Trauma and Your Brain: Calming the Inner Tug-of-War

Quote from Bessel van der Kolk's book The Body Keeps the Score.

Remember back in grade school when two teams would compete against each other in a tug-of-war? Each team would pull as hard as they could to bring the other team down. A tug-of-war is about as uncooperative as you can get—you have two teams actively working against each other by pulling in opposite directions. Usually the rope stays almost stationary, not moving too far until one of the teams comes crashing down.
 

The Internal Tug-of-War of Survivors 

Unfortunately, for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, this tug-of-war often goes on internally—and it never stops. Trauma can have a permanent effect on a survivor’s body. In his groundbreaking book The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk, an acclaimed psychiatrist, explains, “Trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on the mind, brain, and body.” 

This imprint can cause you to have conflicting reactions to situations in your daily life. For example, if you see someone who reminds you of your perpetrator, one part of you screams that you need to run while another part tells you to stay put because you’re safe. Your body experiences an internal tug-of-war where two teams are fighting for opposite goals. Van der Kolk explains that this battle within leads to “physical discomfort and psychological misery.” As a survivor, you’ve probably experienced this battle and know how frustrating it can be.
 

There’s Hope 

The services we offer to survivors at The Younique Foundation work to calm this internal tug-of-war. You can train your mind and body to work together to have healthy and helpful reactions to the situations you’re in. 

If you feel like you’re currently experiencing a tug-of-war within your body and mind, know that you can change. The 5 Strategies to Reclaim Hope are a good place to start, and The Haven Retreat offers a variety of experiences and services designed especially for you. We’re here to help you along the way in your healing journey. 

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This Was Something I Have Needed For a Long Time

Danielle, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, tells about the healing she found at The Haven Retreat.

When I came to The Haven Retreat, I was terrified. I didn’t know what to expect. I was worried about my kids and my husband at home. What would they do without me? But when I started learning more about my trauma and how to cope, and that I am not alone, I realized this was something I have needed for a long time.

Not only did I come out of this experience stronger than ever before. I gained sisters, a family that I will never forget. And I have learned how important it is to put myself first sometimes. Letting go of my past, and forgiving, so I can move on.

-Danielle, Survivor

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I Was Numb for Much of My Life

Martha, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, talks about the healing she found at The Haven Retreat.

I thought that I had gotten over the abuse because I became so good at suppressing the feelings that came along with it. It took a big health crisis for me to also pay attention to the emotional crisis I had been silently dealing with for 20 years. The Haven Retreat and the continued support from The Younique Foundation helped me to realize that I could live life and not just go through life.

I was not enjoying and recognizing the vast range of emotions that we as human beings are entitled to. I was numb for much of my life. I am the face of 1 in 4. I will do everything in my power to help others find the help they need.

-Martha, Survivor

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Trauma, Fear, and Fuzz of the Past

Guest Blog written by Katie Steck, Education Coordinator at The Younique Foundation

It’s just after midnight and you decide it’s time to turn in for the night. You enter your bedroom where dim light from the street lamp outside bleakly illuminates your space. As you pull back your covers, you notice something dark, indiscriminate, about the size of a quarter jump across your sheet. You feel a sudden rush of panic as your heart rate soars, your muscles tense, and your thoughts race to images of a spider you thought you had killed last week.

After another moment of contemplating a battle to the death with whatever unwelcome intruder this is, you suddenly realize it’s just a piece of FUZZ! Cursing the fuzz and vowing to never watch Arachnophobia before bed again, your heart rate returns to normal, your muscles relax, and you continue your bedtime routine.

Why do we feel fear before we can even identify what is making us afraid? And how does this relate to sexual abuse we may have experienced in the past? Research into how fear is processed in the brain can shed light onto how a small fuzz can create a large fuss in our brains and bodies, particularly if the fuzz relates to past trauma.

