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Trauma of Victimization

By: the National Organization for Victim Assistance

How To Get Help After a Victimization

Becoming the victim of a crime leaves victims ­– and those around them – in a state where they are not thinking as clearly as they usually do, and they may feel overwhelmed. There is often financial loss and physical injury connected with victimization, but the most devastating part for many victims is the emotional pain caused by crime. It is difficult for many victims to understand that someone else wanted to hurt them. The experience of becoming a crime victim can shatter a person’s life in a variety of ways. This section will explore how that happens, and will describe some of the ways that people can put their lives together again after a crime.


The term "Everyday Wellness" describes the condition a person is in when he is not in distress or crisis. It means that, given whatever resources he has in life, he is doing the very best he can. Even though he may have problems, he is still having mostly "good days."

What is Stress?

Stress is what happens when we are "out of balance." All people exist in a normal state of balance. Each person has her own sense of balance, usually based on a certain understanding about how things are "supposed to be" in the world. Occasionally, a stressful event will move a person out of her state of balance, and it will cause her to feel uncomfortable. She will need to take some steps to get back in balance, where she will feel comfortable again. Most people, most of the time, respond effectively to most stressful events.

Becoming the victim of a crime is different for many people. It is often not a minor stressor, but a major one. The victim may feel very uncomfortable (in a state of "crisis"). It may be difficult for him to easily restore a sense of balance in life. He may not be able to think clearly about what has happened, and his feelings about the crime may be very strong. It can take a long time and a lot of work to get back to the point where he feels comfortable again (in balance). When he does establish a new sense of balance, it will be different than the balance he had before. He may now see the world very differently. For example, he may not be as trusting of other people, or may be afraid to do the things he normally does, or go to the places he normally goes.

When a person has experienced such a stressful event, it is often called a "crisis." A crisis may be caused by an "acute" (one-time) event or "chronic" (repeated) events. "Developmental stressors" come from transitions or changes in life, such as moving, changing schools or jobs, adolescence, marriage, parenthood, and growing older.

The Immediate Crisis Reaction

When there has been a crisis, such as a crime, the victim will often react to the crisis right away. The reaction that occurs within the first few minutes, hours or even days after the crime is called the immediate crisis reaction. The immediate crisis reaction is composed of two parts: physical and emotional. They are often closely connected.

The Physical Response to Crisis (Body Reactions)

Physical shock, disorientation, and numbness: "frozen fright" (which happens when a person’s body temporarily "freezes" and cannot move). Frozen fright might only last a few seconds, while a person’s body realizes that something is wrong or that the situation is dangerous. The "fight-or-flight" instinct: (which happens when a person’s body tries to defend itself against the danger by fighting, or by running away from the danger).

Either way, the body goes through many changes: The person may throw up, have a bowel movement or urinate. The person’s heart rate may speed up. The person may breathe faster, sweat, or find it difficult to be still. The person may have strong physical experiences of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting or touching Eventually, the person’s body will become very tired, and she will go to sleep. It may take quite a while for this to happen. It is not unusual for a person to wake up and be confused, and to feel upset all over again.

It is important for a victim to know that he has no control over how his body reacts to a crisis. His body is doing what it needs to do to help him survive. It may be useful to remind the victim that although some of his body’s reactions might be embarrassing, they are normal.

The Emotional Response to Crisis (Feeling Reactions)

Victims may experience shock, disbelief, and/or denial. Many victims will find it difficult to believe (or know) that they became the victim of a crime, or they may pretend that it did not happen at all. This may last for only a few moments or it may go on for months — even years. Victims often assume a more "childlike" state, and may need to be taken care of by others, at least for a little while. To some people, the crime will seem like it happened in a dream. This section explains some of the feelings a victim may experience after the shock has worn off.

Rebuilding Balance and Long-Term Crisis Reactions

The reconstruction of a new balance is the process of putting one’s life together again after a crime has happened. It is often an emotional process that is like riding a roller-coaster. There are ups and downs. Eventually, a new balance will be established, but it will be a different balance than before. It can be difficult, and for many victims it can take a long time. It includes living through bad days in order to reach good days. Crisis intervention and supportive counseling help victims move toward a new balance more effectively, but it is not an easy process.

Social Injury

If a victim is treated with dignity, compassion and respect, she may have less difficulty dealing with these immediate and long-term crisis reactions. If she is treated poorly, these reactions may be made worse. When such reactions are worsened, the actions of others are called the "social injury." Some examples of social injuries are as follows: The law enforcement officer or a family member may not believe the victim when she tries to report a crime. For a crime victim with a disability, in particular, the social injury may occur when the victim realizes that other people may not believe her simply because of her disability.

The story about the crime may be reported in the newspaper, on the television or radio, or may be a source of "gossip" in the community. This can embarrass the victim, especially if the facts are reported incorrectly, if personal information about the victim is given, or if the victim is made to appear foolish. Family, friends or even a clergy member may not be helpful or understanding. They may "blame" the victim (not always on purpose) for what happened or they may not want the victim to talk about it because it could cause the family shame.

Doctors or nurses may not always identify physical injuries as being crime-related. Other sources of social injury include mental health professionals, social service workers, victim service workers, schools or educators, victim compensation systems, disability program workers, and employers. Anyone who comes in contact with a victim can cause a social injury, through lack of information, lack of awareness of victim trauma, or by treating the victim without respect, dignity or compassion.