What is Trauma?
People who have survived sexual violence react in many different ways. As a support person, being compassionate and understanding is an important part of the healing process.
Trauma is a normal response to an overwhelming event including:
- A single event, such as an assault
- Repetitive acts of violence, abuse, and harassment
- Ongoing systemic oppression as a result of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism and xenophobia, etc.
Sexual violence is one of the most common events that causes someone to be traumatized. Whether a person is traumatized by something depends on how they personally experience the event(s). The types of responses and care a person receives after the traumatic event can also play a role. Positive responses can help the healing process whereas negative responses can make the trauma worse and further harm the person.
Pre-existing/ Historic Trauma
Additionally, if and how someone is traumatized can be influenced by the presence of pre-existing trauma, including historic trauma. Historic or intergenerational trauma is felt across generations.
These forms of trauma are experienced by many Indigenous and African Nova Scotian people due to the historic and ongoing impacts of colonization, slavery, cultural genocide, and racism.
People of African descent have fought for their survival from the moment they were stolen from Africa and brought to the Americas, including the Maritimes. Over 1, 000 enslaved Black people were brought to the region by British settlers in the late 1700s.
The first African Nova Scotian communities were established by Black Loyalists in the 1700s and there are currently over 20, 000 African Nova Scotian people living in the province. These communities continue to work to overcome historic trauma, including from systemic racism.
The connections between colonization and cultural genocide and sexual violence are discussed in more depth in the Indigenous Perspectives module.
Providing Support that is Trauma-informed
There are a number of ways in which trauma can manifest in someone who has survived sexual violence:
Trauma’s impact on the brain is one of the reasons that a victim/survivor may have difficulty remembering or recounting details of the sexual violence.
When supporting a person who has been traumatized, it might appear in the following ways:
- Change in breathing (breathing quickly or holding breath)
- Muscle stiffness, difficulty relaxing
- Flood of strong emotions
- Rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure
- Startled response, flinching
- Staring into the distance
- Becoming disconnected from present and losing focus
- Inability to speak, concentrate, or respond to instructions
If you observe any of the above, pause the conversation and support the person in connecting to the here and now. Visit Grounding Techniques in Learn More for guidance.
You don’t have to be a counsellor to provide support that is trauma informed. Trauma informed support is not about treating trauma but about many of the things we’ve already addressed AND:
- Acknowledging trauma as a normal response to an overwhelming event.
- Being aware of the prevalence and impacts of trauma.
- Understanding how trauma may lead to behaviours perceived as “challenging” or “difficult”.
Remember, it is not necessary to ask the person to share the details of the traumatic event. For more information on Trauma Recovery and Resilience see the Learn More section.