Fear takes two simultaneous pathways in the brain; one is fast and one is slow.1 When your body receives visual signals from the outside world, it creates a basic representation of the object and sends a quick message to a place in your brain called the amygdala.2 Here, our brain asks, “Is this thing a potential threat?”

Comparing the major features of the object to what you’ve encountered before, your amygdala makes a snap judgment of whether the body needs to get ready for battle. If the amygdala deems the fuzz has enough similarities to a spider (or a similar threat), it activates other battle systems in your body, even without fully knowing what the object is. Stress hormones are released, your sympathetic nervous system is kicked into high gear, and your thoughts may retreat to the effectiveness of a flame-thrower as a defense tool.

Meanwhile, the slow pathway of fear is routed to a part in the front of your brain where the prefrontal cortex begins a full-scale investigation into what the object is and whether you should really be afraid of it in this context. If it turns out to be just fuzz and not a spider, then your prefrontal cortex sends a signal to your amygdala saying, “Shhhh, it’s okay, amygdala. No threat here.” This will, in turn, relax those battle systems that the amygdala activated and you can safely put away your flame-thrower.

In those who have experienced childhood sexual trauma, the amygdala is especially sensitive to threatening signals.3,4 Furthermore, the prefrontal cortex has fewer resources to manage fear signals and is less able to communicate when something is not a threat.3,4

This is why when we encounter the everyday fuzz that either consciously or unconsciously remind us of our traumatic past (smells, situations, sounds, etc.), we are extra responsive to the fear that comes through the fast pathway, while the slow pathway through the cortex may not be able to get messages to our amygdalae to say, “Don’t worry, we are safe from the fuzz and you can put down the flame-thrower now.”

You are not alone in the struggle with fear. You aren’t out of your mind because certain places, people, or smells make it hard for you to feel safe. Your brain has adapted to survive and may only need some redirection to help keep you on a path to healing and happiness. The good news is that you can do it, and we can help.

  1. Méndez-Bértolo, C., Moratti, S., Toledano, R., Lopez-Sosa, F., Martínez-Alvarez, R., Mah, Y. H., … Strange, B. A. (2016). A fast pathway for fear in human amygdala. Nature Neuroscience19(8), 1041–1049. https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.4324
  2. LeDoux, J. E. (1998). The emotional brain: The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996). https://doi.org/10.2307/3953278
  3. Thomason, M. E., & Marusak, H. A. (2017). Toward understanding the impact of trauma on the early developing human brain.Neuroscience342, 55–67. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroscience.2016.02.022
  4. Dannlowski, U., Stuhrmann, A., Beutelmann, V., Zwanzger, P., Lenzen, T., Grotegerd, D., … Kugel, H. (2012). Limbic scars: Long-term consequences of childhood maltreatment revealed by functional and structural magnetic resonance imaging. Biological Psychiatry71(4), 286–293. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2011.10.021

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Sharing My Story is the Most Vulnerable Thing I Have Ever Done

Heather, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, shares her story.

I have survived so much, including attempts on my life, yet sharing my story is perhaps the most frightening and vulnerable thing I have ever done. I was told to protect the family secret at all costs that to speak up would mean losing my family, my roots, and my life. Attending The Haven Retreat 11 months ago gave me a new family of strong survivor sisters. I learned to ground myself and to reconnect to my roots, to honor my own survival skills and resilience as proof of hope and faith at work in my life.

By sharing my story, I am finally free of my past and my family’s chains of shame. I forgive, let go, and move on. By forgiving I am freeing myself to be fully present and to allow hope to fill those empty spaces so I may continue to thrive.

Spending a few days in luxury at The Haven Retreat, I learned I deserve indoor plumbing, good healthy food, friends, and a supportive family of my choice.

Thank you for giving me the tools to find my own roots and wings and voice. The healing effect continues long after our short time at the Haven Retreat. Thank you for giving me a space to share my story without judgement. Thank you, Younique Foundation and survivor sisters for being here for me. I am forever grateful.

