Overcoming the Effects of Sexual Abuse: It’s Nothing but a Neuron!

Today’s guest post is from psychologist Rachel Grant, explaining why bad stuff in our backgrounds can leave us super-sensitive and jumping to the wrong conclusions today. Here’s Rachel:

Have you ever walked by a pie shop and, upon smelling a freshly baked pumpkin pie, been transported back in time to a fond memory of Thanksgiving? Or maybe caught a glimpse of a stranger with certain features and found yourself thinking about that girl or guy from way back when? How about a significant other who one day playfully wrestles with you, and all of a sudden you recall being held down by your abuser? What exactly is occurring neurologically and what are the implications for the recovery from abuse?

There is a saying – neurons that fire together, wire together. When we have an experience, neuronal pathways are created in the brain by neurons firing and connecting to create a neural net. When we smell the pumpkin pie, what is actually happening is that a particular neuronal pathway is ignited. Think of it like a big highway in your brain with a bunch of intersections, on ramps, and off ramps.

Whenever we have an experience, it is like we are building a highway, and that highway might be connected to an already established road or be a brand new one. So, in the example of smelling a pie, our memory (highway) the initial memory of Thanksgiving with family now has an additional road leading to the current experience of the same aroma when walking by the store. Thus, the neuronal pathway (highway) is expanded and reinforced by the reactivation.

Now, the more often we travel a road, the more readily we can get to that road and the more it becomes a part of our personality. In this way, our lives can become shaped by reactivations of memories, which lack a sense that something is being recalled. We simply experience them as the reality of our present experience.

The result is that we respond to our significant other in the moment with fear and anger thinking that what s/he is doing is the problem, when, instead, a neuronal pathway has been triggered and the memory of our abuser restraining us is activated. The same thing occurs in response to stressors. If our experience makes us feel trapped or scared, we may respond in the same way we did when needing to survive the abuse rather than in a way that actually addresses the present day stressor.

Will we always be held hostage by these firing neurons? Absolutely not! “Each day is literally the opportunity to create a new episode of learning, in which recent experience will become integrated with the past and woven into the anticipated future” (Siegel). Neurons can be re-wired!

The first step is to simply absorb the fact that many of our present day responses, thoughts, and emotions are nothing but a neuronal highway lighting up! Recognition of this creates space for us to consider the possibility that what we think or feel is going on may not be what is, in fact, really happening.

Secondly, when we successfully avoid getting on the road most traveled and instead respond to a situation, trigger, or stressor in a new way, the neuronal pathway will be adapted. The more frequently this occurs, the more modified the neuronal pathway becomes, and the behavior, thought, or emotion that is produced is also modified.

Finally, developing the ability to separate what is actually happening from the interpretations or emotions that follow plays a critical role in our ability to respond to situations in a new way. There are other steps to complete the work of re-wiring, but this initial step is critical.

So, let’s practice! See if you can identify what happened and the interpretations in this story:

Karen recently shared with her husband that she wanted to travel more. Her husband responded by saying he needed to do some research before he could make a decision. Immediately, Karen began thinking about how she never felt like she never got to fulfill her dreams and always ended up doing things on her own.

What happened?
What is Karen’s interpretation?

Now, the very next day, Karen’s husband pulls her aside and says that he was glad to have the extra time to think things over; it really does suit him to take some time before making decisions, and now he would like to talk about planning a trip. I bet Karen wishes she hadn’t spent so much time wallowing in her interpretations, which might have been thoughts such as “I’ll never get want I want; people always let me down,” etc. Worst of all, she was reinforcing old negative neuronal pathways the whole time!

I have come to affectionately think of these interpretations as “stories” – our little efforts at trying to explain or understand why something has happened. Unfortunately, most of the time – like 99% of the time – the story we come up with is really just an old neuronal pathway begging to be fed. We usually quickly oblige and find ourselves mired in negative self-talk and self-thought. Our practices of right speech and right mindfulness are tossed out the window.

It is not always easy to separate what happened from our interpretation, but that is okay! You can begin by writing down just the facts of what happened when thinking about an experience. Then turn your attention to what your interpretation was, what story you told yourself about why things were happening the way they were.

Sheila says: I think this is excellent advice, similar to what Paul says when he tells us to “take every thought captive”. When you’re thinking something that’s not true, take out that thought, examine it, and replace it with the truth. And God says: you’re valuable. You’re lovable. You’re a new creation. I know that’s hard, but the best way to get over our pasts is to look to the future, and look to the truth that God tells us!

Rachel Grant is the owner and founder of Rachel Grant Coaching and is a Trauma Recovery & Relationship Coach. She is also the author of Beyond Surviving: The Final Stage in Recovery from Sexual Abuse. With her support, clients learn to identify and break patterns of thought and behavior that keep them from recovering from past sexual abuse or making changes in their relationships.

Rachel holds an M.A. in Counseling Psychology. With this training in human behavior and cognitive development, she provides a compassionate and challenging approach for her clients while using coaching as opposed to therapeutic models. Rachel is a member of the International Coach Federation & San Francisco Coaches.

