Rape, Trauma, and the Rewiring of the Brain

I was raped twenty years ago. It was date rape. I didn’t even consider it rape until someone pointed it out to me: The doctor who saw me for the STD I contracted. It made sense. I hadn’t wanted sex. Somehow it happened. To this day I am not exactly sure how. I had pretty much forgotten about the rape until just recently. I got the assignment to read an article about rape on campus (here’s a rebuttle to that article). Slowly, everything came back. I was starting to have flashbacks again. It’s like a movie that plays in my head without my control. It just plays whenever it wants to. I used to call myself a survivor. That helped with healing to a point but I didn’t want to define myself that way, so eventually I moved on. Other things happened in my life and the rape faded into the background. Obviously, it never went away. The hurt, the pain, the doubts are trickling back in. I don’t think I suppressed the memory – it’s just not something you can dwell on, plus it’s just damn painful to talk about in detail. Healing from the experience of rape requires us to move on, to not solely define ourselves as rape victims. As survivors. Yet that is who we are. It will always be a part of our history. The movie is encoded in our brains and plays when triggered.

Now that I am beginning to read more about the evolutionary process – more in terms of memes than genes because I find that more fascinating – I am wondering what a traumatic experience like this does to us. There’s more than movie encoded in my brain. The movie is just the obvious part. There is also a very, very deep hurt that never quite goes away. And there is always a part that doesn’t quite feel okay anymore. What pathways are forged in the brains of a person who experienced such trauma and how can we heal those pathways because they are obviously much deeper than I, at least, realized? I can only suspect how this experience affected the rest of my life. I don’t even know if it did. I do know that I have had my share of unhealthy and abusive relationships. Did I end up in those because of some wiring left behind by the rape experience? Or is that giving the rape too much power? Maybe it wasn’t such a formative and destructive event.

There is evidence, though, that does suggest that traumatic events that trigger Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, including rape, change the brain, thus are quite formative. The amygdala, a part of our brain, is involved in the processing of our fear response (among other emotions). During trauma, this fear response sensitizes the amygdala, which then apparently reacts more quickly and strongly to fear-inducing stimuli. The hippocampus, the part of our brain involved in memory, is also affected. Studies have found changes in the hippocampus of patients with PTSD. Our body releases natural opiates when we’re faced with danger. These opiate levels remain high in people with PTSD, possibly leading to the blunting of emotions we experience. Neurotransmitters that activate the hippocampus – our memory – are at higher levels than normal, which might explain why the movie of the trauma is so well preserved.

All this is comforting to me, as well as fascinating. There is a reason why this experience keeps popping up, despite all the work I’ve done around it, and why each rerun of the movie leaves me scatter brained and close to tears. It’s wired in my brain. The reaction is completely normal. And that is what every rape survivor wants to know: we are normal, we are okay. It happened to us and we survived. However, knowing about the effects of the experience on our brains can help us accept the after-effects of our trauma. That, too, is normal and there is a biological explanation for it. Though, to me, the question that remains now seems to stay largely unanswered: How do I undo that rewiring? I am not sure if there is a way to do that. After all the nature of trauma is that it is traumatic, i.e., different than our normal experience (though for some, such as survivors of childhood abuse, unfortunately, the trauma became the “normal”). There are, of course, treatments that help us cope but I don’t think those treatments re-wire our brain again. They help us learn to live with our “new” brain; they help us cope and move on, yet our brain remains rewired. My flashbacks are a vivid reminder of that.

There is also an interesting comment, which almost seems like an aside, in the Psychology Today article on PTSD: “Thus, the fear induced by re-exposure to traumatic material indicates a failure of inhibition on the part of the hippocampus, and is evidence that the traumatic episode is not integrated as a narrative, spatio-temporal event in autobiographical memory.” As Timothy Wilson would put it – based on Strangers to Ourselves: We haven’t found a good self-story yet. Maybe knowing that our brain got re-wired can help us integrate the trauma into our self-story.

What about the effect of the rape on the rest of my life? Of course, this is speculation at this point but it sounds like the scientific evidence points to a heightened fear response. We become afraid faster and more strongly. Maybe that is why I was attracted to men who seemed strong and able to protect me. Unfortunately, they were neither.

I am hesitant to post this to my blog. It’s a much more personal note than anything that I’ve posted so far. But this is part of who I am, part of my history. And I found the neuropsychological findings on PTSD very helpful for making sense of that past, writing a little more of my self-story. Learning this, contributed another piece to my healing from the rape. I want to share that with other survivors of trauma in the hopes that it might be helpful to them. Still, it feels like a big step to hit “publish.”

