Trauma, Sexual and Childhood Abuse

Students seeking support for sexual assault can also visit the Barnard/Columbia Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center website.

Understanding Trauma-Related Stress

The experience of trauma can have enormous human, moral, and often times political and historical  implications-it can both impact us personally as well as a community of people who are either living through the trauma, trying to support survivors, or trying to change the contexts that lead to or contribute to trauma.

An event can be understood as traumatic if a person experiencing the event(s) as, uncontrollable and inescapable, deeply distressing or disturbing, and as a stressor that may overwhelm the person's normal coping responses. It can include experiencing a serious injury to yourself or witnessing a serious injury to or the death of someone else., (2) facing imminent threats of serious injury or death to yourself or others, (3) experiencing a violation of personal physical integrity.

Unfortunately, more and more students are being exposed to various forms of trauma. From national disasters, mass shootings, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence, students and their families are being impacted by events that can overwhelm day tod ay coping strategies and resources. A student can also be exposed to singular or repeated forms of trauma."As Heerman(1997) notes, events are traumatic not because they are rare, but because they overwhelm the internal resources that usually give us a sense of control, connection, and meaning (Thema-Bryant)."

The Furman Counseling Center would like to offer you some information about the variety of ways that people can respond to traumatic experiences.  Understanding normal responses to abnormal situations can help you to better take care of yourself and others.

Common responses to international, national, or regional tragedies:

  • Shock and disbelief.  Immediately after learning about a disaster, many people may feel numb, or feel like such an event can't be real.  People may not realize immediately that they are having an emotional reaction.
  • Feeling helpless and overwhelmed. Profound feelings of loss:  for loved ones or acquaintances, for your sense of safety, for the world as you knew it.
  • Speculating about what happened, and continuing interest in seeking more information such as listening to or watching the news, checking the web for updates, talking to others about what you each know or have heard.
  • Grief, sadness, anger, and/or outrage about the tragedy
  • Wanting to check in with loved ones, even if they are not close to the disaster, or in any immediate danger.  It's normal to want to touch base with people you care about at times like this.
  • Feeling upset that things aren't getting back to normal, or wondering how they'll ever be normal again.
  • Feeling upset that others seem to be getting back to normal so quickly.
  • Feeling down about whether or not it's appropriate to be worried about things that concerned you before the tragedy, and which now may seem trivial in comparison.

Dealing With Your Reactions

First, recognize that you have been exposed to a traumatic event and that it is bound to affect you in some way.  Remember that there is no right or wrong way t think or feel about the traumatic event, and that any reaction you have it valid.

Be accepting of your own feelings and reactions, but understand that others around you may react to and cope with this event in ways that are very different from yours.  You may feel that others are being inappropriately light-hearted or conversely, are being more somber than you feel yourself.  As much as possible, try not to be judgmental.  All of us will find slightly different ways to deal with this crisis

Talking to others about the event can be very helpful.  Telling family or friends about your experience of the event and your feelings about it can be an important part of the recovery process.

Be patient with yourself as you resume the activities and tasks that are part of your everyday life.  It may be difficult or impossible to plunge back into your schedule immediately; on the other hand, you may feel guilty if you do.  Going on with your life in no way represent a a lack of respect for the gravity of the tragedy.  In fact, it is only through people getting on with their lives that we can take care of each other and address the situations that caused and resulted from the disaster.

Be aware of how much information about the event you are able to take in. For some of us, having as much information as possible helps us cope; however, if you reach a point at which you feel overwhelmed by the stories and pictures in the media, you should avoid exposing yourself to them for a while.

Give help to others. The process of coming together to help each other can be profoundly healing for everyone involved, whether it is participating in organized assistance programs of just being a good listener to a friend.

In the hours and days following such tragedies, the initial shock begins to wear off, and other feelings may emerge, along with various psychological reactions that are common to people who have experienced a traumatic event.  These psychological reactions often appear weeks or months after the event, and can manifest physically, cognitively, or emotionally.

Signs of Trauma Related Stress

Students can also experience a range fo reactions after experiencing sexual, gender based, and intimate partner violence. Sexual assault, sexual harrassment, stalking, and intimate partner violence occur on college campuses and can their impact can be wide ranging. Reactions to international, national, and regional tragedies can overlap with reactions from sexual, gencer based, and intimate partner violence.

