recognising and respecting the impact of trauma

Respect the trauma they may be experiencing

There are different definitions of trauma including:

Defining trauma: ‘an event, series of events or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening, and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional or spiritual well-being’.

Traumatic events are those in which a person is harmed, where there is a serious threat of harm or where the person sees someone else being harmed.

Trauma is not a mental health illness, but it can sometimes (but not always) be the cause of mental health challenges or make an individual more vulnerable to developing issues in the future.

It is important to recognise that every person’s experience of trauma is unique.

living with trauma

Living with trauma can be frightening, exhausting and frustrating. It can cause one or more, or a combination of the following:

  • experiencing flashbacks
  • experiencing panic attacks
  • feeling separated from your own body or surroundin
  • feeling detached from the world
  • experiencing hyperarousal
  • experiencing sleep problems
  • experiencing low self-esteem
  • experiencing grief
  • self-harming or having feelings of self-harm
  • feeling like your mind and/or body is shutting down
  • experiencing suicidal feelings
  • using alcohol or other substances
  • taking risks
  • experiencing problems remembering things
  • experiencing fatigue
  • looking for ways to escape reality

Trauma can also cause a range of physical health problems and can have a long-term impact on a range of other factors in an individual’s life, such as their future relationships, employment and career opportunities, and ability to cope with change.

Understanding ‘trauma’

planning communications on trauma

Trauma is a natural human response and there are aspects of it that we think are important to recognise when planning communications about sexual harm including:

  • Trauma is an emotional response, not a mental health illness.
  • Many people ‘function’ and live with trauma daily, without others ever knowing what they have experienced.
  • It is possible to experience trauma and to flourish and thrive. Trauma is an experience not a destiny.
  • There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to respond to trauma and individuals should not have to feel pressure to ‘cope’ or ‘recover’.
  • Individuals are far more than the trauma they have experienced.
  • Trauma is generated through sexual offences. It is a legacy that a victim of a sexual offence has not chosen.
  • Just because someone may have experienced trauma, it does not mean that they have a diagnosed mental health condition (e.g. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and they may not want to be labelled with one.
  • Individuals may have experienced more than one trauma.
  • Individuals may have experienced trauma over long periods of time
  • Trauma may cause people to behave in ways that they may not have previously, and that others may not understand.
  • Trauma can affect the way that our brains function under stress.
  • Inappropriate communications can trigger traumatic responses in individuals.

Much more detailed information about trauma and how it can affect individuals can be found on the Mind website

Understanding ‘trauma’

Childhood trauma and the brain

Trauma experienced in childhood can impact the brain and the UK Trauma Council has produced a range of materials including an animation and a guide to help explain information from neuroscience research. 

Respect what they may be fearful of

Individuals who have experienced sexual harm may have very specific fears, which are often based in reality and reflective of their own personal experiences or that of people they know. These may include one or several of the following:

