Neurobiology of Trauma Training: A Review

Aug 22nd, 1970

By Elizabeth Wynkoop, Program Coordinator (SAFE, SART) and Monica Short, MCASA Program Intern

On Wednesday September 21, 2016, 98 multidisciplinary professionals, including victim advocates, law enforcement, therapists, social workers, nurses, higher education staff members, and military personnel, gathered at the Village Commons Community Center in Gambrills, MD for MCASA’s Neurobiology of Trauma training, with Dr. Jim Hopper.

Dr. Jim Hopper, Ph.D., a nationally recognized expert on psychological trauma and a teaching associate in Psychology at Harvard Medical School, provided his expertise to local professionals on how trauma impacts the brain during a sexual assault. Participants learned about the role of key brain circuitries in victims’ responses to trauma, the impact that fear has on victims’ memories of traumatic events, and how to adopt a trauma-informed approach when working with survivors. This training was a huge success- many of our participants found the information to be very useful in their direct work, and felt that Dr. Hopper did a wonderful job of making the material accessible to each attendee despite their different backgrounds and knowledge of the subject matter.

Trauma can have a profound impact on the functioning on the brain and can cause survivors to behave in ways some people find difficult to understand. Though these behaviors often lead to victims being disbelieved about their assault, the behaviors are, in fact, normal, neurobiological responses to trauma. Experiencing a trauma such as a sexual assault causes the fear circuitry of the brain to take control, releasing a surge of hormones and chemicals into the body, which impairs rational thought and influences the body to enter fight, flight, or very often, freeze. This hormone surge can have a lasting effect on behavior and cause survivors to display a wide range of behaviors, such as increased irritability, impaired concentration, mood swings, and a flat affect for up to 96 hours after an assault.

These hormones also affect memory, and it is normal for survivors to have fragmented memories of an assault, with clear recall of certain sensory details but difficulty remembering the sequence of events or recalling specific details of what happened. When service providers do not understand these normal neurobiological responses, they can sometimes doubt survivors’ accounts or believe their behavior is proof that they are lying, so it is essential that professionals working with survivors of trauma have a full understanding of trauma and are able to work effectively with survivors. As Dr. Hopper emphasized in his presentation, providers must focus on empowering and connecting with survivors so they can feel safe enough to describe brain-based reactions which are evidence of trauma.

Resources:

To learn more in-depth information about how sexual assault and trauma impact the brain, check out Dr. Jim Hopper’s website for more resources, including links to articles, YouTube videos, and handouts. For more information on the neurobiology of trauma or trauma-informed response, please contact [email protected] or 301-328-7023. 

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