Learn that trauma is defined by the experience of the survivor.
Sexual violence has immediate and long term consequences that can be devastating for the physical, emotional and relational health of the victim. Over the past thirty years, there has been a growing body of research that can help us understand the way trauma impacts the whole person. The way we think, the way we learn, the way we remember things, the way we feel about ourselves, the way we feel about other people, and the way we make sense of the world are all profoundly altered by traumatic experience. And all of these factors are rooted in our human evolutionary experience as well as our psychobiological development.
Trauma happens when people experience an overwhelmingly negative event or series of events, from wars and natural disasters, to individual events such as sexual assault, sexual harassment, accidents and loss (e.g., of a parent). Events become traumatic due to complex interactions between:
- the person’s neurobiology (trauma can impact on how the brain works),
- whether they have had previous experiences of trauma and violence, (their own or other people they may have supported)
- the interaction of broader community and social structures that cause re-victimized when people seek healing and help from trauma, try to report an event, or experience discrimination due to stigma and stereotyping
In situations of sexual violence, trauma can be acute (resulting from a single event) or complex (from repeated experiences). Trauma can change brain and nervous-system functioning, and while these neurobiological changes may not be permanent, they can be long-lasting, and impact child and adult behaviour.
A large research study in the U.S. shows that childhood experiences, both positive and negative, have a tremendous impact on future violence victimization and perpetration, and lifelong health and opportunity. As such, early experiences are an important public health issue. Adverse childhood experiences (called ACEs), including maltreatment and exposure to family violence, can have long-term effects including stress, anxiety, depression, risky behaviours and substance use to cope with emotional pain.
See: Andrea Gonzalez: Understanding the biological impact of ACEs
Trauma is a risk factor:
People who experience abuse and neglect in childhood have increased risk of smoking, heavy drinking and drug use and high-risk sexual behaviours.
Discrimination causes trauma. Victims of sexual violence who are non-white and/or non-conforming can experience discrimination that judges their traumatic experience based on stereotypes of racism, sexism, transphobia etc. For example, an Indigenous girl may not be believed because she is Indigenous. When she tries to report, she is stereotyped and dismissed. The number of missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women in Canada reveals how widespread discrimination is a societal issue that is itself a trauma and also a cause of trauma.
Discrimination can have impact on neurobiological patterns, and even genetic structures leading to further negative trauma impacts on a person’s mental and physical health and wellbeing. The experience of discrimination for a victim of sexual violence is like kicking a person when they are already down.
Cultural safety is a philosophy and a practice included in trauma and violence informed care that draws attention to harms caused by the individual impacts of sexual violence as well as structural violence in the social system and different forms of discrimination. Cultural safety does not focus on the person’s “culture” but on the ongoing effects of history and historical forms of trauma at collective and interpersonal levels; it strives to make policies and practices safe regardless of how a person is identified, or identifies themselves, culturally.
Bessel Van der Kolk: three ways trauma can change the brain
Bessel Van der Kolk: how trauma traps survivors
Bessel Van der Kolk talks about effective methods for treating trauma
Gabor Maté: trauma and emotional pain
Peter Levine: sexual trauma- healing the sacred wound
Trauma informed care for children