Often survivors and/or helpers find it hard to understand just how deeply sexual violence and/or abuse can affect survivors. To help understand what happens in the human psyche when exposed to traumatic situations, we have included this section in the website for readers who might have a more in depths interest regarding the effects of trauma.
Judith Herman developed an extensive framework for understanding trauma in her excellent book ‘Trauma and Recovery’. The information presented here is based on this book.
What is Trauma?
In a dangerous situation the human defence system produces physiological reactions. We feel what is known as an adrenalin rush which helps us to be more alert than usual. We focus all our attention on the immediate situation. We might disregard hunger, fatigue or pain. We might experience feelings of intense anger and fear. All these are normal reactions to danger. They mobilise us to either fight or to run.
Traumatic reactions occur when we are overwhelmed, that is when neither fight nor flight is possible. Traumatic situations include for example accidents such as car crashes, natural catastrophes, war, and all forms of abuse (emotional, physical, sexual etc.) Traumatic reactions affect all kinds of people – nobody is immune to trauma if exposed to it.
Many people experience a change in consciousness during trauma- if we cannot escape by actions we try to escape in our mind.
You may feel detached and calm and not feel any emotion.
You may deny that anything happened at all.
We may have experienced the trauma as if observing from outside our body or as if it was happening to another person.
You may not be able to remember parts of the traumatic event or the memory of it may feel completely unreal.
Your body may have gone numb like under an anaesthetic.
You may seek to escape the memory by taking drugs or drinking excessively.
Disassociation is a normal reaction to a traumatic situation. It helps us to survive in the short term. However, it is important to realise that in the long term it may be self destructive to happiness. Remember- it is possible to heal from the effects that trauma has on us. Just as the assault was not your fault, the emotional impact on your life is also not your fault.
Short-term Effects of Trauma
One might expect the danger to return at any moment and remain in a state of permanent alert for some time. Especially in the short term it is very common to startle easily, react irritably to small triggers, not to be able to sleep and eat as normal. There may be intense anxiety and fear provoked by anything that reminds us of the traumatic event.
It may be impossible to forget the traumatic event. Especially in the short term but not untypically even years later the event can come back into memory with intense flashbacks or nightmares. Flashbacks can be very vivid and detailed – yet it might be difficult to express in words what is happening in them. The traumatic event may also stay present through re-enacting- we might find we seek dangerous situations eg. to prove to ourselves that the rape has not affected us.
Emotionally trauma stays present with rage and terror, also traumatised people may feel ashamed and guilty and blame themselves for what happened. (It was not your fault- the responsibility always lies with the perpetrator!!!)
Other possible expected reactions:
• Changes in eating/ sleeping patterns
• Suicidal feelings
• Self harm
• Fear of going outdoors, or of being home alone, in the dark or unfamiliar places- other fears and phobias
• Variations in moods, intense and confusing emotions- embarrassment, anger, humiliation etc. or numbness
• Sense of complete difference from others, isolation, withdrawal
• Effects on close and intimate relationships
• Loss of trust in other people and the world around
• Feelings of hopelessness and despair
Recovery & Long-term Effects of Trauma
The immediate crisis with intense flashbacks, fears, insomnia, possible numbness or overwhelming emotions can last anything between a few days and a few months. Eventually these symptoms will be less intense.
Very often at this stage survivors experience a sense of relief. In an attempt to take control of their lives or feeling they are burdening people by receiving help they may break contact with supporters.
It is important to stress that the trauma of an assault may have long term effects, but survivors do heal from the effects of an assault. You are not alone in your healing process, and you have a right to support. It can be helpful to have contact with others who acknowledge and validate your experience and how it has affected you.