About trauma

This factsheet explains what trauma is and how it can affect you.

What is trauma?

The word trauma is used in two main ways: to describe an event, and to describe the reaction to it.

A traumatic event is an event - or a series of events - that is so stressful it is overwhelming. We experience traumatic events as terrifying, harmful or life threatening. Sexual assault and child sexual abuse are traumatic events.

Trauma is also used to name the normal human reaction to traumatic events.

Trauma is common and can affect anyone. It is estimated that 1 in 4 Australians have experienced trauma in childhood.  We know that women and children are more at risk of violence and abuse, and are therefore at more risk of trauma

Many people who experience a single traumatic event recover with the support of family and friends. Others will experience longer lasting reactions and seek support. Longer lasting reactions are to be expected for people who have experienced repeated traumatic events.

However you react, your response is completely normal and it is not your fault.

Are there different types of trauma?

Childhood trauma is trauma that is experienced when a person is under the age of 18. This includes something traumatic being done to a child or a child witnessing something traumatic happening to another person. The impacts can be more significant than adult trauma because children’s brains are still developing. Childhood trauma is also referred to as developmental trauma.

Single event trauma is a one-off event, like a car accident or burglary of your home. Sexual assault by a stranger is a single event trauma.

Complex trauma refers to repeated traumatic events, most often in childhood. It is called ‘complex trauma’ to distinguish it from trauma that is the result of a single incident. Complex trauma usually has more long term impacts on emotional and physical health than single incident trauma.

Intergenerational trauma is how we refer to trauma that has been passed down from one generation to the next, without the first generation ever having the chance to heal. Intergenerational trauma is known to affect groups of people who have been collectively subject to racism or societal disruption, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Holocaust survivors, refugees, and asylum seekers.

People can and do recover from all types of trauma. Some people recover on their own, and others with the support of friends and family. Many victim-survivors find specialist, trauma informed support a core part of their recovery journey. Asking for help takes a lot of courage. Victim-survivors sometimes need to try out a number of different options, but when you find the right fit for you, it can be enormously helpful and supportive.

What are trauma related symptoms?

People can experience a range of physical, mental, emotional, and behavioural reactions in response to trauma.

In some cases, these symptoms will start to reduce just a few days or weeks after the traumatic event. In some cases, the symptoms can last for many years, and the person impacted may choose to seek help with their recovery.

Common reactions to trauma include:

  • feeling anxious or in a state of high alert
  • feeling numb or shocked
  • fatigue and exhaustion
  • reduced concentration
  • disturbed sleep
  • headaches, nausea, and dizziness
  • changed appetite
  • increased drug or alcohol use

People impacted by trauma may experience some, none, or all these reactions.

People who have experienced complex trauma may also experience dissociation. Dissociation shows up in very different ways, from being ‘spaced out’ for short periods of time, to being disconnected from thoughts and feelings, and much less commonly to Dissociative Identity Disorder, which used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder. People with complex trauma are particularly vulnerable to being misdiagnosed with mental illnesses.

There is no right or wrong response, but if you are experiencing any of these you are not alone. When you’re ready, help and support is available.

What is trauma informed care?

If you have been impacted by sexual abuse and are looking for professional help, our suggestion is that it’s most helpful to work with a counsellor who offers trauma informed care.

The key principles of trauma informed care are:

  • emotional, physical, and cultural safety
  • trust
  • choice
  • collaboration
  • empowerment

A counsellor offering trauma informed care will understand that it may be challenging for you to make this step towards recovery and will do everything they can to help you feel safe.
They will believe you when you talk about what
has happened to you, and they will also believe
in your ability to heal and recover from what
has happened.

Trauma informed counsellors understand that if you have been affected by trauma, it can take time to establish trust. You will be offered choices along your journey to recovery and will be able to make all your own decisions about what support
you need.

Where to get more information?

If you have been affected by trauma, please know that you are not alone. There are lots of options and support available to you.

The Blue Knot Foundation (www.blueknot.org.au) focuses on complex trauma and has lots of useful information and resources.

Phoenix Australia (www.phoenixaustralia.org) are experts in trauma-related mental health and wellbeing and have made a helpful video explaining trauma.

VictimFocus (www.victimfocus.com) is a UK organisation focusing on sexual violence. Its free online course,  Caring for Yourself After Sexual Violence, includes two modules on trauma:

  • Understanding your own trauma responses and their purpose
  • Exploring lifelong processing of the trauma, feelings and memories

Reaching out for support can be an important way to help you work through the trauma you have experienced.   Healing is possible and everyone does this in their own way and at their own pace. Despite your trauma, you also have your own resources and strengths that can also help you recover from the impacts of sexual violence.


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