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How human trafficking can impact the brain; 'It can change your DNA'

'It can change your DNA,' the reality of how human trafficking can impact the brain
Posted at 11:52 AM, May 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-23 12:13:46-04

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. — Imagine spending every day in fear that it could be your last. Experts say that's the reality for survivors of human trafficking.

"You and me will never understand that the first person that tells you 'I love you' and 'I care about you' is also brutalizing you as they're doing it," said Dede Wallace with the Department of Homeland Security Investigations and the Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Task Force.

Wallace said victims develop coping techniques to protect themselves. "If they didn't start to learn to work with manipulation, they'd be dead," added Wallace.

Kelly Andrews, a Virginia Beach psychologist who also works with trafficking survivors, said this can have a lasting impact on the body.

"Some of my clients have had traumatic experiences 10, 20, 30 times a day," said Andrews. "Research shows that it can change your DNA."

But experts said the damage doesn't have to be permanent. The first step to recovery is admitting they're a victim.

Wallace said she speaks with survivors who call experiences of rape, "dates."

This is because, Andrews said, "people are really amazing at compartmentalizing things and pushing things down."

The latest data from the Human Trafficking Hotline shows 31% of victims are recruited by a family member, and 27% are recruited by an intimate partner.

These are people who are supposed to love and protect them, making their worst nightmares come true. And living in constant chaos, research shows, has significant impacts on the human brain.

"Your prefrontal cortex is attached to your limbic system inside, and your brain stem, when they're all attached then they're working as a safe environment," explained Andrews.

When experiencing trauma, a person's prefrontal cortex — which allows you to make rational decisions — opens. That disconnects it from your limbic system, which controls emotions. When the two separate, people can become irrational.

Andrews said a person's lid literally flips, in a way.

"It's like taking a baseball cap off," she said. "You can't think straight, and you can't think straight because your prefrontal cortex is not working in connection with your limbic system."

And imagine that baseball cap being taken off several times a day, forcing someone to constantly live in a state of fight or flight.

"If their brain is at this function where it's looking for danger at all time, they won't be able to focus in school, they can't achieve that dream of going to college," said Andrews.

But Andrews said there is hope. She said victims must learn to re-process memories. It can take weeks or even years, but the brain can be healed through therapy.

"I always tell clients, if they couldn't recover, I wouldn't be in this business," said Andrews. "The big thing I hear is 'I'm crazy, people tell me I'm crazy.' You're not crazy. You're a human being."

The psychologist uses a therapy technique called EDMR.

Clients follow a calming blue light side-to-side, entering a dream-like state. This allows them to access memories deep in their conscious, which Andrews then navigates with them and helps them find a way out.

"It will take a memory and help process the memory and put it into long-term storage," explained Andrews. "So then it becomes a part of your file cabinet instead of your present."

With new trauma-reducing techniques like EDMR being explored every day, experts agree there is light at the end of the tunnel.

"Trauma creates the need for protection, not connection...therapy is going to help person learn they can connect with others," Andrews explained. "[Survivors] can live a full, happy, healthy life. It takes time, but it can happen."

"I can't imagine being raped, being sexually assaulted or physically abused like they are, but they still get up every single day. They still try to find joy," said Wallace. "It's like an incredible gift that I get to meet people like this, because it just shows me the strength and character that a survivor has."

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