CONTENT WARNING: This blog discusses some of the most sensitive topics in our society today, including sexual assault and abuse. We understand that these realities may be difficult for many people to discuss. We encourage you to care for your safety and well-being. If you ever feel unsafe, please call 911.
When thinking of how sexual abuse and sexual assault can affect the brain, I find a certain analogy can be very helpful to illustrate the dramatic affect these crimes can have during a person’s whole life.
Imagine the human brain as a tree. A young sapling (infancy and early childhood) beginning its growth is very fragile as it lays down roots (the foundation for future development). The first few shoots and branches show themselves and the young tree soon draws on its environment to help it grow.
When given ideal growth conditions, trees can produce magnificent canopies, strong and tall trunks, and beautiful foliage as they mature. But what if growth conditions are not ideal? What if there is one or a series of events that prevent the tree from growing as it would otherwise?
These events can leave permanent marks on a tree and significantly influence how it develops – especially in a critical period of adolescence.
Consider a sexual abuse or assault as a fierce storm. The storm may sweep away leaves that will grow back, but it could also take down entirely branches that take much more time to replace.
A single storm can do significant damage. Repeated storms can erode soil (cause lack of confidence), uproot them (create feeling of perpetual uncertainty and fear) and can strain them (post-traumatic stress disorder) to a point where they must contort and develop in unusual ways to survive.
Like people, trees can be resilient in the face of hardship – but the marks of these struggles are often clearly evident. And, recent advances in medical imaging and behavioural studies have begun to show, concretely, how early childhood sexual abuse and other traumatic sexual assaults leave marks and damage to the brain.
Assault, abuse, and structural brain changes
Any and all sexual abuse or sexual assaults have the potential to be a traumatic event in a person’s life. The body’s response to such trauma can have both short-term and long-term effects.
In the moment of the assault, the body’s sympathetic nervous system releases stress hormones to the brain as a part of its survival instincts. These hormones direct your fight, flight, or freeze response.
Following the event itself, the sympathetic nervous system may remain active for a prolonged period. Ordinarily the parasympathetic nervous system releases hormones to combat and neutralize stress hormones, but with post-traumatic stress disorder the continuous activation of the sympathetic nervous system tires and stresses the body.
Moreover, these hormones can kill cells in the hippocampus that help the brain to consolidate memories and understand that a past trauma is not a current threat. Concurrently, the amygdala can become overstimulated and may begin to falsely identify neutral situations as threats.
Finally, researchers have found that this kind of trauma can alter the brain’s somatosensory cortex - the part of the brain that uses messages from the body to create sensation and perception. Studies have found these changes may cause chronic pain and decreased sexual sensation and desire.
A survivor’s age and the state of their brain development is often a critical factor in cognitive, behavioral, and psychological health outcomes later in life. Age of onset of abuse was associated with differential neurological brain structures.
Well controlled studies have identified direct link between childhood abuse and abnormal structure and function of “lateral and ventromedial fronto-limbic brain areas and networks that mediate behavioral and affect control.” Other studies have correlated brain volume with age of onset of trauma and the duration of abuse. In other words, abuse can significantly impact brain structure, in effect, sexual abuse and sexual assault can cause a traumatic brain injury (tbi).
What does this mean?
There is no such thing as a “mild” brain injury. While there are significant differences in the type of damage a blunt force trauma can do to the brain compared to the physiological effects associated with post-traumatic stress disorder from sexual assault or sexual abuse, any structural change to the brain is serious. And a traumatic brain injury plays havoc with your brain – period.
Survivors may not be able to do what they could do before the assault or abuse. And a subsequent acquired brain injury can also worsen existing mental health challenges.
For survivors of childhood abuse, the type of damage done to their developing brain may lead to a greater likelihood for boys/men to be involved in physical altercations and for girls/women to become involved in violent relationships. Child sexual abuse survivors, generally, may be more prone to risky or reckless behaviours.
While you may think it’s odd to try to find something positive about a serious brain injury, for survivors, learning that their abuse may explain some of the subsequent challenges they’ve faced in life or the types of behaviours they exhibit can come as a relief.
Now that medical research has found that abuse is linked to changes in the brain, survivors can point to proof that some seemingly abnormal reactions they may have experienced are perfectly understandable. What they or others might have dismissed as being “all in their head,” was, in fact, really all in their head – their brain structure.
Help for the injured
The effects of sexual violence on a developing brain can greatly influence the direction of a person’s life. It may cause damage in terms of their ability to work, their enjoyment of life, and with their relationships. As a sexual abuse and sexual assault lawyer, I have helped many survivors make civil claims against their abusers (both individuals and institutions) to help compensate them for these kinds of losses.
As science and medicine begin to pinpoint the kinds of brain changes that occur after abuse or assault, lawyers for survivors will gain powerful and tangible evidence of the harm caused by these crimes. In the future, we may be able to point to a brain image and say this is where the brain damage happened because of the sexual violence, just like we can now point to an x-ray and say this is where the leg was broken in the car accident.
If you or a loved one has experienced sexual assault or sexual abuse, even if it happened a long time ago, and you believe it contributed to mental health challenges and/or functional disabilities, please contact Jellinek Ellis Gluckstein Lawyers to learn more about your rights and various options.