Share this post with others:
Facebook Twitter Linkedin Email


Rape, Trauma, and the Rewiring of the Brain — 23 Comments

  1. As posted by Jill
    “Its hard to write because I always feel some kind of shame that I’m not better. I can’t talk because my mouth is empty, full of a big black bag of silence. Vowels slur; consonants tear like barbed wire”

    This is why the posting helps. I never realized that anyone else had the same exact issue. I still can’t even go into my experience. I found this using rape/trauma/brain.

    Even though I can’t tell my story yet, thank you for posting yours, it helps to know I’m not alone.

    Tears are falling as I type this, I feel like I’m the only one at the funeral for my old self.

  2. Pingback: How History Shapes Us | Rachel's Musings

  3. Thank you for this article. For years, I’ve been trying to heal from rapes that happened nearly 20 years ago. Now I understand that no matter how much I progress and heal and love myself, I’ll still have that in my wiring to some degree…knowing this takes away the power of past, no matter what. Thank you!

  4. No types of abuse are good therefore one should not let what others have done control life. There are good people in the would just as there are bad ones. Ones that are respectful and gain a need through proper conduct and others who have trouble executing a need properly. The best way to move on from the situation is to lead by example through ones own actions. Not one life or soul is untarnished. Every individual goes through experiences. Both men and women go through struggles in which he or she may feel degraded by another person or not feel strong enough in a situation. The goal after the event is to realize that empowerment heals and progresses one forward passed an event or event(s). When refelecting the past it feels good in the brain to know “its not your fault.” One can take negative energy and turn ones life around. In the end a person has the power to be a better person and has room to grow intrinsically. The one that stands up and moves forward gains more in life in comparison to the person who has trouble executing their needs. “Be the change you want to see in the world” (Ghandi).

  5. I know that I’m supposed to look for the silver lining on every cloud, but I can’t seem to find a silver lining on this one. It just seems that a purely evil attack damaged me and it’s been so much work to keep my head above water ever since. One of the things that is difficult – the intrusive thoughts. Another thing is that the person who did this walks around free to do the same to someone else. I did go to the police, to the hospital, got a restraining order, but in the end it was ‘he said, she said.’ He had the gall to claim that it was consensual. WHAT A LIE. When he was attacking me, I told him, please stop, you are raping me, please don’t do this, please just stop now and let me go. I tried to reason with him. Well, he was much bigger and strong and he had a gun. He manhandled my dog and I was just terrified of him hurting my dog. It was awful. I have tried forgiving him, because it only makes sense that rape is not the act of a healthy, sane person. The lack of justice I recieved after following the rules, I feel, exascerbated my pain. I was terrifed to come forward, only went to the hospital for medical treatment, was encouraged to report this person, then the support disappeared. I beleive that has something to do with what his job was at the time and with the connections he had. They didn’t want to be embarrassed. My assault was too messy and swept under a rug. Well, I’m still living with that rug. If I knew how to get it out of my house, I would. Any advice greatly appreciated.

    • There is no silver lining to your experience. That is a lie perpetuated by those who benefit from keeping the system as it is. Sorry, reading your story just makes me mad: It sounds like he got away with raping you because he knew the right things to say and had the right standing in “the community.” Yuck! That is such an example of why rape is not an individual attack but rather how patriarchy is enforced. A silver lining would have been there had you received the support in getting this guy behind bars!

      Okay, I am not sure if this is helpful but your imagery with the rug gave me a few ideas that might turn this image into something that might help you heal. Play with the image (if it feels right, that is). Can you do other things with the rug? It’s there in your house but you could: take it out into the backyard and hang it over those bars and then hit it with something to get the dust out; if it feels right, you could use it to wrap yourself into it, redefining it as your protective coat; you could roll it up and stand it in the corner; you could sit on it and create a healing ceremony; you could have your dog poop on it; you could dance on it, taking your life back.

      • Rachel, thank you SO MUCH for writing – you are so clear, helpful. I have recovered so much, but still suffer from the daily abuse / torture. My brain needs re-wiring! I feel more at peace when I think “This is part of my story. It happened. I can’t make it NOT have happened. Now there are many good parts of my story; good things are happening in my life.”
        Thank you for renewing my hope. Geoff.

