When Dr. Jim Hopper, Ph.D. associate teacher at Harvard Medical School and recognized expert on psychological trauma speaks of differential encoding during traumatic experiences, he confirms –like countless other experts in the field of trauma– what Dr. Christine Blasey Ford courageously attested in her testimony. The aspects of the alleged [at the day of this writing] sexual assault which were the most scary to Dr. Blasey Ford were: her inability to yell for help; being unable to escape because the young Brett Kavanaugh was on top of her pining her down; her intense struggle to breathe and fearing Brett Kavanaugh would accidentally asphyxiate her, and “the uproarious laughter they (Brett Kavanaugh and Mark Judge) were sharing while having fun at my expense”. All of these traumatic moments point towards the fight and flight response of the sympathetic branch of the ANS (Autonomic Nervous System), not being able to help her escape this life threatening situation she was trapped in. When Dr. Blasey Ford states, “These memories are seared in my brain”, her description is consistent with the experiences of countless victims of sexual assault, no matter the culture, the gender and the time in history.
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When our lives are in extreme danger of assault and death, this is how these experiences are remembered. While victims of traumatic experiences often wish they could remember all of that happened prior, during and after their assault, most only remember fragmented moments and have big memory gaps. Again, consistent with Dr. Blasey Ford most assault victims often can’t recall the linear sequencing of these events. In moments of life and death biology doesn’t care about clock time. In fact, in such moments only fragments of what takes place will be remembered. That is, if the whole survival brain doesn’t shut down altogether.
Those who blatantly dismiss the narrative of victims of sexual assault –as well as victims of other traumatic experiences– because their narratives are not coherent and their recollection fragmented are totally oblivious to the harsh reality of what it means to have been traumatized, and to suffer from PTSD. Day to day and normal experiences are definitely not recorded, stored and retrieved in the same way as are traumatic experiences. To expect, let alone demand that victims of trauma be able to recollect their experiences in a coherent and sequential manner in order to give them credence is inhumane, cruel and shaming. Such attitude towards victims of abuse and trauma is in total contradiction with what modern science knows about trauma and the brain. Our responses to traumatic experiences are led by our subcortical brains. These are the brain structures that were active way before we, humans, showed up on earth.
As a trauma therapist one of the things that struck me most in Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony is when she said, “I was too afraid and ashamed to tell my parents. I convinced myself that because Brett did not rape me I should just move on just pretend that it did not happened…” I have heard this statement from about every single victim of sexual assault, rape and incest I have worked with, both women and men. In one way or another, most victims of trauma want to believe that if they force themselves to never think of the traumatic event(s) again they will go away. The sad truth is that time doesn’t heal all wounds, and definitely traumatic wounds. In fact, trauma is by definition an overwhelming experience which is frozen in a time capsule susceptible to be re-awakened by countless conscious or unconscious triggers; all out of control from our thinking brain Very few people can heal from trauma on their own. If total healing is to be achieved, one must move out of shame and denial and ask for help. The right kind of help which will honor the horrific experience he/she went through while having the skills to help them move through and out of it.
Trauma therapy allows for the lessening of the emotional charge these memories have on us. When processing traumatic experiences, it behooves trauma therapists to totally attune to each person and to constantly monitor the arousal state of the nervous system. If the nervous system gets flooded or, on the opposite shuts down, the emotional charge will not be released. However, if a victim of trauma can reprocess the experience in a safe here and now, coupled with bilateral stimulation and the refined attunement of his/her therapist, overtime deep lasting and complete healing can be reached. Modalities like The Trauma Resiliency Model, EMDR and Brainspotting are among the most powerful modalities to help trauma victims. Trauma informed therapeutic approaches help the hippocampus re-assess these overwhelming and life threatening experiences in such a way that allows for these memories to be stored differently; without the intense emotional and survival charge they once carried. The traumatic memories that were once overwhelming become black and white videos/pictures of a time and space truly in one’s past.
Of all that I’ve shared here, one thing is for certain, victims of trauma who are willing to share their story and heal from the atrocious pain they endured are among the most courageous people I know! Thank you, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford to share yours!
C. Nathan Bergeron, LMFT, L.Ac. ©