  • Facing their trauma
  • Not being believed or being doubted because what they experienced happened in the past
  • Some of the emotional and physical responses generated by their trauma
  • Being blamed (directly or implied) for what has happened
  • Being laughed at or made fun of
  • Being judged for finding it challenging to do things a result of their experience that other people may find easy to do (eg getting up in the morning, looking after themselves, going to the shops, going to work, being around other people, being on time for an appointment etc)
  • Talking to strangers and other people about an intimate and traumatic experience
  • Having their experience reported in the media or on social media
  • Having to be near the person who has harmed/is harming them (ie at home, work or school)
  • Having to disclose other intimate details about themselves
  • Being outed as LGBTQ+ (and then the discrimination that they may experience as a result of that)
  • Not being understood properly (for example if their first language is not English)
  • Not being able to find the words to describe what has happened (for example it can be challenging for women to find the language to describe non-consensual sex between women).
  • Not believing that their identity can be protected, particularly if they live in a small community
  • Being treated and judged as a stereotype (eg a harmful perception that all gay men are ‘promiscuous’) – myths and stereotypes experienced by the LGBTQ+ community are listed on the CPS website at
  • Being seen as someone who should have ‘fought back’ or ‘run away’
  • Having to disclose being in a polyamorous relationship
  • Having to disclose that the harm took place in breach of Covid-19 regulations (for example at a house party)
  • Having to disclose that the harm took place during what may be perceived by others as ‘unconventional sexual practices’ such as chemsex
  • Being held accountable for use of illegal drugs
  • Being judged for former convictions or breaching the law
  • Having to disclose that the harm took place when they were themselves in breach of the law
  • Being judged as a sex worker, and the harm they have experienced being perceived by others as an ‘occupational hazard’
  • Reporting a crime against someone they know
  • Reporting a crime against someone in their family
  • Reprisals from the abuser
  • Reprisals from someone in the family, friendship group or peers
  • Not being entitled to support because what happened occurred a long time ago
  • Being judged or blamed for the circumstances leading to the harm
  • Not being able to remember everything
  • Their social status being a factor in how they might be treated
  • Religious or cultural fears
  • The status of their abuser (e.g. someone in a position of power or privilege, or the abuser being someone in the workplace)
  • Losing a job due to needing to take time away from work
  • Not wanting to bring perceived shame onto their family
  • Being disowned by their family
  • What other people will think and say
  • The impact on children, parents, other family members
  • Going to a police station
  • Talking with police officers
  • How police officers or others in authority may treat them
  • Talking with someone of a specific gender
  • Having to go somewhere they don’t know for a medical examination
  • Having to experience an intimate medical examination
  • Knowing that the violence or harm is likely to happen again
  • Fear of the stigma of being ‘a rape victim’ and the label of that
  • Having nowhere to live, no source of money, or no access to healthcare if they depend on the person who is harming them.

Understand the barriers which exist for individuals and prevent them from accessing help and support

The types of barriers an individual may experience, or have experienced in the past, could include:

  • Not recognising or understanding that they are being harmed, particularly if being harmed is all they have ever known or if they have been coerced in some way
  • Not being believed by people in their family
  • Being a child
  • Being in a relationship with, or related to, the person causing the harm
  • Being dependent on the person causing the harm (for example a parent or carer)
  • Not being able to articulate what’s happened/happening to them, which is particularly relevant for children and young people
  • Not being able to read or write
  • Not knowing about or understanding consent
  • Not having the capacity to understand consent
  • Being in care or not having a family or access to their family
  • Not recognising the term ‘sexual violence’ because they perceive that no violence was involved in what happened / is happening
  • Natural responses to trauma such as: dissociation (you can find out more about dissociation on the Mind website [2] but one way of describing it can be as feeling completely numb), avoidance, guilt, panic attacks, hyperarousal, sleep problems, low self-esteem, grief, depression, suicidal feelings, self-harm, alcohol or substance misuse, irritability, anger, or flashbacks
  • Feelings of shame and embarrassment
  • Self-blame and feeling like they don’t deserve help
  • Not being able to see people who represent them / the community they come from, in the organisations offering help
  • Lack of detailed awareness/knowledge of what services provide and how specifically they may be able to help
  • Waiting lists for help and support
  • Not being ready or not feeling able to talk about their experience
  • Mistrust of the police and others
  • Being previously let down by organisations / statutory agencies
  • Being previously told by organisations that they ‘don’t meet the threshold’ to access a service that they have needed
  • Physical isolation
  • No support network and/or literally nobody to talk to
  • Any barriers associated with having one or more protected characteristics
  • Mental health difficulties or conditions (eg eating disorder, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder etc)
  • Learning disabilities or difficulties
  • Dementia
  • Reduced or limited mobility
  • Living in an abusive household
  • Living in a rural community
  • Financial difficulties or financial dependence on the person who is causing the harm
  • Language issues
  • Literacy issues
  • No, limited or monitored access to IT / the internet
  • No, limited or monitored access to a phone
  • No, limited or monitored access to transport


[1] The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration – US Department of Health and Human Sciences


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