-Heather, Survivor

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I Was Living Life as if I Were Alone in a Crowded Room

Kenzie, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, talks about attending The Haven Retreat.

Before attending The Haven Retreat, I was living life as if I were alone in a crowded room. I have family and friends who love and support me dearly, but no one really knew what I had been through. No one could look me in the eye and understand the darkness, the shame, and the unbearable pain of what I was going through from the sexual abuse I experienced.

I learned a lot of valuable information and skills that have helped me understand my reaction, reconnect with my body, and cope with my past. Nothing prepared me for the overwhelming love, support, and connections I made from the other women who were brave enough and willing to be vulnerable with me. These women stood beside me, cried with me, laughed with me, and shared with me their beauty and helped me start to see mine. I am forever grateful to them and the staff at The Haven Retreat.

I’m now taking the time to get to know myself again, more fully than ever before. I’m discovering that who I’ve wanted to be is who I am, it’s who I’ve always been. It was never stolen from me but lost deep inside and I’m beginning to search for it. For years, I have been silenced by my past, from the pain and shame of what I had experienced. I will no longer silence myself. I have a voice, and I have discovered the power of using it. There is strength when you discover that your story doesn’t have a horrific ending. I’m not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become. I choose to be a Survivor!

-Kenzie, Survivor

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I Will Listen, Acknowledge, and Support

With #MeToo trending on social media as women and men talk about their experiences being sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, or sexually abused, many people are asking what they can do. A lot of support systems of survivors, especially, want to know how they can not only let the people in their life know that #IBelieveYou, but also help them find hope and healing.

When a survivor first breaks the silence about abuse, loved ones sometimes struggle to know how to respond. Initial reactions often include anger and confusion. The first step to understanding what has happened to your loved one is education. As you learn more about sexual abuse and its impact on survivors, you will be able to process your responses and find ways to support your loved one. Below is the learning process that you might go through as a supporter. This is a story that has been compiled from the experiences of many supporters.

When I first found out that my wife had been sexually abused, I had so many questions, so I tried to learn. I needed to understand what my wife had gone through and how it impacted her. The first thing I learned is that sexual abuse is more common than I thought. It’s not something I had heard about before my wife talked to me, so I just assumed it didn’t happen very often. The reality is that it happens frequently. I also assumed that most perpetrators are strangers. I thought it was crazy that my wife had been abused by her uncle, but then I found out that most sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone close, often a family member. I realized that a situation that I thought was unusual is, sadly, typical.

I also learned that most abuse survivors never tell anyone about what happened. And if they do tell, the abuse probably won’t be reported. When my wife first told me about her abuse, she told me that it had gone on for two years. I wondered why someone didn’t make it stop? I knew she told her parents, but they told her that saying anything about it publicly would “look bad.” They said her family’s reputation was too important. Again, this seemed crazy to me, but I found out that her situation was pretty standard. Child sexual abuse often goes on for a while, and it’s rarely reported.

The most important thing I learned was that my wife was still suffering from the trauma of what happened. Abuse isn’t something that people just forget about. Their bodies and minds hang on to the trauma and continue to respond years later. I found out about my wife’s abuse when a man who reminded her of her uncle sat in front of us in a movie theater. This man triggered my wife—he brought back memories of the past abuse, and my wife’s body reacted as if she were in danger—as if the abuse were still happening.

Initially, I was angry and confused, but now I am more educated. I understand that what happened to my wife isn’t all that uncommon, and I learned that she’s going to need help recovering. She can’t just get over it. It’s going to take time, but it’s possible. And I know that I’m a big part of her healing. Survivors need people who love them and support them, and I can be one of those people for her. I understand that my wife and I can have a relationship that will be fulfilling for both of us—a relationship with emotional, physical, and sexual intimacy. It will take some work, but it’s worth it.

