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Last edited: September 14, 2012

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Women and girls may experience the effects of trauma in response to witnessing or experiencing events that threaten or which they perceive to be a threat of serious injury or death to themselves (e.g. an event involving death, or serious injury to another person, learning of an unexpected or violent death, threat of death or serious harm to a significant person in their lives). Trauma effects, similar to crisis, are generated by experiencing intense fear, helplessness or horror in response to any of these types of events. Though this can result directly following an incident and can be considered during crisis intervention, it can also be triggered by different events and occur at any time during the process of overcoming the abuse.

The physical manifestation of trauma develops when an event or experience overwhelms an individual’s normal coping mechanisms. In these situations, the brain sends a signal to the body to be on alert, and in response, various physiological changes occur in the body (e.g. increased heart rate or blood pressure, dilation of the eyes, shallow breathing, muscle tension, flushed skin, adrenaline rush, etc.).

The combined psychological and physiological changes result in hyper-arousal, changes in the brain, numbing and an altered state of mind. The nervous system becomes sensitized, increasing vulnerability to future stressors. Women may experience various painful emotional states, nightmares, etc.

Common consequences of trauma on women who have been abused include depression, memory problems, nightmares, difficulties sleeping, anxiety, panic attacks, low self-esteem, overwhelming fear, feelings of self-loathing, being out of control, numb or hyper-vigilant. Trauma can change the woman's emotions, thinking, and behaviours, influencing her relationships with others. Women may respond to these effects in three distinct ways:

  • Retreating (e.g. isolating themselves from others, dissociation (disconnecting from their bodies), depression and/or anxiety).
  • Using self-destructive behaviours (e.g. substance abuse, eating disorders, self-harm and suicidal ideation or behaviours).
  • Using destructive behaviours (e.g. aggression, violence and rages).