What Is Emotional Trauma Resulting From Sexual Abuse?
Traumatic memories and all memories in general are processed by the brain and stored in different ways. Even mildly traumatic experiences can sometimes become etched or “burned-in” with a high degree of detail. In these cases, it is not only the memory of the fact that is preserved, but also the intense emotional experience of it. When a significant event is moderate in emotional intensity, it is usually stored in long-term memory. The long-term memory process works as it should and the memory of significant events is stored and remains retrievable throughout our lifespan. Traumatic events, on the other hand, can disrupt this process and cause the brain to store memories almost entirely as emotions or sensations rather than as a nearly emotion-free recollection of facts. When events are particularly traumatic, the brain can attempt to mitigate the effects of the trauma by burying the memory very deeply, sometimes even to the point of blocking it entirely from recollection.
The Mental Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Adults
Researchers describe the effects of sexual child abuse as complex posttraumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). The most common symptoms of C-PTSD are problems with emotional regulation (being “up” and then suddenly “down” with or without an apparent trigger), alterations in consciousness (the feeling of “not being here”), alterations in self-perception (the feeling of “not being me”) and the perception of others (they may feel unreal or strange), and alterations in systems of meaning (purpose of life, ability to enjoy life.) This indicates that changes have occurred in the way the brain processes information (“alterations”), especially memory and consciousness. Later in life, there may be certain sensory “triggers” that cause seemingly forgotten material to resurface, often at inappropriate times and circumstances. The memories related to the trauma may return in the form of pure sensations or emotions, sometimes involving “flashbacks” that feel like the memory is being partially re-experienced. Traumatic memories may become progressively more focused until they become a full recollection of the event and the traumatic emotions associated with it. This phenomenon (and its symptoms) may vary in intensity. At at its worst, it is known as complex posttraumatic stress disorder or C-PTSD.
Memory-Repression of Childhood Sexual Abuse in Adults
Traumatic sexual experiences always involve a betrayal of trust, particularly in childhood abuse, and can cause severe suffering, impaired daily functioning, increased risk of further victimization and perpetration of abuse, and diverse mental health and relationship problems.
Betrayal trauma theory suggests that psychogenic amnesia (the “forgetting” of unpleasant memories) is an adaptive response to childhood sexual abuse. When a parent or other powerful figure (a significantly older child or an adult) violates a fundamental ethic of human relationships, the victim may subconsciously choose to block the memory of the trauma to reduce suffering and to ensure survival. Psychogenic amnesia enables the child to maintain normalcy, which is vital to survival, development, and thriving. The degree to which a sexual abuse victim feels as having been fundamentally cheated or betrayed by another person may significantly influence the individual’s willingness to “remember” experience of trauma, the degree to which the event is easily recalled, and the psychological as well as behavioral responses in relationships with other people.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and EMDR treatment (How Does It Work?) can help in the process of becoming aware of the impact of traumatic memories on well-being and functioning, assist in their gradual re-processing, and help the individual manage and make sense of this newly found awareness of traumas that occurred earlier in life.
To make an appointment with Dr. Z for a comprehensive evaluation of C-PTSD (mild, moderate or severe) and its treatment with psychotherapy (CBT) and, if warranted, EMDR, call (678) 554-5632 or fill out the online appointment request.