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How trauma silences you

Trauma, especially sexual trauma, can leave victims "without words" to express their pain because of changes in the brain effected by such violations. Art therapy and other approaches that access non-verbal memories can help victims process and move past the pain, shame and isolation of sexual trauma.

By Marianne Lagutaine, MA AthR


In my past clinical work on a psychiatric unit, I used to come across young women for whom cumulative trauma significantly contributed to their challenges in relationships and in life in general. These were young women who were not safe on streets, playgrounds or other places where male friends would not take ‘no’ for an answer.

They struggled to find a forum where they could speak out about their experiences of sexual assault. Instead they felt ashamed, as though they “asked for it,” and remained silent.

There have been close to a million postings to date of #metoo on social media. For every woman that is empowered to type #metoo, there are likely many others who remain silent, the exact reasons we cannot know, but shame is often the shadow side that isolates victims of sexual abuse.

It seems the question is no longer whether sexual assault has reached epidemic proportions, but how we can start the process of healing from the trauma it leaves in its wake.

Trauma changes the brain

Research in neuroscience suggests that trauma changes the brain. The limbic emotional area and the visual cortex show heightened activation, while Broca’s area, where speech resides, becomes impaired. This explains the experience of having no words to describe the pain and hurt.

Because trauma is stored non-verbally, and when triggered can return in the form flashbacks and images, art therapy can be a powerful intervention. Art making, facilitated and witnessed by an art therapist, helps to restore the creator’s sense of the world, and can be a transformative process. The therapist does not cure the client, but the client’s active and conscious engagement with art and expression allows for the construction of a recovery narrative.

Mindfulness is also a powerful intervention in dealing with hyperarousal. Besel van der Kolk observed that traumatized people are often afraid of feeling. Yet the futile battle to avoid emotions increases the potential of being overwhelmed when they inevitably break through. Through mindful awareness the person is supported in their ability to remain emotionally centered while accessing painful memories, an essential process in the integration of traumatic experience.

Groups foster a sense of safety

Often women who have been sexually abused are considered passive and helpless, and as a result feel alone and vulnerable. The power of #metoo is to remind us that many women out there are realizing that they are not helpless, and can actively choose to speak out. Trauma then becomes less isolating and less shameful, as conversations become more open and recovery more accessible.

Feeling that one is a part of a group fosters a sense of safety. To the same extent that sexual trauma brings with it shame that is isolating, recovery requires a context of safe relationships. It is important to reconnect with others, be it family, the community, a trusted friend, a support group or a therapist.

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted and is working through trauma, find your voice. Reach out.