Abuse & Trauma

Abuse-related trauma can develop after someone has been sexually or physically abused and/or emotionally abused or neglected, usually in childhood. The abuser is often an older family member or a close family friend or relative.

Trauma can change the way a person develops, emotionally and psychologically. This is because traumatic events can disrupt your emotions, memory, consciousness and sense of self.

Abuse experience can affect person’s relationships and attachment to others. It can change the way one’s brain and body work.

Whether an event is considered traumatic is based on a person’s own experience. A “traumatic event” (incident that causes trauma) may overwhelm a person’s ability to cope. She/he may feel as though she/he is “going crazy.” Many abused women feel distressed, afraid and helpless.

Traumatic events come in many forms, and people cope with them in different ways, but there are some patterns in the ways people respond to abuse. 

These patterns depend on:

  • the person’s age at the time of the abuse

  • the abuse survivor’s relationship to the person who abused her/him

  • whatever the abuse happened once or was repeated over time.

Trauma (post-traumatic stress)

Life-threatening or overwhelming events such as car accidents, natural disasters, war, or sexual or physical assault may lead to post-traumatic stress.

Post-traumatic stress symptoms might develop long after the event is over and negative effects may last for many years.

However, many survivors who experienced abuse may not think their abuse experiences were very serious and cope by minimizing the effects of the abuse on their lives, making the abuse seem less important.

Simple and complex trauma

Simple trauma results from a one-time incident, such as a rape or serious car accident. The person may:

  • have nightmares or flashbacks about the traumatic event (a flashback is a sudden, disruptive and vivid re-experiencing of a traumatic event)

  • avoid things that remind her/him of the event

  • feel numb

  • spend less time with family and friends

  • lose interest in everyday activities

  • always on guard or alert to danger.

Complex trauma usually develops if the abuse:

a. happened over a long period of time b. was repeated many times c. was committed by the person’s caregivers, and d. happened early in life, especially if the child experienced emotional neglect or poor attachment in his or her family.

Responses to complex post-traumatic stress may include:

  • having general feelings of despair

  • feeling that life is meaningless or worthless

  • experiencing depression

  • feeling unexplained shame or guilt

  • having problems trusting or being close to others

  • being prone to emotional outbursts and impulsiveness

  • having difficulty feeling calm or relaxed

  • having long-term problems with sleeping

  • not feeling entitled to you own feelings, opinions or wishes

  • feeling that you don't deserve success and happiness.

Complex post-traumatic stress can also develop in adulthood, when abuse happens over a long time (for example, when a woman is battered by her partner over a number of years).

Abuse and mental health disorders

To cope with painful feelings, abused person may:

  • develop an eating disorder

  • develop chronic depression

  • have sleeping problems

  • anxiety problems

  • misuse alcohol or other drugs

  • self-harm by cutting or burning themselves.

Understanding yourself with empathy and respect

As a result, many survivors of abuse still blame themselves. They may not trust others. They may believe that others will not treat them respectfully or understand their feelings.

The goal of psychotherapy is to help you heal by listening respectfully and with empathy and care.

Survivors learn to have empathy for themselves both by being treated respectfully and by leaning about normal responses to trauma. Learning that many of the behaviors that survivor developed are normal reactions to overwhelming experiences will help feel less shame and responsibility for what she/he has experienced.

Links and Resources

Child Line

Teddy Bear Clinic

Rape Line

Crisis Line

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