Recovering from Sexual Abuse and Trauma – February 2013
My parents, children of the depression, were heroic in their attempts to stop the cycles of violence that they experienced as small children, and to give us a different childhood than the ones that they endured. We had financial stability; we knew we were loved; there was no abandonment, domestic abuse or physical punishment in our home; my mother and father were careful with how they spoke to us, able to avoid any verbal abuse that they could identify; and they chose in each other partners who were more present, kinder and easier with one another than they had seen in their parents’ relationships.
And in committing to stopping cycles of trauma, in a world without support, our second half of the 20th century, skid marks were left on their souls as they slowed this juggernaut of violence. And whatever our path to making things better, our remaining wounds can leave us either blind to whatever is still unbearable for us, or helpless and unable to take action when confronted with it. In my parents’ case, although each of them took care within the home to protect their children from their own patterns, they were unable to imagine sexual abuse coming from outside the home. In the places where we are blind, we are unable to take steps for prevention, unable to see what is happening while it is going on, and unable to comprehend and mitigate its consequences after it has happened.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, sexual abuse has effects that are different from physical and verbal abuse, and its brain effects differ depending on how old we were when we experienced the abuse. Visible signs of sexual abuse in the brain include: reduced corpus callosum volume (the tissue that integrates and controls the input from each hemisphere); decreased volume of the hippocampus (the organ that is in charge of factual learning and autobiographical memory); and changes in the structure of the cerebellum (in the area that supports an integrated sense of self in body); as well as changes in the visual cortex, particularly in the areas that play an important role in recognition of familiar faces and dreaming. (all references from Lanius’s book The Impact of Early Life Trauma on Health and Disease: the Hidden Epidemic, 2010).
So, as we contemplate the serious, incontrovertible truth that sexual abuse is harmful in particular ways, the questions “can we heal?” and “can we change the structure of the brain when we are adults?” become acute. The answer to both questions is YES. We can heal. We can change our brains. And there are many paths to healing. As those of you who read this newsletter know, one of my favorite approaches to changing the brain is resonant empathy, rooted in body sensation to let us know whether or not the empathy is landing. I am passionate about bringing this strand to our healing work, in part because for people who have experienced abuse of any kind, the very effective approach of mindfulness meditation, with all its positive benefits, can be a closed door. When we start to open the door of self-connection, all the self-loathing, shame, pain and traumatic memories crowd at its crack, clamoring to be heard. So it is important to have approaches to healing that include tremendous amounts of interpersonal support, and resonant empathy is one such pathway, one that is not dependent on paid professionals, but is rather a pathway that can be used between peers in mutually supportive listening partnerships to heal and change the brain.