Sexual Trauma Side Effects Could Include Poor Concentration
Some of the consequences of being sexually assaulted were predictable. I was startled more easily, yelling out when someone tapped me unexpectedly on the shoulder. Sometimes when I was in bed with someone, my every cell ignited with fear, even when it was someone I loved. For a long time, I felt disconnected from my body, as though I was experiencing my sensations from very far away. This disconnection went hand in hand with anger. I started to hate this strange body that no longer felt part of who I was. I hated it for being a sexual form that had attracted my attacker in the first place. I hated it for being a vulnerable, girlish body that could not protect itself.
What I had never expected was the impact on my concentration. My trauma shook up the way my brain worked. I started to forget things and live in constant brain fog. My work seemed insurmountable because it was so hard for me to focus.
By some estimates, up to 94 percent of survivors of rape or sexual assault develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the first two weeks after the event, and up to 50 percent of victims suffer from long-term symptoms. PTSD manifests in many forms: flashbacks, trouble sleeping, memory loss and difficulty concentrating are just a few.
Hyperalert, scattered minds
After a traumatic event, "cognitive tasks that would normally be considered simple can become quite difficult or even impossible," said Lise Leblanc, a registered psychotherapist in Ontario, Canada, who has written several guides to overcome PTSD.
"Many who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder can lose their ability to concentrate and can experience other impairments when it comes to cognition," she continued. "As a result, it is common to have to read things over and over or listen to instructions repeatedly before information can be grasped or processed."
Leblanc's patients have reported having "zero attention span" or zoning out suddenly when having conversations or even when driving.
In the first months after the assault, I remember finding myself drifting away on mental side quests. When I was chatting, I often lost the train of the conversation. Once, I drifted away when I was cycling through a busy town. I returned to myself to find I was utterly lost, caught on a busy boulevard.
However, the most telling sign of how short my attention span had become was when I was working. I have long used the Pomodoro method while writing: 25 minutes of focus followed by a five-minute break. I had to reduce that focus period, lower and lower, because 25 minutes was too long to concentrate. Twenty-five became 15, and then five became a struggle, and then even one minute, 60 puny little seconds, became too much. My brain had escaped my control.
Impaired attention can be "really unsettling," said Lisa Ahmad, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who practices in London.
"Patients report that they can't focus or think clearly," Ahmad said. "They can feel as though they are going mad or that the trauma event has changed them in irreversible ways, turning their life upside down."
What's going on in the brain?
What exactly happens to the bodies and brains of people who have experienced trauma? Studies suggest some remain in a state of psychological shock. The cognitive networks dedicated to keeping them safe go into overdrive, which can lower their capacity to encode and retrieve non-threat-related information.
Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., has spent his career studying how adults and kids respond to traumatic events. In his landmark book, "The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma," he explained how the "lizard brain" or "old brain," associated with automatic reactions to life-threatening situations, takes over when triggered. "It partially shuts down the higher brain, our conscious mind, and propels the body to run, hide, fight or, on occasion, freeze," he wrote.
Since the fear center of people living with PTSD is overly sensitive and overreactive, it erroneously detects many situations as dangerous, "repeatedly activating the stress response unnecessarily," Leblanc said.
"The person's working memory and cognitive functions get tied up with trying to pay attention to more things than the brain is functionally capable of paying attention to, thereby occupying much of the cognitive resources," she explained.
Difficulty focusing can also be a secondary effect of other PTSD symptoms, such as sleep deprivation or intrusive thoughts.
"For instance, a college student who has been sexually assaulted may have significant difficulty focusing in class if they are being bombarded with images, memories and sensations related to the traumatic event," said Justin Misurell, Ph.D,, a clinical psychologist at NYU Langone Health in New Jersey.
How to get better
Although it is very upsetting to experience the "loss of self" that comes from struggling to stay present and attentive, therapists, psychologists and doctors all agree that it is possible to get better. Your sexual trauma side effects don't have to rule your life.
"Our brain has this incredible and innate capacity to heal itself, just like the body does," Ahmad said. "When given the right conditions, it will move towards healing and recovery, in the same way that the body knows what to do to heal if we have a cut on our finger."
People can return to their prior cognitive capabilities with proper psychological treatment or by finding methods to process trauma.
Van der Kolk wrote of many methods that "utilize the brain's own natural neuroplasticity to help survivors feel fully alive in the present and move on with their lives."
Essentially, there are three ways of moving past the trauma. The first is through talking, connecting socially and gradually processing traumatic memories with the help of a therapist. The second is pharmaceutical: Medicines that shut down unnecessary alarm reactions can alter how our brain responds. The third avenue is through the body, by allowing our physical being to "have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage or collapse that result from trauma."
The best method depends on the person and their experience, but in his writing, van der Kolk calls for a holistic approach, as most people require a combination of the three.
Not everyone's response to sexual trauma looks the same. Eventually, I did get that Pomodoro timer back up to normal. My mind stopped drifting away. And I felt relieved, proud and fierce, because it meant there was one less thing my aggressor had taken from me. My brain and my body are still my own.