This Is What Sexual Trauma Does To Your Brain

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“My independence, natural joy, gentleness and steady lifestyle I had been enjoying became distorted beyond recognition. I became closed off, angry, self-deprecating, tired, irritable, empty.” These chilling words, penned in a letter that a woman known only as “Emily Doe” read aloud in June to her attacker, former Stanford University student Brock Turner, offer a mere glimpse into the emotional devastation left by her rape. For Doe and others among the estimated one in three women who experience sexual violence, the damage can ripple throughout a lifetime.

But sexual violence may leave more than just emotional scars:

 A recent study published in Scientific Reports found that sexual aggression from older male rats not only boosted the production of stress hormones in pubescent females, but it also disrupted their ability to learn various behaviors, including those needed to care for offspring. Females that struggled with maternal behaviors also had poorer survival of newly generated neurons in the hippocampus, a brain region crucial in memory and learning.

Women tend to be more sensitive to stress than men. Study lead author Tracey Shors of Rutgers University has wondered whether stress specifically from sexual violence changes the brain and learning in females. Despite growing openness to talking about sexual violence, “certainly it hasn’t been studied at a scientific level,” she says. “What does that actually do to the female brain?”

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