Because everyone responds differently to a traumatic event, you may have some of these reactions more than others. The fear and anxiety that you are experiencing can be understood as reactions to a dangerous and life-threatening situation. You may experience changes in your body, your feelings and your thoughts because your view of the world and your perceptions about your safety have changed as a result of what happened to you. You may feel like a child trying to cope in an adult world. Triggers or cues that can cause anxiety may include places, times of day, certain smells or noises, or any situations that remind you of the traumatic event. As you begin to pay more attention to the times that you feel afraid, you can discover the triggers for your anxiety.
Re-experiencing the trauma is common amongst people who have been sexually abused or assaulted and the flashbacks you may be experiencing are intrusive and you probably feel that you don’t have any control over what you are feeling, thinking and experiencing during the day or at night. These symptoms occur because a traumatic experience is so shocking and so different from every day 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 try and digest it and make sense of it.
Perhaps you are seeing the world filled with danger, especially if you are not getting enough sleep. This is caused by the flight or fight responses kicking in in your body. The fight or flight response is the way we protect ourselves against danger. When we protect ourselves from danger by fighting or running away, we need a lot more energy than usual, so our bodies pump out extra adrenaline to help us get the extra energy we need to survive. This produces a constant alertness which becomes very uncomfortable when it continues for a long time even in safe situations. Another reaction is to just freeze and this reaction can also occur during the traumatic experience. When people freeze they also dissociate by becoming distant, detached and emotionally disconnected from the realities of what is happening around them.
Avoidance is another ways of managing trauma related pain. This can lead to feelings of numbness which makes it difficult for you to have either fearful or pleasant and 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 abuse. Perhaps you have felt detached and cut off from other people since the abuse took place.
You may also feel angry not only at the person who hurt you but also with others. If you are not used to feeling angry this may be scary. It may be especially confusing to feel angry at those who are closest to you. You may also be experiencing guilt and shame. Many people blame themselves for things they did or did not do to survive. Perhaps you feel ashamed because you were forced to do things that you did not want to do. Feeling guilty about what happened to you means that you are taking responsibility for what your abuser did. Although this may make you feel more in control, it can also lead to feelings of helplessness and depression and negative thoughts about yourself. It is important for you to remember that you are not responsible for what happened to you. You did not ask to be treated badly or harmed by someone else and if you are still blaming yourself you are trying to remain loyal to the abuser and minimising what happened to you. No matter what you did or didn’t do, no one has the right to hurt you. It is not necessary for you to forgive the person who hurt you instead hold them entirely responsible for their actions. You are strong enough to move beyond revenge – let them go.
You may feel sad, hopeless or despairing. You may cry more often and lose interest in people and activities you used to enjoy. You may also feel that life is not worth living. These feelings can lead to thoughts of wishing you were dead, or doing something to hurt yourself. Because the abuse has changed so much of how you see the world and yourself, it makes sense to feel sad and to grieve for what you lost because of the abuse.
If you have been assaulted recently you may be reminded of your past experiences. Once a negative experience comes to you mind, it tends to provoke memories of other negative experiences. This is the normal way in which your memory works. These negative memories may be stirred up as a result of a recent event and it may be difficult for you to think of any other situations or experiences that are not negative. In fact it may be very difficult to believe that you will ever feel happy again or have pleasant experiences. But you will. In fact you will find that it is possible for you to put these negative experiences behind you and you will start to remember or experience more positive memories and these positive memories will trigger more positive recollections and eventually you will gain a more balanced view of your life.
You may feel that you can’t trust anyone because of the experiences you have had as a child or an adult. These negative thoughts often make people feel they have been changed completely by what has happened to them. Relationships with others, even the ones you love most, can become tense and it is difficult to become intimate with people as your trust decreases. It is important to be as clear as you can in letting people in your life know what is going on. They cannot mind read. Even if they see that something is up, they can only guess at the complexity of what you are going through. The more you share with them, the better they will understand how to be there for you. Sexual relationships may also suffer after a traumatic experience. This is especially true if you have been sexually assaulted, since in addition to the lack of trust, sex itself is a reminder of the assault.
Many of the reactions to trauma are connected to one another. For example a flashback may make you feel out of control and will therefore produce fear. Many people think that their reactions to the trauma means that they are ‘going crazy’ or ‘losing it’. These thoughts can make you even more fearful. Again as you become aware of the changes you have gone through since the abuse or assault processing them through therapy will reduce the symptoms and make them less distressing.
If you are considering ringing our organisation to make an appointment to see a counsellor, we hope you will find the following information helpful.
Counselling is an opportunity to take about problems you are experiencing with someone that listens and cares. It is based on a trusting relationship developing between you and your counsellors, so that in time you feel you can talk about any issues and be heard with respect and understanding. A counsellor will seldom give direct advice or tell you what to do.
The main aim of counselling is to help you to develop an insight into any problems you may have, assess and improve your coping skills and enable you to find your inner strengths and resources. The overall effect should be that you will feel less alone and isolated, less confused and depressed as you begin to understand yourself better and also less of a victim as you discover that you do have choices and can take more control of your life.
