- As Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about an alleged sexual assault by Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh in high school, we looked at a few of the ways that memories can be shaped by trauma.
- Traumatic memories are not stored in the same way as other things we remember.
- Research shows us that they’re more intense, persistent, and can be impossible to put into words.
Christine Blasey Ford said she didn’t really want to come forward with decades-old allegations of sexual misconduct aimed at Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Instead, she felt she had to.
“I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me while Brett Kavanaugh and I were in high school,” Ford said Thursday during sworn testimony in front of members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But science suggests it’s also possible that he remembers much less of what really happened in the summer of 1982 than Ford.
Putting aside for a moment the specifics of the case at hand, and what really happened at one suburban Maryland prep school party, the truth is that any sexual assault can have long-lasting effects on the brain, the body, and memories of an event.
Here’s what we know about how sexual trauma can affect a person’s body and a brain, according to experts who work with trauma survivors as well as the latest research.
Our memories are imperfect, human devices
Neuroscientists haven’t entirely figured out how our brains work.
It’s impossible to pin down one exact place where a memory lands and lives in our grey matter, because the brain acts more like a network than a filing cabinet. We do know that one area of the brain, called the hippocampus, is involved in keeping track of our memories.
In a state of heightened emotion, such as an attack or an assault, the stress hormones we release can strengthen connections in that area of the brain, even growing extra nerve cell extensions (dendrites) and leading to a chronic state of hyper-vigilance.
The body has a few options when presented with a threat like that: freeze, fly, or fight.
The heart quickens, and we’re breathing swiftly, readying to fight back, run, or hide. Blood may start flowing out to the extremities as we prepare.
Memories of this period of “high emotional intensity” can have a kind of “enhanced encoding,” making them more salient and clear, as researchers wrote in a 2018 paper in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.
A deluge of long-term effects
Studies show that survivors of sexual assaults can suffer all kinds of troubling health effects. They have demonstrated higher rates of obesity and Type-2 diabetes, gastrointestinal issues (like irritable bowel syndrome), depression, and chronic pain. Trauma survivors can even be less likely to seek preventive care, because anything from a routine teeth cleaning to a pelvic exam can be a re-traumatizing experience of touch.
David Emerson, a yoga teacher at the Trauma Center of the Justice Resource Institute in Massachusetts, has studied how yoga might be able to help trauma survivors by allowing them to reconnect with their bodies. He says there are essentially two ways that trauma victims conjure up memories. One is explicit — the memories that we have words for and can share with others. The other kind of memory is a more implicit form.
“Implicit memories are things we don’t have words for, but that our bodies know,” he said. “Our bodies will react, but we might not have language for what’s happening, we just might shut down, or we might withdraw, we could lash out, whatever the response. There may be no language, but that would be considered a traumatic memory enacted.”
The ways that implicit memory works inside our body are still not fully understood, he says, “but there seems to be a distinction between traumatic memories and non-traumatic memories.”
When we are reminded of a traumatic memory, it often triggers some kind of flashback, and along with it, a bodily response.
“It’s your whole organism that remembers the experience,” Emerson said.
Often, the first and most persistent memories of a traumatic event come as feelings, tastes, sounds. That’s what Ford said she remembers most about the night of her alleged attack.
“The details about that night that bring me here today are ones I will never forget,” Ford said in prepared remarks Thursday. “They have been seared into my memory and have haunted me, especially as an adult.”
In her testimony, Ford mentioned the sound of laughter as what she remembered the most from the alleged incident.
“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” Ford said on Thursday. “The uproarious laughter between the two [boys] and their having fun at my expense.”
That tracks with what we know about the power of a traumatic memory.
“Those kinds of things, they seem to be incredibly persistent, more reliable than narrative memory,” Emerson said.
Trauma is tougher when you feel powerless
Many psychologists and therapists operate under the assumption that the best way to deal with trauma is to talk about it. But there’s really no reward for sexual assault survivors who choose to process their trauma out loud. It’s been much better to remain silent, speechless, and keep those memories hidden.
