The Imprints of Sexual Trauma: How the COVID-19 Pandemic May Trigger Survivors
By Molly Boeder Harris, Founder and Executive Director of The Breathe Network
Sexual violence is a trauma to the body with immediate and ongoing physical, mental, and spiritual impacts, many of which have been magnified for survivors in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic. As a survivor, an advocate, and a Somatic Experiencing (SE) Practitioner who specializes in working with sexual trauma, this current crisis is a difficult reminder of the complex and lifelong imprint trauma leaves on the body and brain. For those working with survivors during this difficult time, it is vital to understand how survivors may be triggered by the parallel ways past experiences of interpersonal harm and the present threat of this deadly virus impact both the brain and body.
Survivors need people and practices that can empower them to navigate the enormous ocean of trauma recovery. The ways that COVID-19 can trigger and reactivate the lingering imprints of sexual trauma is a reminder of that. One of the most critical ways we can support survivors and their loved ones during this time is providing information that can empower them to understand the ways the body processes trauma and the various conscious and unconscious survival strategies that better enable us to survive difficult experiences. Difficult experiences like confronting a global pandemic are embedded with a number of elements with the potential to create trauma, and this Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I want to encourage all those are committed to supporting survivors to focus on the ways in which these overwhelming experiences and their effects on our bodies and minds might overlap.
The following information describes the nature of trauma and how it may be resurfacing for survivors in this moment. I share this information as an invitation for all of us to pause and recognize the ways the COVID-19 pandemic is a collective experience of trauma. Whether you yourself are a survivor, working to support survivors, or both, deepening our understanding of trauma can guide us in caring for ourselves and healing through difficult times.
Too Much, Too Fast
The shifting cascade of how COVID-19 impacts our lives may feel like a déjà vu for survivors. Survivors are painfully familiar with the way in which trauma creates an immediate shock to their body-mind-soul and then ripples outward and inward — for days, weeks, months, and sometimes years and decades. There is the initial boundary breach of the abuse, followed by additional betrayals, losses, and acts of violence. The uncertainty of when and if this horrific chapter of the survivor’s life will come to an end, combined with the way in which the parts of the brain associated with memory are dampened down by trauma, can ultimately warp a survivor’s sense of time. The imprints of trauma are not neat or linear. Survivors may experience flashbacks and nightmares as the current crisis stimulates their senses and nervous systems, which are already imprinted with trauma. Our daily lives have been forced to shift in a way that may leave survivors more prone to such episodes, with less resources available, as they find themselves in an environment that lacks physical or emotional safety.
Additionally, one of the primary hallmarks of trauma is the overall feeling in our brain and body of “too much, too fast.” Right now, if we take a moment to check in with ourselves, we can all feel the reverberation of how the pace of this crisis response shows up in our individual bodies. Since the individual and the collective are interconnected, the trauma hallmark of “too much, too fast” is also being magnified in the chaos and instability of the world around us. With the biographies of fear being reignited in our bodies, many survivors may notice their nervous systems are spending more time in states of high activation, which might manifest as extraordinarily high anxiety or debilitating disconnection from yourself and your body. These are all normal, biologically rooted responses to coping with trauma, and also strategies for surviving in the midst of an ongoing, overwhelming experience with an unpredictable outcome. Unearthing archived trauma wounds, those that were previously known as well as those that are just emerging in our consciousness for the first time — while simultaneously being faced with a pandemic that prompts an immediate response — places a tremendous demand on a survivor’s whole being.
Within the specific trauma resilience theory and practice I am trained in, sexual trauma falls under the trauma category of “inescapable attack.” During an inescapable attack, there is an experience of physical constraint or the impossibility of finding any actionable way out of the experience. The strategies of fight or flight are not possible in this case, and the fact that we cannot escape creates the conditions for freeze to arise as the most adaptive strategy for survival. COVID-19 provokes a similar somatic experience as that of inescapable attack, which may render us feeling immobilized, isolated, and out of control. Even if it does so metaphorically — even if the threat takes a non-human form — this current inescapable attack can replicate past threats to our safety. This is coupled with the countless ways in which human negligence and extreme social inequality have combined to increase the original threat of the virus itself.
