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Trauma

On this page, you can find helpful information on how to recognize trauma and common responses to trauma, and find information about recovery and coping skills.

  1. What is trauma?
  2. What is trauma-informed responding?
  3. What are some ways I can help survivors and victims of trauma?
  4. What are some common responses to trauma?
  5. What resources are available for recovery at EMU?
  6. What are positive methods of coping with trauma?
  7. What are negative methods of coping with trauma?
  8. What are some ideas for controlling memories of sexual assault?

What is Trauma?

Often behaviors such as hyperarousal, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, avoidance, and other responses to trauma are viewed as symptoms of a mental health condition, when in fact these are normal responses to traumatic experiences. According to Judith Herman’s book, Trauma and Recovery, psychological trauma is characterized by feelings of:

  • Intense fear
  • Helplessness
  • Loss of control
  • Threat of annihilation

What is Trauma-Informed Responding?

Adopting a trauma-informed approach  to sexual assault advocacy means attending to survivors’ emotional as well as physical safety. The goal of trauma-informed response is to  ensure that all survivors of sexual assault have access to advocacy services in an environment that is inclusive, welcoming, destigmatizing, and non-retraumatizing. Core components of a trauma-informed response are:

  • Recognize that responses to trauma may include:
      • A numbing of feelings
      • A desire to avoid things that are reminders of previous traumatic experiences
      • An increased sensitivity to these reminders, and to people, and the environment
  • Take seriously a survivor’s trauma responses (one's lived experience is more valid than an outsider's opinion)
  • Focus on understanding the whole individual and context of their experience (an assault does not define a person)
  • Respect a victim/survivor's choices and control over her own recovery
  • Emphasize the victim/survivor’s strengths
  • Focus on trust and safety

Helpful Responses

Many individuals who wish to be supportive, understanding, and safe for victims/survivors are concerned about saying the wrong thing.  Here are some helpful behaviors and statements to use if you find yourself speaking with a victim/survivor of sexual assault:

  • Warmly greet the individual and thank them for reaching out to you
  • Establish physical safety (Ask if they would like to close or leave open doors, windows, blinds, etc.)
  • Tell the victim/survivor it isn't their fault
  • Do not ask the question, “why”; the question “why” makes an individual feel defensive by implying their guilt
  • Ask what they would like to share with you
  • Use paraphrasing to demonstrate active listening and validation
  • Assure the victim/survivor that there are many normal reactions to trauma, and what they are feeling is valid
  • Reinforce that they have multiple options moving forward, and it is completely their choice
  • Do not tell a victim/survivor what they should do; provide them with options and ask what steps they would like to take
  • Ask if they feel safe, and what they need in order to do so
  • Provide contact information for campus and community resources
  • Reassure the victim/survivor that there are many offices and individuals dedicated to supporting them in their healing

Some information adapted from Trauma-Informed Care by the Ohio Domestic Violence Network.

Common Reactions to Traumatic Events

Initial Crisis: For the first few days or weeks, the assault may seem unreal. You may feel numb or you may experience intense or heightened emotions. You might even have physical symptoms of shock: feeling weak, nauseated, moving slowly, nightmares or inability to sleep. There is nothing wrong or unusual about these kinds of reactions.

Outward Adjustment: This is the time when pressure to “get on with your life” might come from within or from others in your life. Many survivors may appear, on the outside, to have forgotten about the assault or be satisfactorily “dealing with it” as they deal with practical matters such as returning to school, work, or other normal routines. Sometimes well intentioned family members, friends, or significant others encourage this. You may find yourself trying to block the experience out of your memory. This can be an important and self- protective coping mechanism for the short term.

Secondary Crisis: For many people, something happens in their life (a trigger) which may make their previous coping mechanisms ineffective, causing them to face the assault. Acknowledging the assault may be quite painful. What formerly seemed unreal or was denied may become very real to you. Survivors of sexual assault describe feeling depressed and/or having flashbacks or obsessive thoughts about the assault. You may replay the assault or parts of the assault in your mind many times. You may also experience intense anger. Again, it is important to remember that these responses are completely normal.

Integration: You are changed by the assault, but have integrated the experience as one event among many life experiences. You may feel as though you have survived the assault and have dealt with the thoughts and emotions of the trauma. You may still spend time thinking about and talking about the assault, but may find that when triggers and flashbacks do occur, the feelings surrounding the experience do not last long and may become less intense over time.

Recovery

Experiencing so many different emotions is a part of working through what has happened to you. Right now, you may wonder when you will “get your life back.” Or you may not be feeling much at all. There is no right or wrong way to react to sexual assault. Many survivors have found that patience, time, and support from others has helped them recover.

SafeHouse Center and other rape crisis centers have worked with many who have had similar experiences. A good counselor will understand and help you work through the emotional roller coaster that you may be on.

At EMU, you can reach out to Counseling and Psychological Services for mental health support, or the Women’s Resource Center for peer support.

Positive Coping Methods

Positive coping methods are those that help to reduce anxiety, lessen other distressing reactions, and improve the situation in a way that does not harm you further, and which improves things not only today, but tomorrow and in the future as well. Positive coping methods can include:

  • Muscle relaxing exercises
  • Breathing exercises- slow, deep breaths
  • Exercise in moderation, including walking, jogging, or swimming
  • Meditation, stretching, or yoga
  • Hot baths
  • Journaling
  • Taking a self-defense training or martial arts class
  • Calling a rape crisis center hotline
  • Joining a support group
  • Positive distracting activities, including recreational or work activities such as: cooking, gardening, taking a walk, drinking tea, going to the park, calling a friend, listening to music, or doing arts and crafts.

Find the strategies that work for you. What works for one person may not work for another.

Negative Coping Methods

Negative coping methods can make problems worse. They may reduce your anxiety immediately, but may cause more permanent change and additional problems. Negative coping methods can include:

  • Continuing to avoid thinking about the problem
  • Use of alcohol or drugs
  • Avoiding counseling
  • Aggressive or violent actions
  • Social isolation (keeping to yourself)
  • Overeating or restricting food
  • Cutting or hurting oneself
  • Workaholism (working too much)

Ideas for Controlling Memories of Sexual Assault

After experiencing a sexual assault you may be flooded with thoughts, feelings, or images of the assault. One helpful way to cope is to practice strategies to help you stay in the moment. Here are some steps to help you actively stay in the present or “here and now”:

  • Keep your eyes open and actively look around you. Look around the room or area where you are. Turn the light on if it is off.
  • Say a safety statement: “My name is (name). I am safe right now. I am in the present, not the past. I am at (location) and the date is (date).”
  • Touch objects around you (a pen, your purse, a book, your clothing, your chair) and notice how they feel.
  • Carry something in your pocket or purse (ring, a rock, any safe object) that you can touch whenever you have thoughts of the assault.
  • Say a coping statement: “I can cope right now. This feeling will pass.”
  • Think of people you care about (look at photographs of your best friend).
  • Run cold water over your hands.
  • Jump up and down.
  • Stretch.
  • Eat something and notice how it tastes.