Ahead of the Thursday hearing, 85 year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg spoke up about that very problem.
“Every woman of my vintage has not just one story but many stories,” she told a crowd of law students at Georgetown on Wednesday. “But we thought there was nothing you could do about it — boys will be boys — so just find a way to get out of it.”
In other words, the effects of feeling stuck and incapacitated are much larger than a neuro-biological issue. Trauma isn’t always something that happens in a single person’s nervous system. It can be ingrained in a culture.
“The abuse of power is so rampant and so obvious and so constant,” Emerson said. “In the past, pushing back against that power has been a futile exercise.”
He thinks we’re seeing some of the first signs that’s no longer the case, as with Ford’s testimony.
“People are feeling the impact of chronic power abuse,” he said. “But for some reason, some people have access to [say] ‘no more. That’s not going to happen anymore.'”
Public officers above 58 years and with pre-existing conditions told to work from home: The Standard
Head of Public Service Joseph Kinyua. [File, Standard]
In a document from Head of Public Service, Joseph Kinyua new measure have been outlined to curb the bulging spread of covid-19. Public officers with underlying health conditions and those who are over 58 years -a group that experts have classified as most vulnerable to the virus will be required to execute their duties from home.
However, the new rule excluded personnel in the security sector and other critical and essential services.
“All State and public officers with pre-existing medical conditions and/or aged 58 years and above serving in CSG5 (job group ‘S’) and below or their equivalents should forthwith work from home,” read the document,” read the document.
To ensure that those working from home deliver, the Public Service directs that there be clear assignments and targets tasked for the period designated and a clear reporting line to monitor and review work done.
SEE ALSO: Thinking inside the cardboard box for post-lockdown work stations
Others measures outlined in the document include the provision of personal protective equipment to staff, provision of sanitizers and access to washing facilities fitted with soap and water, temperature checks for all staff and clients entering public offices regular fumigation of office premises and vehicles and minimizing of visitors except by prior appointments.
Officers who contract the virus and come back to work after quarantine or isolation period will be required to follow specific directives such as obtaining clearance from the isolation facility certified by the designated persons indicating that the public officer is free and safe from Covid-19. The officer will also be required to stay away from duty station for a period of seven days after the date of medical certification.
“The period a public officer spends in quarantine or isolation due to Covid-19, shall be treated as sick leave and shall be subject to the Provisions of the Human Resource Policy and procedures Manual for the Public Service(May,2016),” read the document.
The service has also made discrimination and stigmatization an offence and has guaranteed those affected with the virus to receive adequate access to mental health and psychosocial supported offered by the government.
The new directives targeting the Public Services come at a time when Kenyans have increasingly shown lack of strict observance of the issued guidelines even as the number of positive Covid-19 cases skyrocket to 13,771 and leaving 238 dead as of today.
SEE ALSO: Working from home could be blessing in disguise for persons with disabilities
Principal Secretaries/ Accounting Officers will be personally responsible for effective enforcement and compliance of the current guidelines and any future directives issued to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.
Uhuru convenes summit to review rising Covid-19 cases: The Standard
President Uhuru Kenyatta (pictured) will on Friday, July 24, meet governors following the ballooning Covid-19 infections in recent days.
The session will among other things review the efficacy of the containment measures in place and review the impact of the phased easing of the restrictions, State House said in a statement.
This story is being updated.
SEE ALSO: Sakaja resigns from Covid-19 Senate committee, in court tomorrow
Drastic life changes affecting mental health
Kenya has been ranked 6th among African countries with the highest cases of depression, this has triggered anxiety by the World Health Organization (WHO), with 1.9 million people suffering from a form of mental conditions such as depression, substance abuse.
Globally, one in four people is affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives, this is according to the WHO.
Currently, around 450 million people suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide.
The pandemic has also been known to cause significant distress, mostly affecting the state of one’s mental well-being.