Healing from the impact of sexual abuse is a journey for both supporters and survivors. For more information about how you can support the survivors in your life, look at the Supporting Hope e-book on our resources page. Also, read more about the journey of supporters at: I Was Confused, Angry, and Hurt and I Am Educated and I Understand

I’m the Brightest Shining Star in the Darkness

Sarah, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, tells her story of attending The Haven Retreat.

I sit here looking and thinking of how The Haven Retreat helped me. Thinking of what to say. The problem is not that I cannot think of anything. It’s that there are so many and some I can’t even explain. I have RECLAIMED HOPE!

I don’t feel like a lost cause or that I am not enough. I am enough, and I am something. I matter to my family and to God. I’m so grateful to The Younique Foundation for saving my life. I’m not just a lost lonely soul passing through. I’m so much more. I have hope to become more. More for myself. More for my family. More for other women that need help. I feel like so much was taken away from me. Now my wings are restored and I’m ready to fly. Thank you for showing me that I’m the brightest shining star in the darkness.

-Sarah, Survivor

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This is Not Just a Retreat, This is Life-Changing

Amanda, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who attended The Haven Retreat

In November 2016, I received an email with a link about The Haven Retreat. I looked at it and thought wow I’d love to attend, but why would they accept me. I’m from Ireland. The friend that sent the link told me to apply, so I did.

Four months later I found myself sitting on a plane heading to Salt Lake City. When I got to the retreat, I was amazed by the beauty that surrounded me. That beauty was from the location, the house, and the other 23 women. I immediately had a connection and felt very at ease. The staff were all amazing.

The education and support we received was excellent. This is not just a retreat, this is life-changing. After the 4 days, I left the retreat a different woman. I had made lifelong friendships. I had strength and courage that I never knew I had. I could never thank The Younique Foundation enough for accepting me and giving me this life-changing experience.

If you are like me and you don’t live in America it’s fine, you will be accepted with open arms, so make that trip it will be the best journey you will ever take in your life.

-Amanda, Survivor

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Why You Should Make Emotional Health a Priority

Quote from Sangu Delle about emotional health

What struggles have you faced when it comes to making emotional health a priority? In his powerful TED talk about taking care of his mental health, Sangu Delle talks about a time in his life when he struggled with depression and anxiety. He had just moved to the United States from Ghana to attend boarding school, and he had lost seven loved ones in a single month. Imagine the emotions you might feel in a similar situation. As he struggled, he says, “I felt a profound sense of shame. I felt the weight of stigma.” He comments that others would say, “People have real problems, Sangu. Get over yourself!” Delle says that too often people with mental health issues “Suffer in solitude, silenced by stigma.”

Sexual Abuse and Mental Health
Many sexual abuse survivors face long-term battles with depression and anxiety, and they often don’t get the help they need because they feel ashamed. They feel like they can’t go to others for support. If you’ve experienced these feelings, you’re not alone. According to the Huffington Post, “Nearly one in five American adults will experience a mental health disorder in a given year. Yet only 25 percent of people with a psychological condition feel that others are understanding or compassionate about their illness.”

Make Mental Health a Priority
As you work to heal, make your mental health a priority. Too often we don’t give our minds and emotions the attention that they deserve. Psychologist Guy Winch points out that if there is something wrong with our physical bodies, we’re quick to get help, but we don’t do the same thing for our minds. Winch says that the response to mental health concerns often sounds something like this: “Oh, you’re feeling depressed? Just shake it off; it’s all in your head.” But he comments, “Can you imagine saying that to somebody with a broken leg: ‘Oh, just walk it off; it’s all in your leg.’” Our minds deserve the same compassion and attention that our bodies do.

Experiencing emotional turmoil in your life doesn’t mean you’re weak, flawed, and can’t heal; it means you’re human. Don’t let others make you feel like there’s something wrong with you. Be generous in the way you think about yourself, and be as concerned about your emotional well-being as you would be about your physical health.

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