The final judge of whether a counsellor is right for you can only be yourself and in the end you must trust your own instincts. Ask yourself do you feel safe with your counsellor, do you like their manner towards you and their attitude to your questions and do you trust them and feel able to be completely open and honest with them?
If you don’t feel respected, valued or understood, or if your experience is being minimised or distorted, that is a sign that there is a bad fit between you and the counsellor, If you feel there is something wrong in the counselling relationship, or if you get upset or angry with your counsellor, talk about in your session. Afterwards, you should feel you’ve been heard and understood. However, if your counsellor discounts your feelings or responds defensively, then you are not getting the respect you need.
We hope the above helps you to understand a little more about counselling and what you may expect but if you have any queries please do not hesitate to call on (01482) 226677.
Information for partners, family and friends
The fact that you are in a caring relationship with a survivor means that you have already accomplished something significant. Trust is an overriding issue for any survivor of abuse. If this is true you have already experienced some of the negative aspects of the situation. The very fact that the survivor is trusting you brings up his or her fears of further abuse. The times that you are the closest and most loving (physically or emotionally), are likely to be the most difficult for the survivor. However, if the survivor accepts that you truly care about them they are likely to view you as their only chance for a caring relationship and cling to you tightly which may make you feel smothered, crowded and over-whelmed.
Please remember however that you were not to blame for what happened to them. It is important that they realise that they are not the only person being affected by the abuse – and by the recovery process.
It is true that sexual abuse affects the life of a survivor whether or not they have a clear memory of what took place either as a child or an adult. It causes them to play out the aspects of the sexual trauma unconsciously in their adult relationships. Just as it is difficult for a survivor to maintain emotion and physical intimacy in relationships, it isn’t easy to sustain a relationship with a survivor.
The survivor will question every aspect of their life and their relationship cannot fail to feel the pressure. There may be times of great emotional upheaval, confusion, frustration and misunderstanding and not every relationship will survive this.
Some of the reactions you might encounter from your partner might include retreating from you physically and emotionally. They may engage in long periods of silence or require more time alone. As a result of this you may find yourself feeling rejected, confused and resentful. Unless you think that there is a likelihood that your partner will harm themselves or others it is best to do little or nothing and allow them the time they need.
Your partner will probably experience mood swings. Remember you did not cause these to happen nor are you responsible for alleviating them. Furthermore they are necessary to the healing process. Let your partner do their own recovery work. Your support will still help them to make their recovery easier. Don’t be dismayed if you also find your partner, once so completely in control of their emotions, crying all the time. Tears are an important part of the recovery process.
As your partner begins to accept the unfairness of what has happened to them, feelings of anger will begin to surface. The first target for their angry feelings will be the person that they feel the safest with, namely you. It is important to remember that if the angry response seems to be completely out of context to what is actually happening it probably has nothing to do with the present situation. Yelling back won’t solve anything. Later when the anger has subsided discuss what was going on for your partner. You can let them know that you care about them but are not willing to allow yourself to be the target for misdirected anger.
When the survivor begins to accept that they were not to blame for what happened to them – he or she is likely to search for who is. If they feel that it isn’t their fault, then it must be yours. It is easier to put the blame on you rather than on the person who abused them. Don’t accept this blame if it isn’t yours. Say that you understand they are upset. Help them to think about the situation.
It is not easy to say no to someone you care about. It becomes even more difficult when the person is obviously struggling. You may want to step in and make it all better. You want to solve the problems, relieve the pain and confusion. Even though you might want to, you can’t do everything for them. This is their recovery process and they have to go through it. It is important that you reserve what energy you need to keep your own life on track. If you burn yourself out you are of no use to your partner or yourself.
Your partner’s sexual behaviour may also change during the recovery process. The essence of abuse is taking sexual advantage of a trusting relationship. The survivor therefore needs to know that it is okay to say no and to have that refusal respected. At the same time difficult as it may be, you must respect the survivor’s need to refrain from sexual activity. Don’t take it as evidence of lack of love and caring. It probably has nothing to do with you. They are asserting their right not to have sex unless they want to do. A choice they may not have had during the abuse or sexual assault.
The survivor may also resent their loss of childhood and the anguish involved in the recovery process. They are longing for a normal life so don’t take on any blame or responsibility that clearly isn’t yours. Although it is okay to validate their feelings.
As the powerful feelings and memories generated by past hurt are dealt with openly in the present, the survivor will experience frightening emotions and unusual strains may be put on your relationship. Your partner is learning to re-evaluate their entire world. They have to learn who and what can be trusted. If your partner now starts to indicate that they do not trust you try not to personalise it. They are re-learning how to trust and the fact that they can tell you about it is evidence that they feel relatively safe with you and in time their trust will grow.
Don’t try to join your partner in his or her pain – doing that would create two victims. It will get easier in time.
…from Victims No Longer by Mike Lew.
(We have adapted what Mike Lew has written and he has give us permission to include it on our website).