Emotional and Physical Reactions to Violence and Abuse

By OBOS Violence & Abuse Contributors | March 14, 2005

We usually experience violence as a private crisis. Many survivors feel isolated because of a lack of support, and because of the shame that surrounds sexuality and victimization in our culture. Isolation is one of the tools used by child abusers and abusive intimate partners. 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. Such reactions are common to many people who have experienced trauma, including soldiers in wartime.

It helps some of us to recognize the commonality in our experiences. The mental health professions have classified some of the common reactions listed below as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This term is used to describe the reexperiencing of trauma and the recurrent, intrusive, and distressing recollection of the event in images, thoughts, or perceptions. It can include flashbacks, hallucinations, nightmares, dissociation (feeling of detachment from one’s body or surroundings), an intense negative response to reminders of the trauma, troubled sleep, irritability or outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, and hypervigilance.

Some common reactions to experiencing violence include:

  • Self-blame and feelings of shame and guilt
  • Fear, terror, and feeling unsafe
  • Anger and rage
  • Anger turned inward, depression, and suicidal feelings
  • Substance abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Physical symptoms
  • Self-harm
  • Grief and loss
  • Loss of control, powerlessness
  • Changes in sexuality and intimacy

Although these are common reactions, they may vary greatly from one person to another. Five women speak about the impact of sexual violence on their lives:

I was in a sexually abusive relationship in my early twenties, and that has had an impact on my physical health as I have a very difficult time with internal exams. I had cervical cancer at 22, so I know how important my annual exam is but I have to summon my strength every time.

How do you come to love your own body after sexual abuse? There was a point in my life that I hated my body. I hated myself. I had no self-confidence, and I hid under a green oversized Columbia jacket, one that could fit my father, while I was barely one hundred pounds. I would wear it in every season, summer through winter, indoors or outdoors. It was my protection. I didn’t fit that saucy Latina image; I was a lost bird that wore oversized clothing.

If a person I am with gets angry or has a behavior that seems aggressive, even if they are playing around, I get very nervous and can have panic attacks. I consider myself to be a very strong person, but when something triggers me I can feel so small and insecure again, regardless of how far I have come.

In a relationship, I have trouble giving up control. Sexually, I cannot let go enough to really enjoy myself, and I am therefore content to abstain from sex.

I’m in a committed relationship with someone I love very much. And I know that he loves me deeply and that makes sex with him difficult at times. There are times when a word he says or a way he touches me sets off a memory, and then I have to either call a halt to what we are doing or silently remind myself who I am with by saying his name over and over and over. I get frustrated and tired and angry that it has to be this way–that I can’t just relax and let go of the fear even with a person I love and trust.

As we move through the healing process, our reactions may shift or increase or decrease in intensity. For more information, see Recovering from Rape and Abuse.