Common physical reactions:

  • Fatigue, exhaustion--even when you've slept
  • Disrupted sleep
  • Loss of motivation
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness, or inability to relax
  • Nightmares or daydreams about the event
  • Exaggerated startle reactions
  • headaches
  • Digestive problems

Common cognitive reactions:

  • Intrusive thoughts or pictures that you can't get our of your mind
  • Disrupted concentration
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Forgetfulness
  • Misplacing or losing belongings
  • Difficulty remembering some part of the event
  • Deliberate efforts to avoid thoughts and/or feelings about the event.
  • Inability to focus on anything other than the crisis.
  • Questioning why the violence happened to you

Common emotional reactions:

  • Fear
  • Grief
  • Anger, irritability
  • Strong reactions to reminders of the event (e.g., sirens)
  • Worrying that an unpredictable tragedy might happen to you or someone you love
  • Decreased interest in activities you usually enjoy
  • Emotional numbness or feelings of detachment
  • Feeling helpless
  • Depression
  • Isolation or withdrawal
  • Shame, guilt, self-blame
  • Feeling like you are "in a haze"
  • Powerlessness
  • Feeling loss of control, especially over emotions
  • Feeling disconnected from oneself and/or othe people
  • Distrust of self and others

Common social/relational reactions

  • Sexual difficulties
  • Distancing/isolating from friends and family
  • Decreased productivity
  • Fear of being alone
  • Difficulty in relaxing
  • Increased drinking or drug use (not necessarily because of desire or for pleasure)
  • Increased sexual activity (not necessarily because of desire or for pleasure)
  • Difficulty keeping up with regular routine

Common worldview reactions

  • Questioning and/or loss of faith
  • Distrust of people
  • Distrust of self and ability to make decisions
  • Can decrease creativity

These reactions are painful, but as mentioned, are parts of the normal process of responding to an overwhelming event.  There are some ways to promote emotional healing in yourself and in others.

  • Recognize and accept your feelings as normal responses
  • Be aware that feelings about previous traumatic experiences or losses may be stirred up for you by current event(s)
  • Reach out and make contact with others when it's comfortable
  • Maintain your usual schedule as much as you can, but be flexible--give yourself permission to take "time out"
  • Get extra rest and set aside time to relax
  • Eat regular, balanced meals even if you don't feel hungry
  • Exercise or participate in some regular physical activity like walking
  • Avoid using alcohol or drugs to cope
  • Give and get support from people you trust
  • Rely on ways of coping that have worked fro you in the past, like writing in a journal, listening to music, or meditating
  • Try not to berate yourself for having any of these reactions.  After all, they are signs of your humanity.
  • Connect to communities that you trust

Some people have an intense and prolonged reaction to traumatic events called post-traumatic stress.  Post-traumatic stress can significantly interfere with your functioning, and may not become apparent until months after a traumatic event.  It is characterized by symptoms that include

  • Flashbacks of the events
  • Nightmares
  • persistent memory disturbances
  • Persistent intrusive recollections of the events
  • Self-medication, e.g. use of alcohol or drugs to avoid feelings
  • Acute and persistent anger or irritability
  • Persistent feelings of depression
  • Persistent emotional numbness and/or flooding, or alteration between the two
  • Hyperarousal, e.g. anxiety, edginess, hypervigilance
  • Panic attacks
  • Development of phobias

If you, or another student you know, is experiencing intense or prolonged reactions to this (or any) traumatic event, or if you'd just like another place to talk, please remember that the Furman Counseling Center offers confidential help and support, both in individual and group settings.  To make an appointment, or to get more information, just stop by the first floor of Hewitt Hall, or call 854-2092.

Trauma, Sexual and Childhood Abuse Links

  • In the wake of Trauma: Tips for college students. A helpful  information from SAMHSA
  • Coping with grief after community violence is a useful information about some signs of grief and anger, and provides some tips on how to cope with grief
  • David Baldwin's trauma pages is an excellent site on trauma with many resources and downloadable articles, including several on child abuse and its long-term effects.
  • Administration for Children and Families - Downloadable articles and statistics
  • National Sexual Violence Resource Center
    • Information, articles, and resources about sexual violence within and across multiple communities.
  • Rape Abuse and Incest National Network
    • 24 hour confidential online hotline, information for survivors and co-survivors, statistics, projects, and resources.
  •  Love is respect
    • Chat at
      Text loveis to 22522*
      Call 1-866-331-9474
    • Peer advocates offer support, information and advocacy to young people who have questions or concerns about their dating relationships. Provide information and support to concerned friends and family members, teachers, counselors, service providers and members of law enforcement. Free and confidential phone, live chat and texting services are available 24/7/365. Chat room, information about prevalence and dynamics of dating violence, articles about healthy relationships, quizzes about healthy relationships, and information about how to get help.
  • The Network La Red
    • The Network/La Red is a survivor-led, social justice organization that works to end partner abuse in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, BDSM, polyamorous, and queer communities. Rooted in anti-oppression principles, our work aims to create a world where all people are free from oppression. We strengthen our communities through organizing, education, and the provision of support services.
    • The Network La Red offers information, resources, hotline services (617-742-4911(v) 617-227-4911(TTY)), and trainings for organizations and groups.
  • NYC Anti-Violence Project
    • AVP provides free and confidential assistance to thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and HIV-affected people each year from all five boroughs of New York City through direct client services and community organizing and public advocacy. AVP has a reporting violence resource, a free, bilingual (English/Spanish), 24-hour, 365-day-a-year crisis intervention hotline (212-714-1141), short-term, professional counseling for survivors of all forms of violence, advocacy and accompaniment, support groups, and legal service support.

To find out more, see our list of Sexual Assualt and Intimate Partner  Self-Help Guides and Books