19% of women and 6.1% of men have been victims of at least one completed or attempted sexual assault since entering college (Krebs et al, 2007). These numbers are probably lower than the actual rate because many rape and other sexual assault victims do not report their attacks to law enforcement (Kruttschnitt et al, 2014). Rape or attempted rape victims sometimes blame themselves for the assault especially when they “did not resist/fight the aggressor”. The rape experience can even be more devastating when it is done by an acquaintance rape and 84% of the victims knew their attacker beforehand (Kuersten, 2003)–it is an experience of total betrayal. The horrifying experience and the challenges to achieve justice is sensitively described in the superb book by Jon Krakauer, Missoula Rape and the justice system in a college town.
It is a MUST book to read for every therapist, educator or anyone interested in understanding the human suffering of rape. The book describes the intimate and long lasting emotional impacts of rape with the challenges of achieving justice. It complements my previous post, Porges and Peper Propose Physiological Basis for Paralysis as Reaction to Date Rape, which explains that paralysis and not fighting the aggressor is not the result of agreeing to further sexual activity but the activation of the reptilian stress response of death fainting and withdrawal. A survival response by which the person cannot respond (Porges & Peper, 2015)..
Krakauer, J. (2015). Missoula-Rape and the justice system in a college town. New York: Doubleday. http://www.jonkrakauer.com/
Krebs, C.P., Lindquist, C.H., Warner, T.D., Fisher, B.S., & Martin, S.L. (2007). The Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study.
Kruttschnitt, Candace; Kalsbeek, William D.; House, Carol C. (2014). Estimating the Incidence of Rape and Sexual Assault. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Kuersten, Ashlyn K. (2003). Women and the Law: Leaders, Cases, and Documents. ABC-CLIO. pp. 143–144.
Porges, S.W. & Peper, E. (2015). When Not Saying NO Does Not Mean Yes: Psychophysiological Factors Involved in Date Rape. Biofeedback. 43(1), 45-48.
Paralysis Can Be a Natural Reaction to Date rape
This is the press release for my recently published article in the journal, Biofeedback, coauthored with Stephen Porges,
Stigma is often associated with inaction during a crisis. Those who freeze in the face of a life-threatening situation often experience feelings of shame and guilt, and they often feel that they are constantly being judged for their inaction. While others may confidently assert that they would have been more “heroic” in that situation, there is a far greater chance that their bodies would have reacted in exactly the same way, freezing as an innate part of self-preservation.
Stephen Porges and Erik Peper describe how immobilization is a natural neurobiological response to being attacked as can occur during date rape.in the article titled “When Not Saying NO Does Not Mean Yes: Psychophysiological Factors Involved in Date Rape,” published in the journal Biofeedback .
The article explains the immobilization response in light of the polyvagal theory, which Porges introduced about 20 years ago. According to this theory, the brain reacts to various risk situations in three ways: The situation is safe, the situation is dangerous, or the situation is life-threatening. After our brain identifies risk, our body reacts either with a fight-or-flight response or, especially in dire situations, can become completely immobilized. The likelihood of an immobilization response increases when the person is physically restrained or is in a confined environment. Immobilization is also often accompanied by a higher pain threshold and a tendency to disassociate.
In the case of rape, it is often assumed that the victim should simply have said No, should have fought back, or should have made it clear that the sexual attention was unwanted. However, the more we learn about the brain’s response to extreme threats, the more we realize that it may be difficult to recruit the neural circuits necessary to verbally express oneself or to fight or flee, especially when drugs or alcohol are involved. Instead, it is a natural response for victims to freeze, to feel so physically threatened that their own body will not allow them to fight or flee.
Porges and Peper note that polyvagal theory supports a law passed in California in September 2014. The new law requires the governing boards of the state’s colleges and universities to adopt policies and procedures that require students who engage in sexual activity to obtain “affirmative, unambiguous, and conscious decision by each participant.” In other words, simply not saying No will no longer be tolerated as an excuse for rape.
The article conclude that victims of date rape should not feel shame or guilt if they froze in that situation. The body’s natural defense reactions are not just flight or fight; sometimes it is complete immobilization.
