Fast Exit

December 7, 2023 Dec 07, 2023 7 min read

The Science of Sexual Trauma: Why We Struggle to Trust


  • Struggling to trust certain people, places, or activities is an extremely common problem for survivors of sexual trauma
  • Due to the nature of the nervous system, the human body is designed to feel wary or fearful of people, places, or situations that share characteristics with our past traumatic experiences
  • Trauma survivors often experience something called heightened “neuroception,” which refers to the nervous system’s process of perceiving and evaluating safety or danger in our surroundings (this process is also sometimes called “faulty” neuroception or hypervigilance)
  • Even after a traumatic event has ended, survivors often continue to struggle with trust for months or even years due to the miscalibration of the nervous system
  • To re-establish trust, survivors must contend with the disconnect between what they know and what they feel

As described by psychiatrist Judith Herman, “traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning.” Although Herman doesn’t mention trust by name, connection and trust go hand in hand. To form meaningful connections with people, places, and activities, an individual must be able to trust. Unfortunately for many of us, trauma gets in the way.


This article offers a brief look at how our brains and nervous systems are impacted by trauma to help us understand how and why trust after trauma is so challenging.

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How Trauma Hinders Our Ability to Trust

On one hand, it’s easy to understand why people who have experienced sexual trauma struggle with trust. Sexual assault and abuse are extreme violations that undermine an individual’s basic sense of safety and sovereignty in the world. The fact that approximately 80% of all sexual assault is committed by someone known to the victim further underlines the violation of trust.


But as many trauma survivors know, difficulties with trust often last longer and impact more areas of our lives than we would ever expect. Perhaps we were abused or assaulted by a partner or friend, yet suddenly we’re struggling to trust ourselves, our families, or even our coworkers. We may begin to feel unsafe in places that seem to have nothing to do with the trauma we experienced, or we may shy away from activities that once brought us comfort or grounded-ness.


While these disruptions to our ability to trust may seem confusing at first, they begin to make more sense once we examine the way trauma impacts our brains and bodies. Understanding why trust issues plague so many trauma survivors helps us cultivate compassion for ourselves and develop an effective plan for healing.

The Role of the Nervous System

To understand the science of trust, we must first look at the nervous system.


Through a process sometimes referred to as “neuroception,” our nervous systems are constantly evaluating whether our environments and circumstances are safe or dangerous. Put simply, neuroception is the process through which the nervous system evaluates information in the environment to determine safety. This process happens extremely quickly and without our conscious awareness.


When your nervous system registers a situation or person as safe, you are much more likely to experience a sense of trust. On the other hand, when your nervous system registers something as unsafe, your brain’s “defense circuitry” engages, activating your parasympathetic nervous system. In other words, you enter fight-flight-freeze mode. From this state, you’ll likely find it impossible to establish a feeling of trust until your nervous system has returned to a state of relative calm.


After experiencing a traumatic event, our nervous systems may develop heightened or “faulty” neuroception (also known as “hypervigilance”). This causes the nervous system to detect danger or threat even in safe or trustworthy situations. In many cases, survivors may even struggle to trust things that once felt safe and familiar, including their own bodies, homes, partners, or friends. Unfortunately, nervous system regulation can be extremely difficult for sexual trauma survivors, even long after a traumatic event has ended.


To make these concepts easier to understand, let’s look at an example…


Say a survivor experienced sexual assault while in their own bed with the lights off. Because the nervous system now associates the sensory elements of being in bed in a dark bedroom with danger, the survivor will likely experience nervous system dysregulation in this context and struggle to trust that they are safe in their own bed. Even if the survivor knows that the threat has passed, the nervous system will continue to try to protect the individual from harm based on sensory associations. 

Intellect vs. Instinct

Survivors of sexual trauma often experience a frustrating contradiction between what they feel and what they know. For example, a survivor may know intellectually that the person they’re having coffee with at a café is safe and trustworthy. However, they might simultaneously feel unsafe in their bodies. This feeling of un-safety could be due to heightened neuroception, which can pick up on scents, sounds, tastes, and other sensory associations with past trauma.


Unfortunately for survivors of sexual trauma and relationship abuse, triggers often arise during the normal process of establishing new relationships or engaging in consensual sexual activity. That said, triggers can come up at any time depending on the nature of what the survivor has experienced. For survivors of childhood sexual trauma, these triggers often feel particularly mysterious and unpredictable.


Managing the interplay between what we know intellectually and what we feel happening in our nervous systems is a critical part of rebuilding trust after sexual trauma. Working with a therapist who specializes in helping trauma survivors is a great way to begin the process of befriending your nervous system. Once you understand what triggers you and why, you can begin the process of re-establishing trust within yourself, which will allow you to trust the people around you in time.


To learn more about how to rebuild trust in others after sexual trauma, check out our article “Tools for Survivors: How to Rebuild Trust in Others After Sexual Assault or Abuse.” For help rebuilding self-trust, check out “Tools for Survivors: How to Rebuild Self-Trust After Sexual Assault or Abuse.”

Summary :

Survivors of sexual trauma often struggle to trust people, places, and situations months or even years after a traumatic event has passed. This is largely due to the fact that the nervous system is designed to register sensory information associated with past traumatic and/or dangerous experiences. While struggling to trust things in our lives that are essentially trustworthy is frustrating and confusing, it makes sense from a scientific and evolutionary perspective. By developing a heightened awareness of potential threats associated with past trauma, our brains and nervous systems attempt to keep us safe. To overcome difficulties with trust, trauma survivors should begin to understand the difference between feeling unsafe and being unsafe. This can be a complicated process and is best undertaken with the assistance of a trained therapist or counselor.

About the Author

Dana Anastasia (they/them) is an independent writer, editor, podcaster, and artist. With a degree in interdisciplinary sociology and a background in domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy, Dana brings a keen awareness of victim and survivor needs and experiences to their work. Learn more


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