Have you ever walked by a pie shop and, upon smelling a fresh backed pumpkin pie, been transported back in time to a fond memory of Thanksgiving? Or maybe caught a glimpse of a stranger with certain features and found yourself thinking about that girl or guy from way back when? How about a significant other who one day playfully wrestles with you, and all of a sudden you find yourself lashing out at him without really understanding why? What exactly is occurring neurologically and what are the implications for the recovery from the trauma of past abuse?
According to Daniel Siegel in The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are(1999, Guilford Press), “understanding how trauma affects the developing brain can yield insights into the subsequent impairments of memory processing and the ability to cope with stress.” Before exploring the impairments and coping he refers to, let’s take a quick look at how memories are created and recalled in the first place.
There is a saying — neurons that fire together, wire together. When we have an experience, neuronal pathways are created in the brain by neurons firing and connecting to create a neural net. When we smell the pumpkin pie, what is actually happening is that a particular neuronal pathway is ignited. This neural net has now been modified in that it holds the initial memory of Thanksgiving with family and now the time walking by the store and experiencing the same smell. Thus, the neuronal pathway is expanded and reinforced by the reactivation.
Now, consider the implication if, instead of the warm smell of pumpkin pie, the experience is trauma or fear. As Siegel points out, with “chronic occurrence, these states can become more readily activated (retrieved) in the future, such that they become characteristic traits of the individual. In this way, our lives can become shaped by reactivations of implicit memory, which lack a sense that something is being recalled. We simply enter these engrained states and experience them as the reality of our present experience.”
This is what Siegel means by “impairments of memory processing.” You respond to your significant other in the moment with fear and anger thinking that what he is doing is the problem, when, instead, a neuronal pathway has been triggered and the implicit memory of your abuser restraining you is activated. This is what you are responding to in reality. The same thing occurs in response to stressors. If our experience starts to make us feel trapped or scared, we may respond in the same way we did when needing to survive the abuse rather than in a way that actually addresses the present day stressor.
So then, are we always to be held hostage by these firing neurons? Absolutely not! “Each day is literally the opportunity to create a new episode of learning, in which recent experience will become integrated with the past and woven into the anticipated future” (Siegel). Neurons can be re-wired!
Perhaps the first step is to simply absorb the fact that many of our present day responses, thoughts, emotions are nothing but a neuronal pathway lighting up! Recognition of this creates space for the individual to consider the possibility that what they think or feel is going on may not be what is, in fact, really happening.
Secondly, as Siegel states, when one is able to inhibit the engrained state and respond to a situation, trigger, or stressor in a new way, that neuronal pathway will be adapted. The more frequently this occurs, the more modified the neuronal pathway becomes, and the behavior, thought, or emotion that is produced is also modified.
Finally, from my experience coaching women who have been sexually abused or raped, the ability to actually respond in a new way comes as a result of, first, identifying simply what is actually happening without adding any emotion or interpretation. Next, by looking for all of the possible explanations (not just the ones that reinforce the ideas we already have), one can then respond in a considered manner based on these reflections rather than on the initial gut (neuronal) instinct. Hence, a new response occurs and the neuronal pathway is modified.
While the brain is a very complex system and much of the neuropsychological research has produced mostly conjectures and theories at the present time, for anyone in recovery and/or striving toward lives that are thriving, understanding how abuse impacts brain development and memory can only support you in your journey.
Whenever I am coaching someone around issues of trauma – regardless of whether it be sexual abuse, physical abuse, or divorce, using techniques to retrain the brain is ways a part of what I do! If you’d like to explore Sexual Abuse Recovery coaching as a way to overcome the patterns of thoughts and behaviors that often develop as a result of abuse, just schedule a call!
Thanks to Rachel Grant for this awesome blog post! Rachel is a Beyond Survivor of sexual abuse, the owner and founder of Rachel Grant Coaching and is a Sexual Abuse Recovery Coach. She is also the author of Beyond Surviving: The Final Stage in Recovery from Sexual Abuse.
“She brings to the table a passionate belief that her clients do not have to remain trapped or confronted daily by the thoughts or behaviors that result from abuse. Through her own journey of recovery from sexual abuse, she has gained insight and understanding about what it takes to overcome abuse.”