Understanding ‘trauma’

Understanding ‘trauma’

Recognising trauma

Sexual offences can generate trauma, so to be able to communicate effectively about sexual harm, it is important to understand what trauma is and how it can affect individuals. When we only share communications message which relate to the act of a sexual offence, we risk making our content about ‘the law’ and not about ‘the person’.

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. [1]

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 surroundings
  • 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’
Understanding ‘trauma’

What to consider when planning communications

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. 


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

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