What is abuse-related trauma?
Abuse-related trauma can develop after a person has been hurt and/or neglected, usually in childhood. A woman may have been:
- sexually or physically abused
- emotionally abused or neglected.
As a result, the woman may have overwhelming feelings of distress, fear and helplessness.
Traumatic childhood events can change the way a person’s brain and body work. Trauma can affect the person’s emotions, memory, thinking and sense of self. Trauma can also affect relationships.
Women most often develop the effects of trauma if, as children, they felt helpless and trapped by abuse. Often the abuser was a family member or family friend.
One in ﬁve women has been sexually abused in childhood. One in two has been sexually assaulted or has experienced attempted sexual assault as an adult. Sexual abuse affects women from all backgrounds.
How do the effects of trauma develop?
Trauma is a normal response to being abused. Many children survive abuse by developing ways of coping that last into adulthood.
Children who are abused may not be able to understand that what is happening to them is wrong. Yet their bodies may register the danger and as adults their bodies still hold the memories of abuse.
As a result, many women who have been abused are easily triggered by things that remind them of the abuse. Their bodies may feel as if they are reliving the trauma, and they may have ﬂashbacks (sudden, vivid and unpleasant memories of the event).
Women cope with painful feelings in different ways. For example, they may develop an eating disorder, misuse alcohol or other drugs, or harm themselves. These behaviours may help women cope for a while. But they often make women feel more isolated and depressed, and can increase anxiety and sleeping problems.
Trauma effects can make a woman feel out of control, or that she is “going crazy.” She may feel either emotionally numb or suddenly alert and panicky. The woman may not realize that she is reacting to things that remind her of the abuse. Many people don’t know that abuse can affect their lives many years later, and do not connect the common effects of trauma to experiences of childhood abuse.
Recognizing abuse-related trauma
The signs described on the front of this brochure can be effects of trauma caused by abuse. Other common effects of trauma include:
- trouble sleeping
- having panic attacks and anxiety
- drinking or taking other drugs
- binge-eating, purging (throwing up) food or starving
- feeling like you don’t want to live or you can’t go on with your life
- repeated experiences of sexual or physical violence
- feelings of self-hate and low self-esteem
- fearing people and relationships.
Sometimes when a woman seeks help, the care provider may not link her reactions with abuse-related trauma. Women can be wrongly diagnosed and given unhelpful treatments, including some types of medicines. Often, the care provider sees the trauma effects (e.g., substance use, depression) as the problem, rather than as a result of trauma.