The Neurobiology and Traumatic Impact of Sexual Assault

The Neurobiology and Traumatic Impact of Sexual Assault
Duration: 60 Minutes
Module 1 Resources
Recorded on: 2019-04-25
Unit 1 Slide Deck: The Neurobiology and Traumatic Impact of Sexual Assault
Unit 2 Workbook: The Neurobiology and Traumatic Impact of Sexual Assault
Unit 3 Recording: The Neurobiology and Traumatic Impact of Sexual Assault

Traversing a sexual violence case is tricky. When sexual assault survivors are asked to recount the unfortunate experience from memory there are doubts when they cannot quite remember things in detail. Sexual assault is known for causing trauma and its impact manifests physically, emotionally and psychologically. The effects of trauma distort and impair an individual’s memory, cognition, decision-making capabilities, and behavior.

Victoria Reichers and Lindsay Ashworth of the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence are this course’s instructors. Victoria is the Sexual Violence Response Coordinator for the Arizona Coalition and provides training and technical assistance to sexual assault responders and helps build response teams. Lindsay is the Sexual Violence Response Manager and she’s been conducting research related to violence against women and produced publications on campus sexual assault, sex trafficking and bystander intervention in sexual assault.

Victoria and Lindsay discuss the science behind trauma from sexual assault. Points they covered in the webinar are:

  • Brain basics to provide a background on neurobiology, the makeup, and parts of the brain.
  • A walk through on what happens inside the brain, the chemical reactions, and the defense cascade when in a stressful event.
  • The two types of temporary paralysis that the human body may experience when subjected to threat and its characteristics.
  • The acquaintance/intimate partner sexual assault dynamics which causes confusion in the brain as both attachment and defense circuitry is activated.
  • The role of the prefrontal cortex in rational thinking that is impaired as sexual assault trauma releases specific hormones that fog decision making.
  • How trauma negatively impacts memory encoding and consolidation in the hippocampus causing fragmented memories, sensations and emotions without context, and inability to track things chronologically.
  • The traumatic impact of sexual assault that can manifest.
    • Emotional and psychological effects as shame, depression, anger or denial, among others.
    • Physical impact that may be immediate as injury from the assault itself or a result of the psychological effects as gastrointestinal issues, body pains, and headaches.
    • Social effects as withdrawal and isolation and academic/professional/financial struggles due to difficulty concentrating.
  • Drug and alcohol-facilitated assault effects of self-blame or self-doubt due to the circumstances of the incident.
  • The different ways survivors navigate their healing process.
  • The importance of a trauma-informed criminal justice system that understands the effects of trauma, does not subject survivors into re-traumatization and is able to serve justice to sexual assault cases.
  • The challenges responders and advocates may face dealing with survivors and how to best approach it.
  • Concerns and inquiries raised by the audience during the Q&A are about:
    • Prosecutors sharing information about tonic and collapsed immobility in sexual assault cases.
    • How the opiate hormone being released during trauma may influence an individual’s opioid use.
    • Cases that do not get prosecuted due to lack of information on trauma.
    • Supporting sexual assault survivors.
    • Secondary or vicarious trauma on victims’ loved ones.
    • Symptoms of traumatic brain injury and sexual trauma.
    • How a survivors’ traits and habits can influence how they remember the details of the incident and the perpetrator.
    • How long does it take for survivors to get to full recovery.


The second in this series will be Tues, May 28 Working with Sexual Assault Victims: Strategies for Justice Professionals.



Resources Mentioned/Utilized During Webinar


Audience Comments:

  • “Wow! There are so many issues that the presenters brought into focus for us! We appreciated how the presenters had a breakdown of how the brain works/responds when survivors experience trauma AND the behaviors associated with the functioning of the brain.” –Loretta
  • “The biological aspect was important and something I don’t think is often presented. Thank you.” — Nancy
  • “I thought the presentation style was engaging and the information about tonic and collapsed mobility, including how it was explained, was very helpful.” –Susan
  • “The speakers were very clear and concise in explaining the neuroscience and the effects of trauma on the brain. After numerous other experiences in trying to tackle this subject, I think I finally have a solid understanding of it and what trauma-informed treatment really means. Thank you!” –Catherine
  • “Very clear examples of how trauma impacts survivors. Awesome webinar…amazing info and graphics! Thanks so much for the awesome work you all do!” –Lisa
  • “This webinar was absolutely FANTASTIC!! I loved the scientific research on the topic of how and why memories are made in trauma. It makes so much more sense now, and explains some of the frustrating reasons as to why a victim might have difficulty remembering things. I think this would be great for our entire office to see. The hosts explained everything in easy to understand terms and the videos and slides were very helpful. One of the best webinars I’ve seen!” –Christina



Additional Resources
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