Sexual assault is much more than the stereotypical scenarios depicted in movies or on TV. Rape doesn’t always occur in a dark, cold alley; it can happen in bedrooms, at a party or in a deserted conference room in an office building. Rape isn’t about what the victim was wearing at the time or how they were behaving; sexual assault is always about power and control. And rape isn’t just committed by complete strangers; in many cases, the victim knows their attacker.

Rape, or any sexual assault, is raw. It’s painful, menacing and heartbreaking. Your attacker took away your sense of safety, your self-worth and your ability to create and maintain healthy relationships. This is all due to the way the trauma you experienced changed your brain.

But this doesn’t have to be your story. You’re strong enough to heal and not let the trauma define you.

How Does the Brain Change from Sexual Trauma?

During the traumatic experience, your sympathetic nervous system releases stress hormones throughout your brain, preparing to fight, flee or freeze. During sexual assault, your mind and body are in survival mode, trying to get through the event and process later.

But it’s the “after” part where your brain undergoes biological changes similar to that of a combat fighter or first responder struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These changes start with the continued activation of the sympathetic nervous system.

In less extreme circumstances after a stressful or threatening situation, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over to reduce stress hormones and bring your brain back into equilibrium. In cases of traumatic sexual abuse, though, the sympathetic nervous system continues to release stress hormones, fatiguing the body and mind.

The brain also undergoes changes in two key parts of the brain: the amygdala and the hippocampus:

  • The Amygdala – After trauma from sexual abuse, the amygdala, an almond-shaped mass deep within the brain, becomes overstimulated. It associates your traumatic experience with specific emotions and falsely identifies seemingly harmless situations or individuals as threats.
  • The Hippocampus – Opposite from the amygdala, the hippocampus actually becomes less active after a traumatic experience. Stress hormones from the sympathetic nervous system kill cells in the hippocampus, weakening its ability to consolidate memories and recognize that the traumatic experience occurred in the past and is no longer a threat.

There is also research that suggests that sexual trauma can impact the brain’s ability to recognize and feel sensations. In a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, researchers found that sexual abuse changes the brain’s somatosensory cortex, the area of the brain responsible for creating sensations and perceptions from input from the body.

This can lead to decreased sexual sensation and desire and even chronic pain in the areas of the body that were involved with the abuse.

What are the Effects of Brain Changes Caused by Sexual Abuse?

If you’ve suffered from sexual abuse, have you feared leaving home, experienced flashbacks or struggled with uncontrollable mood swings? These are all symptoms from the neurobiological changes that occur from sexual trauma.

Victims of sexual assault oftentimes experience the following:

  • PTSD: PTSD can occur after any traumatic experience, including sexual abuse. Symptoms oftentimes include flashbacks, nightmares and aversion to places or people that serve as reminders of the trauma. People suffering from PTSD also tend to experience panic attacks and distress when they hear, see or smell something that triggers memories of the events.
  • Depression: Sexual trauma can trigger persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness. Victims who are struggling with depression may experience additional symptoms like weight loss or gain, agitation, increased crying and a loss of interest in things they once enjoyed.
  • Anxiety: Due to the above changes in the brain, victims of sexual abuse are constantly fearful and worried. They struggle to go out into public places, fearing their attacker will find them or that they’ll be in danger. This anxiety can lead to panic attacks and serious anxiety disorders.
  • Feelings of Shame and Guilt: It’s common for sexual assault victims to replay their abuse in their minds, over and over again. They wonder what they could have done differently to stop the abuse from happening, or they blame themselves, convinced that something they wore, said or did made them deserve what happened to them.

Unfortunately, victims of sexual abuse have been known to turn to alcohol or drug abuse to try to cope with these symptoms. At first, drinking or getting high is viewed as a quick solution to relieving the fear, anxiety and flashbacks they’re struggling with. But before long, substance abuse only worsens trauma symptoms and leads to a dual diagnosis disorder.

If you’re currently trying to cope with sexual abuse by drinking or using drugs, the best way to heal from both issues is to seek addiction and mental health treatment from a reliable provider.

Find Healing and Peace at Fountain Hills Recovery

You never should have had to go through the trauma you experienced. But now that you have, use your sexual abuse and substance addiction to make you stronger, not weaker. At Fountain Hills Recovery, we can help.

As Arizona’s premier addiction and mental health treatment center, we understand the pain, isolation and heartbreak you’re going through. We offer a highly compassionate and experienced team who can support you during this time and face your trauma head-on with you. Our continuum of care ensures you’ll have plenty of time to heal and the right balance of evidence-based and experiential therapies to help you find lasting recovery.

Your sexual abuse doesn’t have to define the rest of your life. Contact our expert staff today to learn more about our treatment programs and to find out how to get started.