What is trauma?
A traumatic event is an experience which overwhelms our usual coping skills and leaves us feeling frightened or unsafe.
“Trauma is the emotional shock we feel following a shocking or traumatic event. [....] The intensity of our feelings can often overwhelm us and can seriously disrupt our lives, as these feelings can continue long after the trauma has actually happened.” (Lee and James)
Whether an event(s) is traumatic depends not only on our individual experience of the event, but also how it negatively impacts on our emotional, social, spiritual and physical wellbeing. (NHS Education for Scotland)
We can be traumatised through:
- one-off events (such as rape or sexual assault, accidents or natural disasters);
- ongoing stress (e.g. childhood abuse or intimate partner abuse, long-term illness or pandemic);
- living in an unstable or unsafe environment; or,
- seeing someone get hurt. (Mental Health Foundation)
Sexual violence often causes trauma and the effects can last for a long time. Trauma can take different forms, but no matter what form it takes it is possible to heal from it.
How you are affected by trauma is not related to how strong you are as a person.
Trauma & the brain
A really powerful way to overcome trauma is to learn about how our brains work and how our brains have evolved to process traumatic events. It can be really empowering to understand that the way we react to trauma is completely natural and an instinctual survival mechanism. It was “our brain’s best efforts to deal with overwhelming, threatening events.” (Lee and James)
Most people think they know how they would react if they were faced with a traumatic event. There is an assumption in society that someone would fight back. But that’s not always true.
You can’t choose how your body reacts to danger. The way you react is not controlled by your logical brain. It’s your brain’s natural instinctive response. This response is controlled by the brain’s more primitive system, the limbic system. This is the part of the brain that controls basic survival needs.
When your body reacts to a dangerous situation your brain diverts blood and oxygen to the muscles and the body floods with adrenaline. This happens really quickly and your body goes into survival mode. Your body’s survival mode interferes with the processing of memory so this is why it may not be possible to recall everything that happens.
There are actually five recognised reactions your brain is hardwired to do in response to a dangerous, traumatic event. These are fight, flight, freeze, fawn & flop:
The Five Trauma Responses (graphic text)
This reaction is characterised by anger and aggression; it can include feeling defensive and/or protesting, becoming confrontational and fighting. This reaction can make you feel frustrated, irritated or make you feel rage.
The flight response is characterised by intense fear and strong desire to flee the situation.
The freeze response is characterised by feeling trapped and unable to act. It can render you in “a state of near-paralysis because of the overwhelming nature of the threat”. (Lee and James 31)
The fawn response is characterised by people-pleasing behaviours, going along with another person’s beliefs or trying to win them over. It makes you not want to say anything or causes you to close down and make yourself as small as possible, in the hope of avoiding more harm.
The flop response is similar to the fawn response but can involve blacking out, total disorientation and showing a lack of emotions
You may experience more than one of these responses being triggered at the same time and this can make understanding what happened and how you are feeling much more difficult and complicated. It can be confusing to experience different responses at the same time, e.g. wanting to run away (flight) while also being stuck, frozen on the spot (freeze), and experiencing this can disorganise your mind. It can be comforting to know that your brain acted in a completely natural way to overwhelming, abnormal events.
Rape Crisis Scotland developed a public awareness campaign that aims to challenge and change common misconceptions that there is a right or wrong way for people to react during or after a rape or sexual assault. #IJUSTFROZE came from a need to inform the public that there is no one way to react to sexual violence. Survivors often fear being judged for their behaviour if they were unable to fight back during a sexual assault, it can stop them disclosing the incident and delay seeking help and/or reporting due to fear of judgement.
Check out this video for more details about #IJUSTFROZE:
How you might be feeling
Trauma affects people in many different ways. All of the effects of trauma you may experience are valid and a natural response to an overwhelming event. Some common effects of trauma are:
How you might be feeling (graphic text)
Coping & Healing
There is no right or wrong way of coping with trauma. How you cope depends on your own circumstances and the support you have. You may need different types of support at different times to cope with practical, health or emotional needs.
You do not need to cope on your own.
Recovering from trauma will take time and it isn’t a linear process. You may experience ups and downs and setbacks and disappointments. This can be distressing but it is a totally normal part of the process of healing. It is simply your brain revisiting the events to process and come to terms with them. This is important for your brain to reframe the events and see it in the context of your life.
There’s no time limit for healing. Your traumatic experience won’t go away, but over time it will get easier to manage. Much like the process of grief, some days your feelings may feel immense, unmanageable or painful, but you will also have some days where it will feel easier and you will achieve things you never thought you would. Over time you will grow around it. You can heal from sexual violence.
We really like this diagram below from Cruse Bereavement. It shows how people who have experienced bereavement can grow around their grief. There are parallels in the process of growing around grief and growing around experiences of trauma.
Looking after yourself
- Be kind to yourself. There is no right or wrong way to heal and it can take time. The way you speak to yourself can really impact recovery. Affirmations are a good way to reinforce positive mindsets. Examples include:
- “I am healing”
- “I accept and love myself”
- “I will take one step at a time”
- “I am strong and I can handle this”
- Keep yourself grounded. Sticking to a daily routine, with regular times for eating, sleeping and waking up, can help you keep grounded in the now. Also, doing things that make you feel better, like reading, dancing and being creative, can help keep your mind occupied and distract you from focusing on the traumatic experience. We have more information on grounding exercises and ways of coping with anxiety here.
- Look after yourself physically. Try to get plenty of sleep; developing a nightly routine can be helpful to get your mind ready for bed. Move your body daily; this doesn’t have to be intense or for long. Eating little and often can help to avoid under or over eating, and eating a balanced diet can maintain your energy. Reducing alcohol and substance use helps in the long-term. Information on support with alcohol/substance use here.
- Give yourself time to rest and relax. There are many relaxation techniques such as, meditation, breathwork, listening to music, reading or painting. Find what works best for you and integrate it into your daily routine. Finding time to relax is really important for healing and keeps your body and mind healthy.
- Keep yourself connected. It can be really helpful to connect with people you trust and can talk openly to. Social connection can help feelings of loneliness and help distract your mind. You can also seek support from a service like Moray Rape Crisis. We offer individual and group support.
You are important, your feelings are valid, and you are enough.
- Burrowes, Nina. “How do people heal from trauma?” The Consent Collective. Link. Accessed 3 May 2023.
- Herman, Judith. Trauma and Recovery. Basic Books. 2015.
- Lee, Deborah, and Sophie James. The Compassionate Mind Approach to Recovering from Trauma: Using Compassion Focused Therapy. Robinson, 2012.
- Mental Health Foundation. “Trauma.” Mental Health Foundation. 11 November 2021. Link. Accessed 3 May 2023.
- NHS Education for Scotland. “What is meant by trauma?” National Trauma Training Programme. Link. Accessed 3 May 2023.
- PTSD UK. "Trauma: It's more than just 'fight or flight'." PTSD UK. Link. 2021. Accessed 3 May.
- Rape Crisis Scotland. "Coping after sexual violence". RCS. 2013.
- Rape Crisis Scotland. "Healing from sexual violence". RCS. 2013.
- Rape Crisis Scotland. "I JUST FROZE". RCS. 2017. Link. Accessed 3 May.
- Rape Crisis Scotland. "Trauma". RCS. 2013.