Purchase Beyond Surviving: The Final Stage in Recovery from Sexual Abuse (available in paperback or Kindle)


  1. I think this kind of approach can also be used in other situations where there are bad patterns of behavior that aren’t necessarily abuse. For example, my dad had a mother who belittled her husband and bossed him around. Growing up in that environment caused him to see husband-wife interactions through a distorted lens. Anytime my mom would disagree with him or question him, he immediately saw it as her belittling him or trying to control him (even when she did so respectfully). I think their marriage would benefit from this approach if he could realize what is going on and purposely plan to think about such situations differently (i.e. realizing that my mom is not trying to control him and then respond to current situations properly rather then blowing up).
    Lindsay Harold recently posted…Butter Baked ChickenMy Profile

    • Such good advice–but also so hard to do! I find myself often responding to things automatically, and taking that breather to think rationally about it is a challenge. But that’s where the Spirit comes in!

    • Lindsay, you are so right that this skill can be applied to a variety of situations beyond abuse. Interpreting is something all of us are doing all of the time!

  2. I arrived here to post something similar to Lindsay’s comment above — that anyone can apply this principle to difficult memories or triggers from various experiences, ranging from annoying to traumatic.

    I wrote a piece a few weeks ago on retraining your brain — not explaining the neuron pathways, but in the same vein of replacing the negative reaction with something new and positive. We rehearse the experiences we have had and relive the disappointment, pain or trauma we associate with it. New associations can happen — with effort and assistance from a trusted source (such as a friend, counselor or pastor).

    My replacement response is prayer. It’s always there, and I ask that God take the negative response I easily bring to the front and help me discover a positive. Focusing on the mighty hand of God trading my thoughts like chess pieces — effortlessly and mercifully — I feel uplifted and tremendously transformed. In only a few weeks of practicing this, I found peace and almost complete detachment from the triggers that haunted me for months.

    God is good. God sends people like Rachel to care for those who feel battered and helpless in their struggles to leave the past behind and focus on the now … with hope for the future. THANK YOU!
    Amy recently posted…How to Pray: Christ’s ExampleMy Profile

    • I think that’s part of what “pray continuously” means. Our whole lives should be communication with God, and when we live by prayer, then this process becomes easier. But that is a challenge, isn’t it?

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Amy and for sharing your approach to challenging negative beliefs. Regardless of which approach you take, learning to hit the pause button before we go into action based on our interpretations is so impactful and important in re-wiring the brain.

  3. Hmmm yes can definitely apply to many issues. I just read the book The Power of Habit, which was really interesting. It wasn’t dealing with abuse issues, but certainly had some good thoughts on retraining ourselves in our reactions.
    Leanne recently posted…Mortgage tips for renewals and first-time buyersMy Profile

  4. Thanks for these helpful insights, Rachel. It truly is a discipline to try and separate out the interpretation from what’s actually happening–one I’m trying desperately to learn, even in my old age. 😉 Thanks also to you, Sheila, for providing rich resources to all of us!

    • Thank you for your comment Beth — I’m glad you found the post to be useful. Let me know if you have any questions as you get out there and give separating what happened from your “stories” a go!

  5. Anonymous Please says:

    Thank you so much for this one! It is so hard to find good, practical advice on this subject. I am currently on a path of recovery in my marriage after realizing how devastating the effects of childhood abuse can be. I have discovered that frequent sexual practice helps to calm some of the anxiety I have about sex–and this explains why!

    • You are very welcome; I’m so pleased to know you found the post helpful and that you have gained a deeper understanding of yourself as well. Do let me know if you have any questions as you continue your journey!

  6. Rachel, this is an awesome scientific explanation of what of what goes on behind the scenes! As Sheila has added, I practice what Paul exhorts but learning what is going on behind the scenes is awesome. I particularly agree that it’s possible to rewire! There’s always hope! Thanks so much for sharing!
    Ngina Otiende recently posted…My Top Posts For 2012My Profile

    • Ngina, you are very welcome! I know it made a big difference for me personally once I began to understand how the brain works and that there were actual skills and exercises I could do to “exercise” my brain!

  7. That an excellent analogy and you (the guest writer) are absolutely right. But you make it sound far more easy than it actually is.

    • Sharon, thanks for taking the time to comment. You’re right that re-wiring the brain can be a challenging endeavor and certainly didn’t want to convey that it was a snap to do. I do think that we can begin letting go of ideas, however, that we are permanently stuck with the patterns of thought and behavior that are holding us back, but instead have lots of room and possible to change and grow!

  8. Thanks for posting this Sheila! I know I am super-sensitive and I came from a very abusive background. I grew up with the rage of an alcoholic brother who is 6 years older than me. He was also drug-addicted and when on drugs molested me and almost raped me as punishment for not perfectly cleaning my room. Maybe that is why my husband’s pickiness about cleanliness is like a slap in the face to me, saying that I am not a good enough housekeeper. I also grew up with a lot of yelling from my mom. I grew up with several older men molesting me by doing stuff like trying to french kiss me when I was 13. I do get easily angered and have a bad temper. I have lost friendships and been in many facebook “fights” because of it. I am getting better bc I acknowledge that I have been nasty and don’t want to be like that anymore. I am getting nicer on fb too.

    I don’t have problems in the bedroom with my husband, but notice I love attention from other men, even though, I don’t cheat on my husband. I honestly don’t know how my temper and super-sensitivity and all this goes hand-in-hand in my life, but I would love to buy her book when we can afford it to find out more. At present, I am getting therapy from a good Catholic therapist. So, I will see what he has to say about this stuff. I do notice too, that I take everything as something against me, just bc someone is rude in their reactions, when really it has nothing to do with me at all. I do need prayers. Thanks again, Sheila.

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