  6. I can totally relate to your sharing that it’s like a movie playing and you can’t stop it. It’s invasive. It’s scary. It’s living with fear every day and every night. I can tell myself that ‘this is a panic attack, it will pass, you are not in danger at this moment.’ I do that, I do try. Sometimes things just seem to get the better of me and maybe I’m just not as strong as I need to be. I’m feeling very tired now. Tired of trying. Tired of living with this. What did I learn from the experience? Never trust a man, ever. Always be careful. Keep to yourself. It killed my spirit. I used to love my life. I loved being a trusting person and a trusting person is what I wanted to be.

    • Gurl, I am not quite sure what to write back since you are in a lot of pain and I doubt that a blog is a good forum for support. The only thing I can think of is that it does get easier with time. Five years might seem like a long time but it really isn’t (think of how long it takes for a physical injury to heal!). No, there was no reason for this to happen to you. But, unfortunately, it did happen. It is horrible that it did! And unlike a cancer, you can’t cut it out, you can’t put these thoughts in a box and hide the box somewhere. The best you can do is accept – accept that these thoughts intrude on you and that sometimes, no matter what you do, they overwhelm you. That doesn’t mean that you are weak. That doesn’t mean you are doing something wrong. You have been deeply, deeply wounded. But even if it doesn’t feel like this now, it will get better! You will heal, in part because you are willing to experience the emotions rather than stuff them away. And, also, remember: You are not alone!

  7. Pingback: Rachel's Musings » Dragons

  8. Jill: The only hesitation I had about posting your comment was wondering if you really wanted that comment available to the whole world. It didn’t cross my mind that it might contain too much horror to post. This happened to you. I see no reason to hide that fact, as horrible as it is. I also thought that your comment contained a beautiful ending – a ray of hope that we can, at least to some degree, overcome the pain that has been inflicted on us. I also think that our speaking out can have a powerful healing effect on us, especially when we realize that we’re not alone.

    Yes, we really only have control over ourselves, our own thoughts, and our own behavior (and sometimes even that to a lesser degree than we think…). It’s so important to keep this in mind because we, as humans, have the tendency to take on responsibility for other people’s actions (or maybe that’s a woman thing…). Putting the responsibility back to where it belongs is an important step, as is taking responsibility for what we can control, as you suggest.

    I love the idea of SuperWoman! As a teen, I took a self-defense class for women taught by a woman who also wasn’t very tall. But she could take on any guy, especially since she had another tool at her disposal: surprise… Timothy Wilson suggests that our ego, who we are, is essentially created by ourselves, by the stories we tell ourselves. We can, he suggests, change who we are by imagining a new self and then practicing being that new self until it becomes us. So, your SuperWoman fantasies might be even more powerful than you realize, especially when you slowly adapt some of her behavior.

  9. Thank you Rachel for your wonderfully supportive and insightful comments. You know, I was afraid to come back here and check, thought I should just start writing a letter of apology for my – my – experience, my existence here in this life and infecting you and others with it. Then I got your wonderful comment via email. Thank you.

    Yes Rachel, I undoubtedly direct that rage at myself. I know that I do, you’re right. But I forgive myself and understand myself. In my experience of this whole thing that has been the only way that I can regain control. And control is essential to the healing of the self.

    They can do this; they can do that; they can do, might do the unexpected other. But I know what I can do. I can direct what I do, how I respond, with insight and mindfulness. The only thing I can have control over is myself.

    Sometimes its really hard, its so hard to take it on. But If I don’t then what is the alternative? Their agenda dictates my life. I will take responsibility because its all I have the power to control or change. I will embrace my rage. Mine to make art with or to help out little cutie boys in the rain on the street. My power; not theirs.

    Not to make lightly of your insight. I often hate and castigate myself for the consequences of their actions, which were emphatically not mine, or my responsibility. But only I have the power over myself to change, to transform, to emerge from this in my own image. I’m not giving them that power. Its mine.

    Thank you for not erasing me from your site, it was my biggest fear. That I was too ugly. Your response told me I might be a mess, but I’m okay. Thank you for that. Truthfully? I thought you’d erase the message and I’d be banned from speaking my truth somehow. Every day with terrible risk I try to assert myself and my truth back into the world. You have been a bright and shining gem in that process.

    Sometimes I have these really great fantasies about being a SuperWoman of some kind. Educated in classics and creative lit, I imagine myself a one-breasted, cross-bow bearing Amazonian woman (at five foot-two – shhhh!). I avenge not only myself but other women, so bloody very many who have been through so much more than have I. I adore these fantasies. They scare the crap outta any men to whom I reveal them… :) They give me power when I’m scared to sleep. And I have a new tool: the Rachel Stone.