The authors hope that recognizing this will help people deal with trauma and help those around them understand their experiences. After a lecture, one of the authors, Peper, had a profound experience when a student came up to him with tears in her eyes. She explained that the same immobilization process happened to her two weeks before when she was robbed and she had felt so guilty.` Just listening to her made the efforts of writing the article worthwhile.”
Full text of the article, “When Not Saying NO Does Not Mean Yes: Psychophysiological Factors Involved in Date Rape,” Biofeedback, Vol. 43, No. 1, 2015, is available at https://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/porges-and-peper-date-rape.pdf
About the journal Biofeedback
Biofeedback is published four times per year and distributed by the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. The chief editor of Biofeedback is Donald Moss, Dean of Saybrook University’s School of Mind-Body Medicine. AAPB’s mission is to advance the development, dissemination, and utilization of knowledge about applied psychophysiology and biofeedback to improve health and the quality of life through research, education, and practice.
Allen Press, Inc.
800/627-0326 ext. 248
Dead bird on Midway Island in the North Pacific, 2000 miles from any other islands. The bird mistook attractive coloring of plastics that float in the ocean as food. From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtJFiIXp5Bo
Being captured by a digital device. From: http://images.gameskinny.com/gameskinny/c9689c75994e58a03dbc5e489d346e55.jpg
How come birds on Midway Island are dying?
How come your son keeps playing computer games even after he said he would stop?
How come you ate all the French fries and the dessert even though you promised yourself to reduce your calorie intake?
How come you procrastinated and did not get up from the couch to exercise?
How come you watched pornography?
The usual answer is absence of will, self-control or self-discipline. The person is automatically blamed for making poor life choices. If you had more self-worth than you would not let yourself get obese, addicted to computer games, or watch pornography. Blaming the victim is easy, however, there are other factors that underlie the person’s covert/unconscious choices. Many of these illness producing behaviors (e.g., overeating, playing the computer games, sitting and sitting) are responses to external cues that in prehistoric times promoted survival, reproduction and health. To respond rapidly and appropriately to those cues offered a reproductive advantages while not reacting would reduce your survival. In many cases there are no upper limits to turn off our responses to these cues because the more the person responded to those cues the more was there a reproductive advantage. Now, however, our adaptive preferences have become maladaptive because the cues that trigger the same behaviors lead to lower fitness and illness (Schlaepfer et al, 2002; Robertson et al, 2013). The cues have become evolutionary/ecological traps!
Some of the recent evolutionary/ecological traps include:
Vigilance for survival. While playing a computer games, the person rapidly responds and continuously experiences immediate rewards (e.g., successful shooting the target, points, next game level). This process activates the same survival mechanisms that hunter used for thousands of generations. A visual or auditory stimuli represents sources of food or danger (a game animal to hunt for food, an attack by a predator or an enemy). The visual/auditory cue captures the person’s attention and if the person reacts to that cue he would probably survive. On the other hand, if he did not react, he may not survive and reproduce. In our modern world, similar stimuli now hijack the neurological pathways that in earlier times supported survival. Over activation of these pathways is a cofactor in the development of ADHD and other disorders (Peper, 2014). For a superb discussion of how cellphones, computers, gaming and social medial are changing our brains, read Dr. Mari Swingle’s new book, i-Minds (Swingle, 2015)
Energy for survival: Eating carbohydrate/sugary and fat foods are necessary for survival as humans constantly searched for energy sources to support life. Breast milk and almost any fruit that is sweet contain calories and supports growth. If the food was bitter it was usually harmful. For most of our evolutionary past, we would eat as much as possible because food was scarce. There was no evolutionary advantage to limit food intake as the stored calories would supply enough calories to survive during periods of famine. In our modern world, our survival mechanisms have been hijacked by advertising and the oversupply of foods which contribute to the epidemic of obesity and diabetes.
Being a couch potato and not moving again is again survival mechanism. In a prehistoric world with limited food supply, the less movement (the fewer calories you burned), the longer you could survive. You would move when you needed to build shelter or search for food. Again in a world where shelter and food are often abundant, there is no intrinsic mechanism to initiate movement.
Sexual arousal for reproduction: Men are often captured by pornography. They can watch for hours and feel aroused. The whole porn industry is based upon hijacking our sexual drive for reproduction.
