Violence and Abuse
Common Reactions to Experiencing the Violence of Rape, Battering, Incest, Abuse or Harassment
When we experience violence it is frequently a private crisis. Many survivors feel isolated because of a lack of support or because sexuality or victimization is surrounded by shame in our culture. This creates a difficult set of reactions that may be experienced by women who have been raped, battered, sexually harassed, abused as children, robbed violently, or hurt by other forms of violence. Many of these reactions are common to all people -- soldiers in wartime, robbery victims, friends and families of murdered loved ones-- who have experienced trauma.
It can help to recognize the commonality in our experiences. Mental health professions have classified some of the common reactions listed below as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a term used to describe the re-experiencing of trauma and the recurrent, intrusive, and distressing recollection of the event in images, thoughts, or perceptions. It can include flashbacks, hallucinations, nightmares, a lack of connection to one’s body or surroundings, an intense negative response to things that remind you of the trauma, troubled sleep, irritability or outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, hyper vigilance, and an exaggerated startle response. For some of us, having a name to give to this constellation of reactions is helpful. Yet it is important to note that the reactions of one person may vary greatly from those of another, and that our reactions may increase or decrease in intensity at different times in our recovery.
Some of the feelings we may have as we move through the healing process:
- Self-blame and feelings of shame and guilt
We may feel ashamed or guilty about violence done to us or what we were forced to do because we are taught that our job is to make others happy. If they aren't happy, we--not they--are to blame. If anything goes wrong, it must be our fault. Blaming the victim releases the individuals who commit violence from responsibility for what they have done. Friends or family may blame the victim in order to feel safe themselves: “She got raped because she walked alone after midnight. I'd never do that, so rape won't happen to me.''
- Fear, terror, and feeling unsafe
There is nowhere that feels safe anymore. When I'm home I'm afraid that someone will break into my house; when I'm out, I'm afraid that I'll be attacked. My guard is always up.
- Anger and rage
While it is normal to feel anger and rage, these emotions are often hard for women to express. We have been socialized to be nice and hide our anger. For many of us, directing anger toward the perpetrator may generate intense feelings of terror. We may sometimes direct our feelings of anger toward others in our life, where it feels safer. While this can be confusing for us and our loved ones, it is, unfortunately, quite normal.
- Anger turned inward, depression, and suicidal feelings
If we have a hard time realizing our anger or expressing it, we may turn it inward. This can lead to depression and self-destructive feelings, or even a desire to take our own life.
- Substance abuse
Many of us who experience violence find no outlet for the feelings associated with the trauma and may self-medicate with alcohol or drugs to help cope with overwhelming feelings of terror, grief, and anger. This can lead to addiction and the need for help with a substance abuse problem. Survivors in treatment may find that the feelings related to the violence come up when they stop relying on the substance. If this happens, it is essential to have support for the feelings connected to the abuse and violence and for recovery from substance abuse.
I thought that everything would be better once I stopped drinking, but now I have nightmares about the abuse I went through as a child. It makes it hard to keep my promise to myself to stay sober.
- Eating disorders
Survivors often develop eating problems in the wake of violence and abuse. These may take several forms, including bulimia, anorexia, compulsive overeating, and other forms of disordered eating. Each of these can develop into serious threats to one's health.
- Physical symptoms
These may include headaches, body aches, stomach and intestinal problems, fatigue, or chronic illnesses.
Some survivors engage in various self-destructive behaviors as a way to deal with the pain. These may include risk-taking, cutting oneself with sharp objects, or hitting or burning oneself. Many of us feel that the physical pain evoked by self-injury diminishes the intense emotional pain. Self-injury can also be a way of expressing anger and other strong emotions that were repressed. For others who feel totally numb, self-injury may be a way to convince ourselves that we feel something. For still others, self-injury is a way to replay an abusive experience in order to regain control of it emotionally.
- Grief and loss
The violence we have experienced may challenge our ideas of whom we can trust or where we are safe. Throughout the healing process, we may experience grief over parts of our life that we fee we missed. Some of us feel a loss of innocence or a loss of our basic sense of self.
- Loss of control, powerlessness
Violence against us robs us of power and control. We may feel powerless in general or in certain situations.
We may feel as though no one can possibly understand. Or we may feel embarrassed that our healing process is taking as long as it is. Family members may be encouraging us to “just put it in the past” or “get on with your life” while our feelings are still very real and troubling. We may not want to talk to anyone about the violence for fear of being disbelieved or rejected.
- Flashbacks and nightmares
Flashbacks and nightmares can feel overwhelming and frightening, although they are common after experiencing violence. A flashback is a memory that is experienced with one or more of the physical senses. A nightmare is a dream that sometimes involves aspects or pieces of the assault but can be combined with other events or aspects of the person's life.
I close my eyes to go to sleep and all I can see is the rape. I feel as though it is happening to me over and over.
- Sensory triggers
Survivors may re-live violence with all of our senses. Triggers are circumstances that are the same or similar to those that occurred during the violence and that bring up feelings related to what happened. Certain smells, sights, sounds, places, or even times of the year may bring about feelings related to the assault.
During the violence or afterwards we may feel like we have left our bodiesy, or are numb and cannot feel anything. These feelings of detachment are a psychological defense mechanism that helped us to cope with a traumatic situation in the past but may create difficulties in the present. For many of us, finding a way to reintegrate these feelings is part of the process of healing.
When my uncle had sex with me, I felt like I was above the bed, looking down at a little girl who looked like me.
When I am with a john, I just blank out. It is not the real me.
- Changes in sexuality and intimacy
While some of us experience fear and aversion to sex and intimacy, others find we want more relationships or sex than before. This may change throughout our healing process.
- Spiritual crisis
Violence against us often results in an intense spiritual or religious crisis. We may feel a death of our spirit. We may feel angry toward a supreme being or lose our faith completely.
Written by: Margaret Lazarus with Renner Wunderlich, Diane Rosenfeld, and Stacey Kabat.
Last revised: March 2005
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