    Peace to you my sister,

  10. Hi, Jill,

    What a horrifying experience you had with the gang rape! Horrible! It’s beyond me how people can do stuff like that even on drugs… I hope those dog taunting boys don’t grow up to be these kinds of men… I applaud you for having the mindfulness to walk away from them. Even though their behavior triggered your deep rage, there was something in you that reached out and stopped you from acting out that rage (although I wonder if you ended up directing at yourself instead?).

    Thank you for sharing your story! I wish you more moments of grace and internal peace!


  11. Hi Rachel:

    Healing/wiring/rewiring and all of that brought me to your site tonight. I was raped at gunpoint by several men, one “ringleader”, about two years ago. I have been diagnosed with ptsd. I struggle to change the course of that rewiring, sometimes on a daily basis.

    I think it does change the way we process, our cognitive processes. In fact I feel very little doubt about that. No evidence; no peer review; no academic standard. Just my life. A life beginning to get better.

    But I’m fucked up again. What else is new?

    Its hard to write because I always feel some kind of shame that I’m not better. I can’t talk because my mouth is empty, full of a big black bag of silence. Vowels slur; consonants tear like barbed wire. There was an incident Monday, an unusual trigger to my experience of rape. I haven’t quite processed/recovered from it.

    When I had my dog Emma out in the backyard beside the garden and its high brick wall there were two little boys (about 12-14 y.o.) perched on top taunting, barking, throwing things at Emma to get her going. She has old people fears from an abusive puppyhood and did start to become highly aroused and agitated by it. Normally, I would be so underwhelmed by such an occurrence, that would have been the end of it but I felt rage inside and went right over to them asking if they were crazy or just assholes. Of course this upped the ante and resulted in an escalation of their behaviour, now tearing branches from trees and whipping them at Emma and I. ***My rage was barely contained; this wasn’t rage for only their actions, they were just the proverbial straw. Oh fuck I would have killed them if I could have reached high enough to grab a leg.*** The little bastards were lucky I’m so goddamn short because I have no doubt that they would have been torn apart. They were shocked by my response, guess they’d figured on fear from me. This prompted one to lean quickly over and spit in my face. I knew I had to walk away. And so I did.

    Tonight I was walking along St. Clair wondering at the rage coursing like venom through my veins, eating away at my heart. What to do with it? I thought about incorporating it into the sculpture I’m working on, but I don’t really want it there. The rage of being used as a human toilet by several men, one pissing up my ass, into my body, while a camera rolled and the others sat idly by watching, snorting coke up their noses, sucking meth into their lungs, and diddling their dicks waiting for the next time the mood struck them *does not* belong in an unprecedented hurricane from hell on two silly little boys. My mind was spinning wondering what to do with it?

    So all I could do was buy my sweet potatoes. Then on the walk home something interesting happened. Somebody walking behind me, barely, partly within my peripheral vision. A little boy. A little black boy about their age, dressed just about like them. No fear, only rage and horror at my own poison. I heard something hit the sidewalk and turned to him. He had an umbrella, three big bags of chips, falling down pants and not enough hands… I asked him if he needed help and bent down to pick up the chips for him, then decided I needed to kneel and bent as low as I could go before him. I looked up and handed him his dropped bits in a gesture of utter subservience. Subservience to the innocent, to the truth. A big warm smile of thanks came over his face and in that one ephemeral moment rage was transformed into a state of grace.

    Off to find more moments.

    Thanks for allowing me the space to share with you.


  12. Thanks for your input, Angela! Yes, you are right: the rape was a formative and destructive event – that became clear to me after I wrote the rest of the post (so, I’ll edit it a bit to make that clear!).

    I also found, like you, that blog-posting is another little step to healing. There is also evidence for that: when we write self-stories, we work it through, sort things out, and make sense of our experience. If we write for an audience, we probably have to do even more of that since we want to ensure that our points come across clearly.

  13. Rachel,

    I’ve done a lot of reading about traumatic experiences and how they re-wire the brain also. When I read: “Maybe it wasn’t such a formative and destructive event.” I thought, how could it not be? I don’t know if there’s a way to fully heal from a trauma like that. I’ve heard about drugs they’re trying out that will erase the memories or something – which sounds kind of dangerous to me.

    I have found that posting painful experiences on my blog is a healing tool. I could journal forever and not get the same relief I’ve found for putting it out there for others to see, and hopefully learn from, or take comfort that they’re not the only ones. My blog has unwittingly become a place where I work things out in my own head and it really does help me move on in the moment. I hope this post will provide you the same sense of relief. I’m so sorry that happened to you.

