-lasting imprints on the brain and the body of survivors. Navigating the complex path of trauma recovery is typically an ongoing process, and sometimes new traumas (like Covid-19) can re-activate experiences of and the body’s reaction to an archived experience.
If you are a survivor of sexual assault or are close to someone who is, understanding why and how this happens can help guide healing through this tough time.
Similar to a sexual assault trauma, Covid-19 came on fast, with an immediate shock of trauma followed by additional losses, creating a cascading impact. Survivors of sexual trauma work through their experiences with an uncertainty of when the chapter of their life will end as healing tends to be a long, ongoing process. Similarly, Covid-19 has thrown us into a lack of physical and emotional safety without many resources or an idea of when it will end.
Additionally, when experiencing a trauma in real-time, the most common responses are fight or flight, but similar to a sexual trauma experience, during Covid-19 those responses were not options. Freeze has been the only strategy available. Freezing in response to trauma is an evolutionarily beneficial bodily response because it helps to compartmentalize the experience. However, it can lead to feelings of isolation, lack of control, and immobilization.
“Fear-based survival instincts both shape trauma and inform its healing” – Dr. Peter Levine
Our body’s response to trauma has been evolutionarily developed and passed down to help aid in survival. Your body is sending you signals, pointing to where there are needs, and it is part of the work of healing to pay attention to those signals and give those parts of your urgent care.
However, there are times when these biological responses are not sustainable. Our trauma nervous system is interconnected throughout our bodies like constellations. Everything is connected. This is often great for healing work, as many singular violations can often be combined in a holistic healing process, but it also carries a high risk of resurfacing archived trauma. A new traumatic experience may trigger a physiological response related to an older trauma whether consciously or subconsciously.
Examples of unsustainable trauma responses, where the nervous system is in high activation for an extended period of time include: an increased startle response, sleep disturbances, appetite changes, digestive challenges, unpredictable energy changes, forgetfulness, disorganized behaviors, and volatile emotions.
Survivors of sexual trauma are more highly susceptible to unsustainable biological responses, which is a real burden to carry. However, that burden is also a story of survival. By using our bodily responses to trauma as sacred internal wisdom of overcoming, we are continually training our human spirit to thrive in impossible circumstances.
“As people who have survived an inescapable attack, we know that it is possible to balance on the edge of our last exhale and still find a way to take the next inhale. Within our shape, we hold both the physiology of trauma and the physiology of resilience of our lives and of our ancestors.” – Molly Boeder Harris