Pavlov’s Dogs

Has your mouth ever watered as you smelled a delicious meal? Have you ever awakened before the alarm sounds, as if your mind knew what time it was? Or that you get hungry, with an empty stomach feeling when you have not eaten, when the time comes that you are used to eating? Or when someone expels a gas you cover your nose before the smell reaches you?

Has it ever happened to you, that when your mother puts on that reproachful face, you are already on your guard knowing that an argument is coming? That when your boss calls you to the office, you get tense thinking about what you might have screwed up? Do you get a little nervous when you see the police driving behind you on the highway for a minute, and you already think that perhaps you have committed an infraction? Ever been a little nervous when crossing alone on a dark street?

Has it ever happened to you that by smelling a certain perfume, you have entered a state of alertness and anxiety, and then remember that it was the same fragrance that your aggressor used? Or live through a moment when you were enjoying the sexual preliminaries with your partner, suddenly you got blocked and you were cold, remembering a scene of the abuses suffered? That when that man invaded your personal space at that party, you got angry and overreacted, in an exaggerated way, and did your best to get out of there, with your heart beating hard and growing anxiety? 

These are all possible circumstances for people who have suffered sexual abuse.

Let me tell you about Pavlov's Dogs. Do not stop reading if you find this a bit theoretical or complicated to understand. I will explain it later. It is something worth understanding.

Iván Pávlov, a Russian scientist, Nobel Prize winner in Medicine in 1904, researched the physiology of salivation in dogs. What does salivation of dogs have to do with the consequences of sexual abuse in my childhood, you say? The truth is that you will be surprised how much it is actually related.

Pavlov measured the flow of saliva by placing food in their mouths. One day he observed that when he entered his laboratory and fed them, the dogs already started salivating when they saw him. The dogs related the moment of receiving food with his presence. Even hiding the food behind a hatch, they would still salivate at the moment of seeing him, still not seeing the food. He then complicated the experiment a little more. He would ring a bell, and immediately afterwards, the food would be served. After repeating this many times, it turned out that the dogs salivated in the same way when they heard the bell, even without showing them the food. This reflex was called "Pavlovian Conditioning." The experiment is known as "Pavlov's Dogs".

A few months ago I suffered a fairly serious accident. I leaned on a wooden fence that yielded, as it was rotten. I fell into the void and the impact fractured 8 ribs, the sternum, the shoulder scapula, and three vertebrae. The pain was tremendous. It took me three months to recover mobility and the doctor confirmed that I will have permanent sequelae with which I will have to learn to live with. My task is to strengthen, as much as possible, the back muscles to cope with the injuries in the vertebrae.

Every time I walk down the stairs now, I'm much more careful, using my hand on the railing. Every time I walk in a place with a slope, I feel insecure and go with more fear than before. Every time I see a scene in a movie, from a fall, my stomach turns. I'm not like I was before. Like Pavlov's dogs who salivated just by hearing the bell, I "segregate" fear and distrust every time a situation reminds me of the fall I suffered.

Sexual abuse produces similar responses in the mind. We learn to be afraid of a potential danger. It is a survival mechanism. You learn that a car can run over you, so you become careful to survive. You learn that fire burns in order to survive. We are full of survival mechanisms. They are responses to a stimulus. They are reactions to something that happens to us.

The funny thing is when the stimulus is not present but the answer to that stimulus is. The action does not exist in reality, just something that reminds us of it. The food is not in front of me, but the smell is. The fire is not burning me, but the smell of burning has reached me. The guy on the street is not robbing me but he looks suspicious. They are not abusing me at that moment, but that smell, that phrase, that look, that touch, that circumstance...It makes all the alarms go off!

I remember the day that my little son, Robin, witnessed how his cousin Rodrigo was almost run over. For a long time he was aware, in a slightly exaggerated way, of my driving. Calling my attention to the dangers around us. Robin "salivated" before seeing the food, just with the sound of the bell. Robin anticipated the possible run over. Fear is a survival mechanism, but it can become something that does not let us live in peace.

If your fear prevents you from having a relationship in peace, it may be because you live in constant alert for the possible harm so you avoid suffering. Fear, in its right measure, helps us. It makes us run away if we are chased by a rabid dog. But if with that simple bark we hear in the distance, we get nervous and run away, then that fear does not benefit us. We cannot live on constant alert. It is exhausting and prevents us from enjoying life and healthy relationships.

Maria, survivor of sexual abuse, suffers a lot of tension accumulated in the neck and shoulders. Occasionally she can not stand it and visits the physiotherapist. They always tell her that she has to learn to relax. Without realizing it, she lives in a constant alert. She lives emotions with great intensity and finds it difficult to relax. Last year she started with Mindfulness exercises and they suited her very well. It is been a long path to lower the level of alertness that she has suffered from a young age: breaking the silence, establishing responsibility for abuse, feeling emotions, understanding the consequences, finding professional support from other survivors, from family and friends, confronting the aggressor, forgiving herself, learn new healthy behaviors, etc.

We have been able to see how Maria, with her mistakes and her successes, has been able to be a good mother to her children, a good companion on the road with her husband, a good friend, and someone who helps many survivors get ahead. But the issue of being alert and in constant tension remains a workhorse that for a few months gets better, but then others just a little less.

Those of us who live with survivors, we must remind them how much they have already overcome. We must remind them that we continue to believe in them, that we are proud of how strong they are, and that nothing happens if they have some not so good days.

I remember the story Theo told us (a psychologist friend, an ASI case expert), in which he mentioned a patient of his who had been a head nurse in a hospital. She was the best. Always alert, she didn't miss a beat. However, as she began the process of healing from the sexual abuse that she suffered in childhood, she began to lower the alert level and made some mistakes for the first time in her professional life by forgetting certain things. Her relaxation reached such a point that she decided to change her profession!

Many people who have suffered sexual abuse in childhood or adolescence have not suffered abuse again. Others have. However, they live their lives as if these abuses were still a present and current situation. Fear keeps that reality alive. I remember when my oldest son suffered irrational fears. He had a hard time with the idea that my wife and I could die in a car accident. One of the phrases our child psychologist friend told him was: "It is possible but not probable." The same can be applied to a new possibility of future abuse.

It is also important to note that you have survived the abuse. There is likely to be serious damage to your psyche and emotions, in need of a cure, but here you are, a survivor. Now you are stronger. You have grown. You are no longer that helpless girl or that helpless boy.

The way to overcome irrational fear is to grow as a person. Like me with my back, we must strengthen the areas that have been damaged. We must work in those most vulnerable areas. We will always have to live with the sequels, but by strengthening the surrounding muscles it will affect us less. We can lead healthier lives and enjoy the many gifts we still have left to open.

Joel de Bruine