The physical responses to extreme stress can lead to hyperarousal and anxiety. When fight-or-flight instincts take over, hormones trigger a state of readiness to overcome threats to personal safety. This response is triggered without conscious thought because it bypasses the cortex (the brain's center of higher functioning) and links directly into the brain's "fear center." When victims receive signals from this center, the information instantly triggers a fight-or-flight response.
Victims of sexual assault may have a powerful ability to activate their brain's fear centers due to a network of neurons that are triggered when any of the cues present during the assault present themselves again. A trigger is something that reminds victims of the assault. Triggers may be auditory, visual, tactile, and/or olfactory links to something related to the assault. For example, triggers might be a man's voice, a look of disgust by a family member, the smell of cologne, the sight of a beard, an unwanted touch, or hearing about someone sexually assaulted on the news or at the movies.
At the sound, touch, or sight of those cues, victims can experience the same surge of neurochemicals that were triggered during the actual assault. Their hearts may begin to race, their blood pressure may spike, and their breathing could accelerate. They may find themselves wanting to flee from a health care facility or freeze in terror because law enforcement or a forensic examiner asks them specific details about the assault. These fear reactions are not conscious choices, nor overreactions. They are an automatic response triggered by traumatic memories. For this reason, it is crucial for SARTs to provide and seek information at a rate that does not overwhelm victims.
The powerful neurochemicals that trigger the fight-or-flight response have far-reaching effects, including dramatic effects on the manner in which memories are recalled. Often, a traumatized person cannot generate the kind of narrative memory that normally follows an important experience. Their memories are often fragmented, out of sequence, and filled with gaps. They may recall very specific details from particular aspects of the assault and little or nothing about other aspects. The fact that a traumatized person recalls a detail that they did not remember earlier is not evidence of fabrication. Rather, it demonstrates a characteristic way in which traumatic memories are stored and recalled.
Victims participating in the civil or criminal justice process continuously recount their traumas, appear in the courtroom where their assailants sit, and answer a multitude of intrusive personal questions. These situations can be the equivalent of activating a chemical time bomb in the victim's brain.
Take great care in responding to and interviewing victims.