Traumatic experiences and conditions of all kinds exist in our bodies as constellations. They can link together in complex ways throughout our nervous system, which is connected to all the other systems and functions of our body. This is truly a resource when it comes to healing, as there are ways to connect the myriad parts of the “constellation” of overwhelming experiences without having to necessarily unpack each one individually. This is particularly useful for survivors of childhood sexual abuse who carry countless episodes of violation in their bodies and literally would not be able to parse out every single act of abuse committed against them. We can work with and throughout the nervous system, which encompasses and contains all of these stories. This is also a relief for sexual assault survivors in general who hold the boundary breaches in their bodies from both sexual trauma and the interpersonal traumas of racism, heterosexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and ethnocentrism.
Fast forward from our past to this specific moment in time, and some of our bodies are consciously and unconsciously remembering past states of threat, overwhelm, and inescapable attack. This remembering may set off a number of internal physiological alarms, thereby causing survival patterning to re-emerge. Strong mind-body reactions to what we are living through make sense for any and all of us. For some of us, however, the more destabilizing responses come from our history of having been psychologically, physically, or spiritually harmed, overpowered, or immobilized. The memories of how our bodies endured the inescapable attack of sexual trauma may replay themselves in our bodies. We may default to conditioned ways of coping that saved our lives in the past and enabled us to get through; however, they may or may not be adequate to meet this new threat, or perhaps they are simply not sustainable.
Survivors of sexual trauma may be experiencing the resurfacing of dormant somatic (body) memories as they are once again (or more intensely) faced with questions related to shelter, income, food, safety, empathy, and care-seeking in human relationships. If our sexual trauma occurred prior to the brain’s development of its capacity for explicit memory (memory that has a clear narrative) which is around 18 months old, or, if because the nature of the harm was so disturbing for our brain that it blocked it out (abuse at the hands of a caregiver who is biologically wired to be your primary protector), the onset of these innate, self-protective mechanisms, whether sudden or slow, could feel extra troublesome.
As my primary SE teacher Dr. Joshua Sylvae described, the inability or unpredictability of being able to meet one’s basic biological needs is, in and of itself, a survival-level dilemma. Not knowing if you can or will survive something, not knowing if people will or will not come to your aid, not knowing if the threat will ever end — and having to hold those survival-level questions in one’s shape — can overwhelm our body, mind, and soul’s capacities. It can alter our personality, our thought processes, our relationships, and much more. I want to emphatically express that amidst all of the ways in which post-traumatic stress responses are rendered as weaknesses, flaws, or behaviors we need to overcome, this pandemic might be a good moment to appreciate all the coping, adaptive, and survival mechanisms that got you through.
Numbness and Shutting Down
When a survivor’s nervous system is overwhelmed, we might expect to see more outward expressions of this such as crying, agitation, inability to be still; however, it is important to know that a high percentage of sexual assault survivors experience the physiological state of freeze, which can cause temporary immobilization of the body. As experienced during trauma, freeze states may surface time and time again as a way to cope. For every survivor that feels heightened anxiety right now about COVID-19, there may be just as many who feel numb to it. From the outside, people in states of high nervous system activation may appear calm or even indifferent to this chaos. The scale and scope of what they are facing (again) may feel unreal. Like the individual experience of sexual trauma, the science-based projections — alongside the lived reality of loss of life, debilitating illness, and socio-political collapse — can be so disturbing to our psyches that we unconsciously close the door on any line of thinking that exposes us to our profound vulnerability. Our brain is always working in service of self-preservation, and choosing to minimize our exposure to the unfolding events for a period of time might enable someone to endure another day.
Pervasiveness of Trauma
This moment is also a painful reminder of how pervasive trauma as an embodied, collective, and generational experience truly is within our country. So many people face insecurity when it comes to their most basic needs, including: those who are homeless, incarcerated, living in poverty and struggling to pay their bills, those who are being abused in their primary relationships, those who have disabilities and/or live with chronic illness, those who are uninsured and underinsured, and those who come from systemically and historically oppressed communities where a sense of safety has never been a guarantee and who are disproportionately overrepresented in all the aforementioned groups. We are compelled to reckon with systemic injustices and extreme imbalances that shape American society.
Whether or not you have an explicit trauma history, you may personally find yourself surprised, confused, or even disturbed by the ways that you or others around you are responding. It is helpful to remember that the oldest, reptilian part of the brain is an expert at tracking for danger and sending physiological signals throughout the body to prepare us when there is a threat in the environment. You might notice increased startle responses, sleep disturbances, appetite changes, and digestive challenges. You may be experiencing unpredictable energy shifts from states of high energy to deep lethargy. Your thinking may feel disorganized or forgetful. Your emotions may feel volatile. You may feel numb. Your most primal survival systems are operating overtime, and rightly so, because a serious threat has been detected and your body is mounting a response to best enable you and your loved ones to survive.