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With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic attributed to the novel Coronavirus disease, millions have been affected globally with over 14 million infections and half a million deaths as to date. This has brought about uncertainty coupled with difficult situations, including job loss and the risk of contracting the deadly virus.
In Kenya the first Coronavirus case was reported in Nairobi by the Ministry of Health on the 12th March 2020. It was not until the government put in place precautionary measures including a curfew and lockdown (the latter having being lifted) due to an increase in the number of infections that people began feeling its effect both economically and socially.
A study by Dr. Habil Otanga, a Lecturer at the University of Nairobi, Department of Psychology says that such measures can in turn lead to surge in mental related illnesses including depression, feelings of confusion, anger and fear, and even substance abuse. It also brings with it a sense of boredom, loneliness, anger, isolation and frustration. In the post-quarantine/isolation period, loss of employment due to the depressed economy and the stigma around the disease are also likely to lead to mental health problems.
The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) states that at least 300,000 Kenyans have lost their jobs due to the Coronavirus pandemic between the period of January and March this year.
KNBC noted that the number of employed Kenyans plunged to 17.8 million as of March from 18.1 million people as compared to last year in December. The Report states that the unemployment rate in Kenya stands at 13.7 per cent as of March this year while it stood 12.4 per cent in December 2019.
Mama T (not her real name) is among millions of Kenyans who have been affected by containment measures put in place to curb the spread of the virus, either by losing their source of income or having to work under tough guidelines put in place by the MOH.
As young mother and an event organizer, she has found it hard to explain to her children why they cannot go to school or socialize freely with their peers as before.
“Sometimes it gets difficult as they do not understand what is happening due to their age, this at times becomes hard on me as they often think I am punishing them,”
Her contract was put on hold as no event or public gatherings can take place due to the pandemic. This has brought other challenges along with it, as she has to find means of fending for her family expenditures that including rent and food.
“I often wake up in the middle of the night with worries about my next move as the pandemic does not exhibit any signs of easing up,” she says. She adds that she has been forced to sort for manual jobs to keep her family afloat.
Ms. Mary Wahome, a Counseling Psychologist and Programs Director at ‘The Reason to Hope,’ in Karen, Nairobi says that such kind of drastic life changes have an adverse effect on one’s mental status including their family members and if not addressed early can lead to depression among other issues.
“We have had cases of people indulging in substance abuse to deal with the uncertainty and stress brought about by the pandemic, this in turn leads to dependence and also domestic abuse,”
Sam Njoroge , a waiter at a local hotel in Kiambu, has found himself indulging in substance abuse due to challenges he is facing after the hotel he was working in was closed down as it has not yet met the standards required by the MOH to open.
“My day starts at 6am where I go to a local pub, here I can get a drink for as little as Sh30, It makes me suppress the frustration I feel.” he says.
Sam is among the many who have found themselves in the same predicament and resulted to substance abuse finding ways to beat strict measures put in place by the government on the sale of alcohol so as to cope.
Mary says, situations like Sam’s are dangerous and if not addressed early can lead to serious complications, including addiction and dependency, violent behavior and also early death due to health complications.
She has, however, lauded the government for encouraging mental wellness and also launching the Psychological First Aid (PFA) guide in the wake of the virus putting emphasis on the three action principal of look, listen and link. “When we follow this it will be easy to identify an individual in distress and also offer assistance”.
Mary has urged anyone feeling the weight of the virus taking a toll on them not to hesitate but look for someone to talk to.
“You should not only seek help from a specialist but also talk to a friend, let them know what you are undergoing and how you feel, this will help ease their emotional stress and also find ways of dealing with the situation they are facing,” She added
Mary continued to stress on the need to perform frequent body exercises as a form of stress relief, reading and also taking advantage of this unfortunate COVID-19 period to engage in hobbies and talent development.
“Let people take this as an opportunity to kip fit, get in touch with one’s inner self and also engage in reading that would help expand their knowledge.