Trauma and Childhood Sexual Abuse

By Sexual Assault Psychologist, Stephanie Blake (for Confined)

Sexual abuse in childhood is quite possibly the most significant betrayal that a person may ever experience in their lives. In the vast majority of cases the offender is someone very close to the child, a person who has responsibility to love, care for and protect the child. This betrayal of trust is so profound and damaging that dealing with this can be a life long struggle.

About one in five girls and one in ten boys will experience sexual abuse in some form before they are 18 with the peak age of vulnerability being between the ages of 7 to 13. These are horrifying statistics.

Sexual abuse as a child has immediate and long-term consequences that can have a devastating impact. This type of trauma is overwhelming and causes severe ongoing stress that negatively impacts psychological, physical, emotional, neurobiological development. The more severe and prolonged the abuse trauma, the more negative and far reaching the effects.

Humans, like animals, have built in responses to danger: the flight or fight response. Massive neurobiological and physiological changes occur in every organ of the body and every basic function of the body during these reactions to threat. Powerful neurochemicals flood the brain and body, heart rate increases, immune system is activated, attention is focused on the potential threat, and capacity for reasoning, attention and judgment is impaired by the rising fear and anxiety. As fear continues to rise the capacity of speech is lost, as the level of arousal increases dissociation can be triggered as an adaptive response to the hyperarousal. Once dissociation occurs the heart rate lowers and the anxiety and pain recede. Dissociation is mental flight when physical escape is not possible, dissociation splits what is normally associated, this can be thoughts, memories, time.

When people are repeatedly exposed to danger their bodies become highly sensitive, so that even minor reminders of traumatic events, such as a smell, a touch, a look, an emotion, a thought, can trigger the fight/flight response over and over again. This is an unbearably painful physical and emotion state and is basis of post traumatic stress disorder.

What is life like for someone who has suffered childhood sexual abuse?

The world is unpredictable and unsafe, they can be triggered into a hyperaroused state without knowing what has triggered them. They can have intrusive memories and thoughts of the abuse and use alcohol, drugs, self harm to block out the pain. Some people block out the pain by not being present… by dissociating. Depression can be a result of struggling to deal with these problems on an ongoing basis. Sometimes the pain is so overwhelming and they feel so helpless that suicide seems the only answer.

When a child is hurt by someone who should love them, trust feels impossible and life can seem meaningless and without hope. The shame and feelings of worthlessness are so entrenched that the person can feel an unremittingly deep self-hatred.

The survivor of childhood sexual abuse is also exactly that… a survivor. People who have survived such adversity often have great tenacity and ability to deal with difficulty. People who have lived through hard times have understanding and compassion for others in difficulty. People find many ways to cope with traumatic pasts; in some ways it is part of being human.

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