It really wasn’t your fault: How Understanding the Brain’s Response to Trauma Can Lessen Victim-Blaming and Self-Blame

By Antonieta Rico, Army Resilience DirectorateDecember 10, 2020

“Why didn’t she fight back?”

“Why didn’t he yell for help?”

“Why did she stay friends with him?”

It really wasn’t your fault
A T-shirt worn by a Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Soldier represents efforts to prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault in today’s Army and create a culture built on trust, dignity, and respect. (Photo Credit: (U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. Uriah Walker)) VIEW ORIGINAL

In the aftermath of a sexual assault, survivors might often hear people ask those questions, or they may even ask those questions of themselves: “Why did I go out on a date with him?” “Why did I let my guard down?” “Why didn’t I do something?”

Despite concerted efforts to raise awareness and better support survivors of sexual assault, certain beliefs about how victims of sexual assault should respond during and after an assault persist, both in the military and society at large.

In general, people don’t understand how the brain responds to threat or trauma, said Dr. Chris Wilson, a licensed psychologist and the Director of Being Trauma Informed, an organization dedicated to making the science of trauma accessible.

“They have a misperception that in any traumatic scenario people are either going to fight or flee,” Wilson said. “Unfortunately, the reality is that very often victims will experience shutting down, which means they will dissociate, or will become immobile.”

A person’s reaction to a threat or traumatic event involves complex factors, including subcortical (unconscious) processes of the brain. Besides fight or flee, shutting down is also a common defensive brain response to threat. But, because people expect a “fight or flight” response, when a person does neither people question whether an assault occurred. Survivors themselves may not understand their own responses, leading to self-blame.

“I think it’s very important for folks to understand that during the course of a sexual assault many victims are not making active conscious decisions,” Wilson said. “Shutting down isn’t a choice they make; the reaction is based on the brain’s ability to make sense of what is happening in the moment… like when you have a car accident and your hand automatically reaches for the handle above the door, or you flinch.”

Shut down reactions can mean either having a dissociative reaction or an immobility reaction. Becoming immobile or dissociating during an attack may seem counterintuitive to the average person, but they are brain circuity-driven reactions to what the brain perceives as extreme threat.

A dissociative response in a person involves the brain dampening information from their five senses, in order to survive, Wilson said. For example, people have a higher pain tolerance when they are dissociative. It can be thought of as the brain “checking out” and often can look like people are staring off into space or are disconnected from the moment. When people are dissociative, reactions like shouting out for help or fighting back just aren’t available to them.

The two immobility responses (tonic or collapsed) involve the brain shutting down people’s ability to move or speak for the purpose of survival. During an assault, these immobility responses manifest as a person not fighting back because they literally can’t physically move.

Despite people believing they would fight in a similar situation, or wanting to fight during an attack, the brain can end up determining “this is a time to shut down,” said Wilson.


Complex Factors in Trauma Responses

Another major factor that affects people’s response to an attack includes prior social engagement, which is specifically significant in the military context.

Social engagement refers to how well people know each other, and how that relationship impacts people’s fight, flight or shut down response. People’s brains are constantly mapping the people around them as friends or threats, or “dolphins or sharks,” as Wilson explains it. Once a person, like a fellow Soldier or a supervisor, has been deemed a “friend,” people will not have their ‘guard up’ around them. If that person starts to push boundaries that can ultimately lead to sexual assault, the brain will have trouble re-mapping the person from “friend” to “threat” during an assault, eventually increasing the likelihood of a shut down reaction instead of a fight or flee reaction.

The relationships people have with individuals who are part of their organization, as well as their friends or spouse, influence whether they are going to use trained aggressive behavior in these moments, said Wilson.

“If a shark approaches them in the water they know to punch the shark in the face…if they see a dolphin they don’t punch the dolphin in the face, that’s just not how that goes,” Wilson said.

In cases where the perpetrator was known to the victim, “most victims will tell you some of the thoughts they had while they were being sexually assaulted where along the lines of ‘I couldn’t believe this was happening, I couldn’t believe this person was doing this to me,’” Wilson said.

Even after the assault, the prior social relationship plays a factor in how a victim will behave around the perpetrator.

“People forget, particularly if the perpetrator was someone known to you prior to the sexual assault, that it becomes incredibly challenging for the brain to say ‘and we’re done,’ because that comes with a tremendous amount of pushback due to something called cognitive dissonance,” said Wilson. “As hard as it may be to believe, it’s easier to believe the assault was your fault and stay friends with someone, than to end the friendship after the assault.”

Making it even harder for many survivors to disconnect from a perpetrator is the reality of having to face questions about why they don’t want to be around the person any more, from people who do not know about the assault. Survivors may also be made to feel embarrassed or ashamed if they try to avoid the perpetrator.

Additional complex factors that are important to understand about responses during a sexual assault are mental defeat, learned habitual responses and the concept of ‘tend and befriend.’

Mental defeat refers to when a person believes that no matter what they do, it will not make a difference in the outcome of an assault. This belief will lead to a person giving up hope of stopping the assault and often precedes the shutdown reactions discussed above.

Habitual responses to threat refer to a person’s background. If in general, a person is brought up to be passive in the face of conflict, for example someone who was raised in a physically abusive home as a child and learned that the best way to end the abuse or not incur more violent abuse was to remain passive, that upbringing will contribute to their response to a subsequent assault.

The ‘tend and befriend’ response manifests as a person recognizing that “‘For me to survive this experience I have to tend to the needs of the perpetrator and I have to befriend the perpetrator,’” Wilson said. “Instead of shutting down and becoming immobile or dissociative, the victim will say things that can make it look like they were consenting to the assault, again, from a place of just wanting to survive the experience,” he said.

Lack of understanding by fellow Soldiers, friends, Family, leaders, and law enforcement of the brain’s response to trauma can lead to victim blaming of sexual assault survivors and impact their ability to get support or justice. Survivors own lack of knowledge of these trauma responses leads to shame, guilt, and self-blame.

The survivor may say, ‘I feel like my body betrayed me, I feel like I did something wrong to deserve this, or I led this person on, and they internalize all the victim blaming,” Wilson said. “Particularly if you’re a Soldier and you experience an immobility or you dissociated, you feel like that is something that indicates a flaw within you.”

“Trauma reactions like immobility responses and dissociative responses are the brain doing what the brain does,” said Wilson. “It’s not that you did something wrong, it’s that something wrong happened to you, and that’s a huge difference.”