Fight-or-flight is an active defense response where survivors are confronted with a perceived threat and make the decision to either fight or flee. Their heart rate and blood pressure increase, which increases oxygen flow to major muscles. The individual’s pain perception drops, adrenaline surges and senses sharpens. These changes help you act appropriately and rapidly.
Freezing is fight-or-flight on hold. The individual’s body further prepares for protection. It is also called reactive immobility or attentive immobility. It involves similar physiological changes, but instead, you stay completely still and get ready for the next move.
Fight-flight-freeze is an unconscious decision. It is an automatic reaction, so it is uncontrolled. In this article, we will further explore what this response entails, along with examples.
War-rape survivors are in a permanent state of the fight-flight-freeze as a perceived permanent status of danger is determining permanent changes inside their bodies at the physiological level. Trauma changes can be transmitted to the next generation. This form of inherited trauma is called transgenerational trauma. Some trauma can be genetically passed down within families for fourteen generations.
Learning to use trauma narratives purposefully with clients allows clinicians to account for and address potential problems.
After the body has healed from physical trauma associated with war rape, psychotherapy can ensue. The therapeutic process experience is different for all survivors. Common concerns war-rape survivors face are as follows: Suicidal ideation, addiction, depression, PTSD, sexual dysfunction, social isolation, and anxiety.
The most complicated aspect of treatment, related to the social environment, is the notion of shame. Shame is a social construct; established by religion, culture, politics, and social interaction. Rape survivors are shamed by society for their rape experience, regardless of if it is war rape or rape unrelated to conflict and genocide. Survivors internalize this socially imposed shame and blame themselves for their own sexual assaults.
As a self-conscious emotion, shame informs us of an internal state of inadequacy, unworthiness, dishonor, regret, or disconnection. In this shape, shame is coming from the society regulated by particular rules. Shame is a clear signal that our positive feelings have been interrupted because of social norms and social regulation is interrupted.
Another person or a circumstance can trigger shame in us, but so can a failure to meet our own ideals or standards. Given that shame can lead us to feel as though our whole self is flawed, bad, or subject to exclusion, it motivates us to hide or to do something to save face. So, it is no wonder that shame avoidance can lead to withdrawal or to addictions that attempt to mask its impact.
Shame is often confused with guilt, an emotion we might experience because of wrong-doing which we might feel remorseful for and compel us to make amends. Where we will likely have an urge to admit guilt or talk with others about a situation that left us with guilty feelings, it is much less likely that we will broadcast our shame. We will most likely conceal what we feel because shame does not make a distinction between an action and the self. Therefore, with shame, “bad” behavior is not separate from a “bad” self as it is with guilt.
A situation, real or imagined, might trigger a shame response. One may, for example, attack oneself as being inferior in competitive endeavors or believe others will become aware of some concealed flaw. Shame will be felt when we anticipate being viewed as lacking or inadequate in our intellect, appearance, or abilities. (Shame: A Concealed, Contagious, and Dangerous Emotion) Ph.D. Mary C Lamia.
Shame is also used as a tool of social oppression. Internalized shame related to religious institutions and beliefs, patriarchal systems connected to white supremacy and capitalism for several hundreds of years, has built women’s inner oppression. Women are oversaturated by social and inner shaming voices, which is why rape survivors tend to blame themselves for their own rape.
Psychological acceptance of oppression occurs because of vulnerability to shame. “Find what I am ashamed about, and you can control me!” This can be done non-verbally7 by innuendo or by the ulterior transaction. (Shame and social control- (Fanita English MSW)
When rape survivors decide to start a therapeutic treatment, is important with all due respect, for the clinician to work towards better understanding the level of shame affecting rape survivors. If the rape survivor is living in a strict, oppressive environment where religious institutions and edicts have major social control, therapeutic intervention needs to account for this obstacle and be appropriate to the individual survivor’s personal situation.
A major part of the healing process is to carefully listen to rape survivors and deeply emphasize their individual experiences with reference to the cultural environment.
After decades of research related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, it has become clearer that some therapeutic approaches are more supportive in the moment of the complex survivor’s healing. From the onset of therapy, a more behavioral approach can yield more effective outcomes. Currently, EMDR is a useful therapeutic technique when trying to address and resolve some symptoms following the aftermath of rape.
While many rape victims heal from rape without therapy, it is also common to receive professional rape therapy. Therapists have studied rape treatment techniques for decades, however, without clear conclusions and references. War-rape survivors are unique in that they have not received their own descriptions of specific consequences related to their rape trauma. Clinicians have neglected this growing population of people by not creating effective strategies to work with the torture survivors and war-rape survivors.
Even in psychology or psychotherapy, war-rape survivors are somewhat invisible. Yoran Barak and Henry Szor conducted fascinating research about elderly Holocaust survivors, as they observed the effects of PTSD after World War II. Their research demonstrated that PTSD is activated and intensified by the aging process. When coping mechanisms deviated, survivors became more vulnerable to their own past.
Studying lifelong posttraumatic stress disorder evidence (longitudinal studies) from aging Holocaust survivors has brought to my attention many reflections on what affects the minds and bodies of elderly war-rape survivors when exposed to their pasts as they grow older. It is not a coincidence that my Grandma spoke out about her war-rape experience for the first time at age 68 while being hospitalized for major physical trauma. For Grandma, living in a post-Holocaust society forced her to try to build a “normal life,” as she silently struggled with physical and emotional trauma related to her rape and Holocaust imprisonment.
Grandma tried to remove her complex trauma, unsuccessfully but to the best of her ability. She was also trying to adhere to her own unique interpretations of Polish social structures, in an attempt to keep quiet her painful past. Grandma lacked the appropriate psychological and social support she deserved to facilitate her healing process. She could not face her own story and rebuild her traumatic past. This realization has affected war-rape survivors healing for centuries, leaving them to find healing from shame and trauma alone.
Is time to change that.
About the writer:
“If I could use four words to describe myself they would be psychoanalyst, feminist, activist, and traveler.
My education and occupational choices were influenced by my family’s story as Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland. My Grandma was imprisoned at Ravensbruck women’s concentration camp during the Holocaust. She was raped by a Russian soldier upon the camp’s liberation. From this narrative of initial pain, loss and shame came my inspiration for understanding, acceptance, and empowerment for her and all rape survivors.
I have worked in many countries, immersed in many cultures, and I have seen how survivors have been socially silenced by shame placed on them. I fight to end this social stigma. I fight to have survivors be heard. I fight to bring justice to those who have stolen the safety and innocence of survivors.
I am the founder of Rape: A History of Shame project, author of the book Rape a history of shame diary of the survivors, a proud graduate of The Women’s Therapy Centre Institute, International Psychoanalytic Association, clinician, and social worker. Currently, I am a clinical director of the Residential HANAC program, a Rape counselor at the emergency room of the Presbyterian Methodist Hospital, and a private practice therapist working with and for war rape survivors.”