The Brain Science Behind Sexual Trauma

Zoe Lodrick (Sexualised Trauma Specialist) article on how trauma affects the brain and why survivors often do not fight back, or their brain takes them into the freeze/flop state.

Find more information on her website here.


It is widely believed by survivors of rape and sexual abuse and the public in general that if they were under threat or being attacked they would fight back, this is why when a person goes into freeze or flop mode it is not widely understood.

We have all heard of the fight or flight mode which our bodies go into when faced with danger, what is not understood is that this is a subconscious way the brain ensures survival when faced with danger or an imminent attack. What we don’t realise is that when the fight or flight mode does not work ie: the attacker is not backing off, the body then goes into freeze mode, (this is a survival instinct from the days of being hunted by wild animals, if we can’t (fight) them or run from them (flight) then we play dead and (freeze) if the attacker keeps coming our body goes into a compliant (flop) mode this ensures that the least possible damage is done to our physical body, as a tense body will suffer more injury during an attack. The brain does not take into account the damage done to our psychological state.

The brain after the attack sees this flop mode successful if we have survived, no matter how damaged psychologically we may be, the brain will be more inclined to utilise the ‘flop’ mode automatically in the future bypassing the fight, flight and freeze. This is why a trigger or memory of the attack may automatically send a survivor into flop/compliant mode, and survivors of a series of attacks may years later go into flop mode when faced with any attack or trigger.

The repercussions of a rape or sexual assault on the brain of the survivor can be devastating, but with the correct counselling and support many can and have gone on to live happy and successful lives.

More often than not the trauma of the attack is stored in the subconscious part of the brain which kicks in to ensure survival, effectively switching off the conscious brain. This is why many survivors may not remember any of the attack or only flashbacks.

What counseling does is to help bring the trauma to the conscious part of the brain so it can be dealt with and effectively ‘let go’, as trapped in the unconscious you are holding the trauma in your body and brain and this is why flashbacks and triggers are so traumatic, instead it being seen as a bad memory it is like reliving the trauma again and again.