Our brain does not discriminate between actual visual and auditory stimuli, imagined or film/video images. Until the late 19th century everything we saw and heard was real. Only in the 20th century could we produce images and sounds that appeared real. These film, TV , and the ever present digital displays activate the same neurophysiological pathways as when the stimuli were actually real. A scene on a digital screen triggers the same biological pathways and responses that for thousands of generations supported survival. If we did not respond we would not have survived. If you have any doubt, watch a scary horror movie and check how you feel afterwards. You may feel more scared, your sleep may be disturbed, your heart rate increased, and you probably interpreted any noise around you as possible danger. Thus, cues in the environment may become evolutionary/ecological traps in the same way that birds on Midway Island in the North Pacific, 2000 miles from any other islands, mistook the attractive coloring of plastics as food. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtJFiIXp5Bo. Should the birds be blamed because they have no self-control?
What can you do!
Recognize that modern industries for the sake of profits have hijacked our cues that had evolved to aid survival (Kemp, 2014).
Recognize that not reacting to product cues means inhibiting the intrinsic biological triggered survival responses. Yes, it is possible not react to the stimuli and demonstrate self-control; however, it is not only a problem of will. It is a problem that our cues have been hijacked and tricked for commercial profit.
Society may need to protect its own populations from commercial exploitation of evolutionary/ecological traps. A young child is automatically drawn to the visual stimuli on a smartphone and tablet which parents use to quiet the child during dinner. In this process they are activating the pre-wired biological pathways that captured attention for survival. By over activating these pathways, the brain is changing in response to this activation which increases the risk of developing ADHD, autism, and mood deregulation including anxiety, depression, and anger management, and other forms of addictive behavior (Swingle, 2015). In addition, school performance and memory retention are reduced when students take notes using their keyboard or read text from digital screens (OCallaghan, 2014). It will take the family and society to limit the availability of these cues until self-control has been developed. Similarly, the availability of cheap calories in large food portions, sugars in soft drinks and sugar and fats in snacks, need to be limited if the epidemic of obesity and diabetes is to be reversed.
It may be unreasonable to think that people can easily interrupt their biological responses to cues that have been created to increase profits. We need to take collective responsibility and limit the availability of commercially augmented evolutionary traps and cues in the same way we need to limit the plastic in the ocean so that the birds at Midway Island may be able survive. Without respecting our evolutionary past, our future may not be different from those Midway Island birds.
Kemp, C. (2014). Trapped!. New Scientist, 221(2960), 43-45
OCallaghan, T. (2014). Goodbye, paper: What we miss when we read on screen. New Scientist.224 (2993). 41-43.
Peper, E. (2014). Support Healthy Brain Development: Implications for Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Psychophysiology Today, 9(1), 4‐15.
Robertson, B. A., Rehage, J. S., & Sih, A. (2013). Ecological novelty and the emergence of evolutionary traps. Trends in ecology & evolution, 28(9), 552-560.
Swingle, M.K. (2015). i-Minds. Portland, OR: Inkwaterpress.com ISBN-13 978-1-62901-213-1
Schlaepfer, M. A., Runge, M. C., & Sherman, P. W. (2002). Ecological and evolutionary traps. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 17(10), 474-480.
My previous blog, Are herbicides a cause for allergies, immune incompetence and ADHD? focused on the health risks associated with the herbicide Roundup® (glyphosate) as a possible contributing factor for allergies, immune incompetence and ADHD. The danger of using glyphosate may even be worse!
On March 20, 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)–the specialized cancer agency of the World Health Organization–classified glyphosate as probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A). Thus, I strongly recommend avoiding glyphosate and other types of herbicide and pesticide contaminated foods. Use the precautionary principle and eat only organic foods.
The IARC defines the category Group 2A as follows: The agent is probably carcinogenic to humans. This category is used when there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals. Limited evidence means that a positive association has been observed between exposure to the agent and cancer but that other explanations for the observations (called chance, bias, or confounding) could not be ruled out. This category is also used when there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and strong data on how the agent causes cancer.
We are often 100 percent sure that what we saw or heard really happened even though another person has a different opinion. The more we are captured or focused on a task the more we may miss what has occurred. Selective attention is the basis of magic tricks by which attention is misdirected so that you do not see what is occurring. This process may affect our daily perceptions and judgements.