Survival and Healing
Dr. Peter Levine, the creator of Somatic Experiencing, wrote that “fear-based survival instincts both shape trauma and inform its healing,” which might invite us to reframe the ways in which all of us are responding at this very moment. Perhaps these survival instincts are just as they need to be to aid our survival. They are signals that something is wrong and that our body is calling out for safety. By drawing our attention to the places within us that need the most urgent care, they give us a map for enhancing our sense of “okayness” By listening and responding to our body signals, we might give ourselves some reprieve, however temporary, from the more difficult-to-manage emotions, sensations, and beliefs.
In order to approach our daily capacities in a more realistic and compassionate way, remember that on the extra hard days, the brain may be privileging the most primal behaviors associated with survival, protection, and threat mitigation. Anything even mildly arousing to the nervous system can be perceived by your body as a threat that needs to be quelled. It is challenging to remain clear and coherent in our thinking and being right now because we are all still actively in the experience. Take it one moment at a time. Consider asking your body what it needs to feel safer.
Since all humans are impacted, and none of us is removed from some degree of overwhelm in this moment, we might look to nature to guide us. Prey animals are never truly removed from threat; however, they better ensure their survival by moving together as a coherent group. Listening, sensing, and enacting the full range of their threat response cycles as a collective is the key to how they survive. Remembering and being curious about the most primal parts of ourselves, which are the foundations of building families, communities, and societies, may provide vital insight into sustaining and nurturing self and community in this moment. While in most every way, this pandemic holds raw and unfiltered heartbreak, we can respond to the catastrophe by redefining and reshaping what it means and how we will reimagine ourselves as members of the herd of humankind.
Your Body is a Resource
We don’t know what is on the other side, and it may not be clear in a tangible way for quite some time that we have even made it through the worst. The survival patterning will linger, and we will need to keep attending to it in our bodies, minds, and relationships. Healing is not linear — it takes time and endurance to stay with its ebbs and flows, its highs and lows — and it is worth the profound investment of energy we give to it. We can learn how to build a steadier space within our bodies to both figuratively and literally hold the range of complex experiences that have always co-existed side by side. We can embrace that not everything exists in a binary of good and bad, there is paradox, and the impossible-to-answer yet important-to-explore existential questions that this moment stirs. We can channel our ever-deepening embodied capacity to hold the complexity outward and use it to build and bolster the “body” of our society.
Until you believe at a body level that this immediate threat is far enough in the distance behind us, that you have confronted it and you have survived it, I invite you to consider (or to say aloud) this compassionate perspective shared by my teacher for how you relate to the triggers, coping, adapting, and responding to the days and weeks and months that are ahead:
“Something happened to me and my body is attempting to deliver me a resource to get through.” -Joshua Sylvae
Notice what happens — in your body, in your breath, in your thinking. Your body is delivering a resource, and the resource comes from within. As a survivor, something truly horrific was done to you, and as a survivor, you found a thousand ways to get through. As a society, something fundamentally altering is happening to all of us right now, and our bodies also want to help. 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. The skills and practices we’ve inherited and we’ve cultivated in service of survival equip us with a unique capacity to steward ourselves (and one another) through this acute crisis. We certainly didn’t choose this path, yet surviving sexual trauma, among other things, trains the human spirit in overcoming obstacles, again and again. In this moment of not knowing what is coming next and how we will get through, may we all explore, respect and value the many ways we have survived, and hone this sacred wisdom as we continue to survive.
Molly Boeder Harris is the Founder and Executive Director of The Breathe Network, a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner (SEP), and a trauma-informed yoga teacher and trainer. Her own experiences of surviving sexual trauma catalyzed her to enter the trauma healing field in 2003, beginning with her work as a medical and legal advocate with children and adult survivors, a violence prevention educator and later as a yoga instructor specializing in working with survivors. She earned her Master’s Degree in International Studies and her Master’s Certificate in Women’s & Gender Studies, which inform the way she holds both individual and collective forms of trauma and oppression close together in her work. Over the last 2 decades of her career and her ongoing healing trajectory, she has found that the practices which recognize the whole person — body, mind and soul — while also attending to and honoring the ways in which trauma and resilience manifest physiologically, offer the greatest possibility for embodied justice and social change.