Being Attacked Changed How My Brain Works
Trauma has changed the way I perceive stress. I asked some experts how to cope.
Hayden Williams / Stocksy
One August evening, I was heading home from a friend’s barbecue in New York City, a few drinks deep, enjoying the warm hug of humidity on my bare arms. The sun had just dipped below the horizon but the sky was bright. Cars whipped by me. My apartment was a few blocks away. Suddenly, a man’s rough hand was pinching my throat shut. He turned me around and forced his lips on mine, restraining my arm with his free hand. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t scream, couldn’t kick or hit because of the angle at which he held my body. I wrenched my head, bit his lips and tongue, wheezed and gasped for air. After what felt like an eternity, a car with a young couple in it stopped, the man threw me down and ran north, and I ran south, blindly, not hearing my own panicked screams.
Some weeks later, after the scabs on my neck had healed, my life was, by all appearances, unchanged. I hadn’t been injured or raped; I’d had nothing stolen; nobody died. And yet something about me was and would always be different. This led me to wonder, what effect does an isolated trauma have on a human? Whether it’s a physical assault, a car crash, a shooting, If you walk away mostly “undamaged,” what unseen damage has been done?
Experts point to how the brain responds to its environment. Our 100 billion neurons control our thoughts and behaviors, so when a traumatic event changes those neurons’ composition—usually by intensifying activity, causing neurons to be “on guard, ready to fire with little provocation”—it fundamentally alters how we think and act, says Daniel Amen, a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist and author of several books on the brain, memory, and healing from trauma.
Of course, this type of change doesn’t set in immediately. Ann Russo, a therapist who worked with survivors of the 2017 Las Vegas shooting right after it happened, recalls that few people wanted to talk about it right away, and that the support group she started remained mostly unattended for weeks. Then, people started coming. “When people realized they weren’t able to do the things they could do before the attack, that’s when they started seeking assistance,” Russo says. A delay is totally normal, as is feeling emotionally numb and avoiding any reminder of the event for some time afterward, adds Aimee Daramus, a Chicago-based psychologist.
I can relate. After I was safely home with my husband that night, I couldn’t think about the assault without my heart pounding and tasting my attacker’s blood in my mouth. So I drank whiskey and put on an old episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which I watched with glazed eyes, willfully ignoring my fat lip, my stinging neck, and the pain of swallowing.
Still, Russo says, it’s not a good idea to wait too long: “The faster you process the trauma, the better. That way it doesn’t have the same time to embed in your mind.” Indeed, unaddressed trauma can manifest in many life-disrupting ways, including anxiety, panic attacks, increased unemployment and absenteeism, withdrawal, substance abuse, and surliness toward loved ones. It can also make you obsessively avoid certain situations.
Russo recalls that many of her clients had trouble doing anything in public after the shooting. “Something as simple as grocery shopping, the first thing they’d do is look for the exits,” she says. Trauma commonly causes “hypervigilance” (an acute awareness of and sensitivity to your surroundings, often to the point of unhealthy preoccupation) as victims seek to protect themselves from something similar happening again. For me, that meant changing subway cars when a man looked at me a few seconds too long and sprinting down blocks if I didn’t like someone’s vibe.
These changes happen because of the unique way we process traumatic memories. Stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine, which are released during a trauma, tend to render our memory of the event more vividly than more mundane moments. And traumatic memories are largely unaffected by the passage of time—they can remain as intense years later as they were just after the trauma.
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Many people—myself included—assume that if they experience one isolated trauma, they should just be able to suck it up and move on. But that’s not how the brain works. Russo explains it like this: “If you’re being continuously hit in the face, you’re going to flinch when people move by you. If you got hit in the face once, are you still going to flinch if people move by fast? I would say yes.” The fact is that any trauma reconditions the brain to have certain expectations in certain situations. Hence why my heart now stops when somebody passes me from behind on the sidewalk; I expect, upon hearing their footsteps, that they will hurt me.
Yes, trauma changes the brain, but you don't have to let it create a permanent rain cloud over your head. These are some expert-recommended ways to cope with a traumatic event similar to mine so that you can go on to live a happy, full life—changed brain and all:
Acknowledge what happened (when you’re ready)
If you suppress the incident, you may not allow yourself to move past the incident, which can lead to long-term consequences for your mental health, such as anxiety and depression. When you're ready, considering seeking out a support system which can be a trusted friend or a therapist.
Explore available resources
The good news, Daramus says, is that “a lot of the current treatments for trauma were designed for isolated events.” This includes cognitive behavioral therapy [CBT], Dialectical Behavior Therapy [DBT], and eye movement and desensitization and reprocessing therapy [EMDR], and there’s ongoing research into the effectiveness of hallucinogens and virtual reality for treating trauma.
Accept that you may have changed—and that’s okay
Though your brain may be altered, that doesn’t need to be a bad thing. As long as the changes aren’t causing anxiety or other issues, the best thing to do is accept them fully. “It’s important to embrace the person you are afterward,” Russo says.
Reframe the narrative
Part of dealing with a traumatic event means reconceptualizing it so that it becomes your story. By doing that, Russo says, “you then control the trauma; the trauma doesn’t control you.”
The therapist I saw recommended that every time my mind replayed the moment the man clamped his hand on my throat—my headphones falling out, music stopping, mind coming to the panicked understanding that this is really happening—I replace it with the moment I first felt truly safe. This was when, still gasping for air in the backseat of the car of the couple who had stopped, I looked to my right and saw their young son strapped in his car seat, smiling as he tried to show me his kite. By reconditioning my brain to remember the happy ending, rather than the terrifying beginning, I could make the story my own and remove its power.
One of the challenges of this kind of anomalous, isolated trauma is that, because it came out of nowhere, it can be hard convince yourself that it’s not going to recur. So you can tell yourself that it’s normal, even wise, to react with anxiety in seemingly benign situations: It’s how I justify triple-checking the front door lock, or glancing over my shoulder obsessively whenever I walk alone. That vexing truth: It could happen again.
But the fact is that, at any moment, a lot of things could happen again: I could re-break my leg, or re-choke on a muffin, or re-light my ponytail on fire with a candle (yes, all events from my life). Yet I don’t let any of those possibilities inform my behavior. I don’t even think of them. And each morning, as I find myself an additional day away from that summer evening, I’m letting go of that other possibility. I believed I was invincible for three decades, and realized, quite abruptly, that I wasn’t; but that realization did not in any way make me more vulnerable. If anything it’s made me less so.
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