  14. Thank you, Kate, for your kind words! I do think that what I’ve experienced is an important part of who I am. I certainly wouldn’t dig into a lot of the issues that I am digging in now had it not been for these experiences. Like, you, I’d preferred to learn all this without the abuse but it was part of my path, so I might as well accept it and grow from it.

  15. Thanks.
    For writing it; for surviving it; and for posting it in spite of your hesitation -that’s bravery, as far as I’m concerned.

    I found this article very helpful, too. I’m sure I won’t go tracking down your sources. It is enough for me to hear what you shared here.

    Here’s what I’ve learned over my 60 years: All the stuff of my history – the good and the bad – contributed to make this person who I am now. All of it. I’ve turned out pretty well, over all. Some lessons are harder than others. Would I have skipped the abuse if I could? You betcha!!
    Do I regret the path that brought me to this present consciousness? Not at all.

    So who have you become? I know only what I read here. So far, I see intelligence, reflection, courage, conviction…who knows what you’ll show me in the posts to come. Based just on this, I think you’re doing pretty well, too. I hope it feels that way to you. If it doesn’t, then remember that you’re the one who can make it so.

    Thanks, again.

    • Thank you for posting your research. Everything you shared rings true to me and it helps to feel that you are not alone in feeling such things after such an experience. Rape is a trauma we have no reference point for, we have no way of assimilating this assualt on our being. For me, it changed my life dramatically. I went from being a fairly successful and competent person to being less than what I was. I misspell words, I forget things, I can’t keep up with the normal tasks of paying bills on time or completing assignments. I lived in an intense state of fear for the first 4 years after, and am now beginning to move forward, but it’s moving forward, it’s not getting well. That person stole so much from me, so much he has no idea how much he stole from my life, myself, my family and friends, my career. I still have the hyper-response symptom and I’m working to reduce the anxiety medication that was prescribed, but it’s just not an easy thing to do and there is no way for others around you to understand how hard you are trying to function because they cannot ‘see’ the ‘injury.’ People just find you wierd at times…Thanks again for sharing.

    • After 5 years now, I’m still not anywhere near what I want to be, as a person. I don’t feel whole. I go through periods of time when I’m relatively highly-functioning, but something will come up and send me backwards and it makes me feel like not trying anymore. One step forward, two steps back. I don’t want to be someone who depresses or discourages others who are getting benefit from your website, I’m just being honest and I guess I’m just desperate to get well. I want to recover. I want to turn back time so that I could take different steps so that this bad thing would not have ever happened. I’ve stayed home from work today because my dreams all weekend were awful and my body is aching and I’m depressed and scared. There was a gunman in our neighborhood last week and during the time I was like, “oh, I’m fine, no worries, big deal.” The fear was buried deep, after much practice, but over the following days it continued to bubble up. I hate that. Now I’m in a full swing panic attack mode, scared to leave my house, and I know that’s irrational. I think it would be helpful to hear if others have felt this way also, and moved forward successfully. Thanks..

      • Gurl: I am so sorry this is happening to you! My heart goes out to you! It sounds like the knowledge of the guman in your neighborhood triggered flashbacks.

        For years after my rape, I would get flashbacks just from seeing the type of car my rapist drove! Fortunately, it seems to be off the market now… One of the things that I have started doing, inspired by the research summarized above and meditation training: When I have flashbacks, which I still do occasionally even after 20 years, I just take a deep breath and let them go. They are just thoughts and letting them go helps me heal because I stop the rewiring. Now, I have done a lot of work to get to this point – from therapy (mostly cognitive-behavioral) to things like imagining (something calls Phoenix Rising Yoga). Unfortunately, our experience will stay with us. It’s just like a scar from an injury: The injury heals but the scar is still visible.

        • OMG, thank you for sharing.. I have also had the problem of being sent into panic attack just by seeing the same car he drove. It helps to know that I’m not the only one.

          You are so right..the scar is there…but I don’t want it to be visible. I don’t want to a damaged person. I want to recover. I want to be stronger.

          • Yupp, been there, felt that, too. One of the most healing things for me was when I shared my story and others nodded knowingly. It is sad but it is also helpful to know how many others there are who have been through what we are going through.

            At some point, I switched from feeling like a victim to feeling strong again. I don’t know exactly how the switch happened but it was probably 10 years after my rape and after I left my husband who had emotionally and sexually abused me. It was so freeing! It is hard to find a balance between realizing that you have been deeply victimized and taking your power back by not feeling “like a victim.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>