Why Child Abuse Victims Don't "Just Get Over It"
By kind permission of Bracha Goetz
It is hard for many at our seder tables to imagine what it must have felt like to experience the abuse perpetrated on the slaves in Egypt. And it is hard for many others at the very same seder tables to imagine what it must feel like to be set free - because they do not remember how freedom tastes. That’s because childhood abuse can have an unfathomable power over people so that they remain enslaved throughout their lives.
Adults who have been abused as children usually find it much harder than others to trust in God. They feel like G-D abandoned them, in addition to all the other adults who didn’t protect them. It’s impossible to understand the big picture of why the agony of abuse ends up in so many people’s lives, just as it is impossible to understand the abuse suffered when we were slaves in Egypt. What is not impossible, though? Helping our family members and friends who are survivors of abuse to not feel abandoned by us as well.
Recent sociological research has corroborated what seems fairly evident: people who are suicidal feel isolated and not understood in their deepest struggles. The trauma of childhood abuse is a common cause of suicidal ideation. It often involves carrying within the deepest kind of struggle, one that has been widely misunderstood.
It isn’t an accident that at the same time that reports of childhood abuse are just beginning to come forth more readily, we are also witnessing the beginning of research coming forth in the area of neuroscience that is of great assistance in comprehending how trauma changes people. Functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain (f-MRI) is demonstrating why traumatic events can leave such a dramatic impact on people’s lives.
We’ve learned that the subcortical (the lower and dorsal) region of our brain has a negative bias. It is the more primitive part of our brain designed to aid in our protection, so it seems that the dangerous experiences we’ve had tend to leave a deeper impression on our brains than the pleasant ones.
The neurons that fire frantically during a traumatic experience cause an actual rewiring of the brain. This means that neuroscientists now have the technology to observe the physiological changes that can take place in the brain as a result of childhood abuse. Through imaging, researchers also recently achieved the ability to detect the effects of triggers on the brain – circumstances which lead the survivor to respond with somatic reactions as if the abuse is still actively continuing.
Trauma survivors are generally finding it extremely valuable to learn about the new insights from psychobiology that are emerging, and it is also vital for those who want to aid survivors in the healing process. Recent knowledge helps to explain why cognitive therapies, while important, are limited in their healing capabilities, as the cerebral cortex (the higher and frontal part of the brain) is only of limited assistance in processing trauma.
Thinking one’s way out of “past” trauma can only get a survivor so far, and this is very useful to understand. Since triggering events cause the same re-wired neural pathways to fire, eliciting the same primal reactions in the survivor’s body, it truly is as if the abuse is still continuing, and not an event from the past. That’s why expecting a survivor of trauma to “just get over it already” actually makes no logical sense, as the survivor can be re-experiencing the trauma frequently.
New information is gained daily from previously unelucidated areas of neuroscience, right along with daily new information from dark closets filled with physical, emotional and sexual childhood abuse. It turns out that the neuroplasticity of our brains causes traumatic experiences to become embedded in our bodies, but this knowledge about the resilient qualities of our brains is, at the same time, shining light on effective methods of healing. Greater awareness of the mind-body interaction helps clinicians, as well as survivors and those who want to support them, uncover clues to an individual’s trauma history as well as his or her specific recovery process.
As the way we view survivors of trauma, and, more importantly, as the way survivors view themselves, changes, the added layer of frustration and blame over what has been seen as a lack of progress in “moving forward” is removed. Psychobiological advances are translating into sensori-motor training, somatic therapy, movement therapy, and a wide variety of mindfulness techniques - utilizing the diverse and specialized capabilities of the “full mind” so the brain-body integration can be optimized.
Understanding where and how memories are processed and stored leads to maximizing the interrelationship between the cortical and subcortical regions of the brain, as well as the right and left hemispheres of the brain, to actually change the way the abuse is stored in the body. Measurably significant differences become manifest as new vertical and lateral connections are forged.
We are living in a time when there is an explosion of disclosures of an as yet untold number of cases of abuse, and there is an explosion of neurobiological knowledge, as well, that can help the survivors seeking relief. In both realms, we are only now getting to see the very tip of what is vastly bigger than we ever realized.
Both types of breakthroughs offer trauma sufferers the chance to finally be released from their abuse and their abusers. Trained professionals are needed to help a survivor safely override the electromagnetic circuitry of the nervous system that has become frayed and torn, if it has led to the extremes of hyper-vigilance or dissociative numbness. It is as if certain fuses became overwhelmed and blew, but now that they can more accurately be identified, survivors can gradually be empowered to learn mind-body techniques that help reset them to a balanced level of relaxed alertness.
With increased awareness, we can reach out with more appropriate and compassionate support to the survivors who sit with us at our seder tables –as well as to all those who cannot yet face being there this year. Social engagement with an empathetic supporter is essential, as they have felt alone in their deepest struggle. Simply by offering patience and understanding, we help survivors in their courageous exodus from Egypt, from that constricted place where one is stuck reliving one’s personal enslavement again and again.
When we reach out with tenderness, we can reach across every level of consciousness in the brain, until we reach the fiber that connects to another’s heart. No longer alone, our caring helps raise each other’s dignity, as we trek toward redemption together.
This article appeared in last week's Jewish Press