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Sexual violence and the impact of trauma

By QMAdvice 05 Feb 2024

This post was written by Kavita Jaidev who is a Sexual Assault & Harassment Adviser in the Advice & Counselling Service. She supports students who have experienced any type of sexual abuse or harassment. Kavita works from a trauma-informed perspective and her work with students is always non-judgemental and non-directive. She trusts survivors to be the experts in their own lives and experiences and aims to support them in making the choices that feel right for them.

Sexual Abuse & Sexual Violence Awareness Week takes place from 5th – 11th February and this year I wanted to highlight some of the work being done to support students at Queen Mary. As a Sexual Assault & Harassment Adviser (SAHA), I support students who have experienced sexual violence at any point in their lives. This can be more recent experiences such as rape, sexual assault or sexual harassment but also historic experiences such as childhood sexual abuse.

When working with these experiences, the thing that we talk about a lot is trauma and the reason for this is because understanding trauma helps us to understand why survivors struggle to feel “normal” in the aftermath of an incident. The reality is that the students I support are trying to manage very normal reactions to trauma and require support to do so. I hope that this blog will give you some insight into what it means to experience trauma and how this may affect either yourself or someone that you care about.

What is trauma?

Trauma is defined as a psychological, physical threat or assault to a person involving a loss of physical integrity, sense of self, safety and or survival. This is a broad definition which encompasses a wide range of events which can be traumatic for those experiencing them, including physical or sexual abuse, neglect, bullying, emotional or psychological abuse.

Sexual abuse and violence leaves survivors feeling deeply unsafe because there is a violation of their personal space and therefore personal safety. 90% of sexual violence is perpetrated by someone known to the victim and therefore the violation is also relational; there is a deep betrayal that survivors feel because the perpetrator was someone that they trusted in some way, so the breach of trust is another way in which survivors are left feeling traumatised.

Some people experience a single incident of trauma like a stranger rape, a mugging, or a car crash. Others might experience a series of multiple traumas which can sometimes be connected to each other, and these can often leave long-lasting wounds which take more time to heal and recover from. Some groups are also more likely to experience trauma, and experience it more often than others, for example, people of colour, refugees and asylum seekers, people in the LGBTQ+ community and people who experience poverty.

The Five F’s – Flight, Fight, Freeze, Flop & Friend

It’s important to understand how our brains are wired to respond to a threat physiologically because this is often related to the trauma response we then experience after the immediate threat has gone. These responses are often called the five F’s:

  • Fight – fighting, struggling or protesting
  • Flight – hiding or moving away from the threat
  • Freeze – feeling paralysed or unable to move
  • Flop – becoming limp and floppy
  • Friend – trying to befriend the person who is threatening or harming you

Fight and flight are often how we expect that we will respond in a crisis however, especially in the case of sexual violence, the freeze and flop responses are the most common. It is very common for survivors to express feeling guilt and shame for not leaving a situation or fighting back. The reality is that these responses happen because our brains determine that it is safer to freeze/flop/friend in this situation to minimise harm and that we don’t have control over these processes.

How does trauma affect people who experience it?

The aftermath of the trauma is where I work with my students. There are a lot of complex issues to navigate including the neurological and physical symptoms, the emotions and feelings relating to the incident and considering how to move forward and get life back on track.  

The impact of trauma depends on a range of factors including the duration of the trauma, whether it was a single incident or a series of incidents, how old you are when you experience the trauma and what the recovery process looked like. For example, someone who experiences a single one-off traumatic event as an adult who has appropriate support in the immediate aftermath is more likely to have a short recovery time compared to someone who experiences sustained abuse and trauma during their formative years and receives no support.

The students I see as a Sexual Assault & Harassment Adviser experience a wide range of challenges related to the trauma they have experienced:

  • Trauma leaves an emotional impact; students feel angry, sad, scared, confused and numbness and the absence of feeling.
  • Students report cognitive challenges which affect their ability to concentrate and focus on their studies, something which often comes up in the context of their studies.
  • Some students experience physical responses including flashbacks, panic attacks and nightmares which can often lead to self-harm, suicidal thoughts and use of drugs and alcohol to cope.
  • Another common impact can be difficulties with sex, intimacy and intimate relationships due to the nature of the abuse which can be tricky to manage.
  • Students can find it difficult to trust others, affecting their relationships with others as they might push people away due to the hurt they feel, and feelings of shame and self-blame.
  • Students may stop doing activities they enjoy or attending social events. My students talk to me about how they don’t feel safe anymore and so don’t participate in activities or events for fear of another incident.  This leaves them feeling isolated and alone, further exacerbating their difficulties.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

You may have heard about PTSD which is a mental health condition which encompasses a wide range of emotional, physical and neurological symptoms experienced by people who have experienced a traumatic event or events. The scope of these symptoms is extremely broad, and everyone presents differently. The bottom line is that there is no “wrong” reaction or response to trauma, but if you feel you may be experiencing PTSD, it’s important to contact your GP for support. Find out more about PTSD on the MIND website.

What support is available to you?

The first step is often one of the most difficult to take and that is to ask for help. The aftermath of a trauma is deeply confusing and disorienting but there are explanations and support available to help develop mechanisms to start the healing and recovery process.

During this time, it really important to be gentle with yourself and focus on self-care and grounding techniques which can help you to manage the intense feelings. You may not wish to share details with others but it can be okay to share only what you feel comfortable to share when asking for help and support.

  • If you experience sexual violence, then reach out to a Sexual Assault and Harassment Adviser (SAHA) who can help you understand what you’re going through and support you to access specialist services.
  • Talking therapy is one of the most common treatments for trauma, particularly trauma-focused therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprogramming) and a SAHA can support you to access the services that would support with this.
  • You should also contact your GP if you’re finding that you’re being significantly impacted by your experiences and the trauma. They can refer you within the NHS for trauma therapy but also look at medication which might help with managing issues around depression, anxiety, or sleep.