Be open to the possibility that your conclusions may be based upon incomplete information or selective attention. For example, when a person has has a car crash and experiences back and neck pain, he is 100 per cent sure that the pain was caused by the car accident. A more healing attitude is to assume that there could be other factors involved. Possibly, the person had a fight with their partner and was still angry and thinking about it when he was hit. The accident anchored the anger and healing may need to include letting go of the anger. Thus, whenever you are 100 per cent sure of your point of view, be open to other possibilities. Observe the power of selective attention in the following two video clips.
“I am proud to label myself a nonsmoker… diligently performing practices has profoundly helped me eliminate my troublesome craving…The conscious efforts I have made over the past month have helped me regain control of my life.” –L. F., a college student who became a non-smoker after smoking up to two packs a day since age 11. At 18 month follow-up L. F. is still a nonsmoker.
“I have been struggling with eczema for most of my life and until I began this course, I was feeling very hopeless in managing this condition without the use of costly, and potentially dangerous drugs. My self-healing project proved to be empirically successful. My eczema shrunk in size from 72 mm in length and 63 mm in width as measured at baseline to 0 mm in length and 0 mm in width by the final day of this project.” –L. C., a college student who experienced recurring scaly skin patches since childhood.
In our recent published paper, Transforming chained behaviors: Case studies of overcoming smoking, eczema and hair pulling (trichotillomania), we describe an approach by which students learn self-healing techniques which they practice as part of a semester long class project. After four weeks of of self-healing practices many of the students report significant decrease in symptoms and improvement of health as shown in Figure 1. Their success includes smoking cessation, eliminating hair pulling and eczema disappearing.
One component of the self-healing process is interrupting chained behavior. We react automatically and respond instantly with sadness, anger, neck and shoulders tension, eating too much, veg’ing out watching videos, or playing mindless digital games. After a time, we may notice that we are smoking more, experiencing an upset stomach, back pain, headaches, high blood pressure, or even more skin eruptions. The first step is to sense the initial reaction that leads to the symptom development. Then, the person performs an alternative health promoting behavior and interrupts the chained behavior that triggers symptoms as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Interrupting and transforming the chained behavior. The moment person become aware of the trigger or behavior that is chained to the development of the symptom, he/she interrupts and performs an active new health promoting behavior as illustrated by the dashed lines.
Overtime these automatic patterns may contribute to the development of autoimmune diseases, increased vulnerability to infections or other chronic diseases. The challenge is to develop an awareness to recognize and interrupt the beginning of the ‘chain of behavior.’ The instant you become aware of the first reaction, do something different, such as,
- Shift your focus of attention to something joyful
- Chang your body position and smile while thinking, This will also pass.
- Practice a quick relaxation technique.
- Imagine a positive self-healing process.
The longer the person waits to interrupt the chain, the more difficult it is to redirect the chained behavior. Awareness and immediate interruption appears to be major factors in achieving success. It means practicing the interruption and new behavior all day long. This is different from from practicing a skill for twenty minutes a day and the rest of the time performing the old dysfunctional behavior.
Mastery of this process consists of three steps:
- Becoming aware of what is happening when the chain reactions.
- Learn a more functional alternative health behavior such as breathing, relaxing, focusing on empowering thought, eating other foods.
- Substitute the alternative behavior the moment you become aware of the triggered dysfunctional behavior.
After having integrated this into daily life, many students report experiencing a significant reduction and even elimination of symptoms and behaviors.
“I will continue to do the practices outlined not only to overcome trichotillomania but also to control my anxiety and, therefore, lead a less stressed and happier life. Knowing I have the power to heal myself is such an inspiring feeling, a feeling that can’t adequately be put into words.” –G. M., a 32 year old student with trichotillomania, who reduced her hair pulling, anxiety, and stress
“I have gained much wisdom from this project…I am ultimately responsible for my own health and well-being…I feel empowered, optimistic, and appreciative of every moment.” –L. C., a college student who experienced recurring scaly skin patches since childhood)
For background, specific techniques and successful case reports, read our published paper, Peper, E., Lin, I-M, Harvey, R., Gilbert, M., Gubbala, P., Ratkovich, A., & Fletcher, F. (2014). Transforming chained behaviors: Case studies of overcoming smoking, eczema and hair pulling (trichotillomania). Biofeedback, 42(4), 154-160.