Common reactions to assault

There are some common reactions people have after a trauma or assault. These responses are common and in most cases they will pass with time. You may have some of these reactions more than others. For some people recovery happens slowly and some may benefit from help after an assault. Understanding your responses and feelings is the first step toward recovery.

Fear and anxiety. Anxiety is a common and natural response to a dangerous situation and may last for a while after an assault. You may become anxious when you remember your assault and sometimes anxiety may come unexpectedly. Triggers or cues that can cause anxiety may include places, times of day, certain smells or noises, or any situation that reminds you of the assault.

Re-experiencing of the trauma. People who have been assaulted often have unwanted thoughts of the assault. Some people have flashbacks, or very vivid images as if the assault is occurring again. Nightmares are also common. These symptoms occur because a traumatic experience is so shocking and different from everyday experiences that you can’t fit it into what you know about the world. So in order to understand what happened, your mind keeps bringing the memory back, as if to understand what happened and make sense of it. Reminding yourself that you are now safe and the attack happened in the past and it is just a memory is important.

Increased arousal is also a common response to trauma. This includes feeling jumpy, easily startled and having trouble concentrating or sleeping. This can lead to impatience and irritability. These reactions are due to the fight or flight response which protects us in dangerous situations. Although these feelings are uncomfortable and can feel overwhelming, they are part of your body trying to help you stay safe. Learning to breathe slowly and deeply and relax your muscles can help.

Avoidance is a common way of managing trauma memories and feelings. This includes avoiding situations that remind you of the assault. Another way to reduce discomfort is trying to push away painful thoughts and feelings. This can lead to feelings of numbness, where you find it difficult to have both fearful and pleasant loving feelings. Sometimes the painful thoughts or feelings may be so intense that your mind just blocks them out altogether, and you may not remember parts of the assault.

Anger Many people who have been assaulted feel angry not only with your attacker but also with others. If you are not used to feeling angry this may seem scary as well. It may be especially confusing to feel angry with those who are closest to you. Anger can also arise from a feeling that the world is not fair and these awful things shouldn’t happen.

Shame or blame. Trauma may lead to feelings of guilt and shame. Many people blame themselves for the attack or things they did or didn’t do. You may feel ashamed because during the assault you were forced to do something that you would not otherwise have done. Sometimes, other people or the attacker may blame you for being assaulted. You would not blame a friend who was attacked. It’s not your fault.

Depression or low mood is also a common reaction to assault. It can include feeling down, sad, hopeless or despairing. You may cry more often or lose interest in people and activities you used to enjoy. You may also feel that plans you had for the future don’t seem to matter anymore, or that life isn’t worth living. These feelings can lead to thoughts of wishing you were dead, or doing something to hurt or kill yourself. Getting support is very important.

Ways to cope:
Give yourself time and space to recover. Try not to isolate yourself and stay in contact with friends and family even if you are not able to tell them what happened yet. Understanding how you are feeling is important. Remember, you are not going mad or losing control. What you are experiencing are normal responses to when an awful thing happens.
Be gentle with yourself and ask for support - from friends, family or professionals. Please talk to the Open Doors Team if you feel you would benefit from psychological support at this difficult time.