[This paper is drawn from Chapter One of Marlene A. Young, Victim Assistance: Frontiers and
Fundamentals, a publication of the National Organization for Victim Assistance. Permission to reprint this paper is granted so long as its source is properly attributed.]
Crime victimization leaves victims, families, and friends—even the community around them—in a state of turmoil. There is often significant financial loss and physical injury connected with victimization. But the most devastating part for most victims is the emotional pain caused by crime and the aftermath. The psychological trauma of victimization can be separated into two phases: the initial crisis reaction to the violation, and the long-term stress reactions it sometimes causes, with the second of these often exacerbated by additional “assaults” by society and its institutions.
I. The Crisis Reaction
A. Individuals exist in normal state of equilibrium.
1. Each person establishes his or her own boundaries, usually based on a certain order and understanding of the world.
2. Occasional stressors will move individuals out of their state of equilibrium, but most people, most of the time, respond effectively to most stressors that are within or near their familiar range of equilibrium.
3. Trauma throws people so far out of that range that it is difficult for them to restore a sense of balance in life. When they do establish a new sense of balance, it will be a different
“graph” of normal highs and lows than described that individual’s equilibrium prior to the trauma. It will have new boundaries and a new definition.
4. Trauma may be precipitated by an “acute” stressor or many “chronic” stressors.
a. An acute stressor is usually a sudden, arbitrary, often random event. Crimes committed by strangers are key examples of such stressors.
b. A chronic stressor is one that occurs over and over again, each time pushing its victims toward the edge of their state of equilibrium, or beyond. Chronic child, spouse, or elder abuse are examples of such chronic stressors.
c. “Developmental stressors” come from transitions in life, like adolescence, marriage, parenthood, and retirement. Such stressors are relevant to the crime victim simply because people who are enduring a variety of developmental stressors in their lives are far more susceptible to intense crisis reactions.
B. The crisis reaction: the physical response.
1. Physical shock, disorientation, and numbness.
Initially people often experience a state of “frozen fright” in response to a dangerous threat. They may realize that something is terribly wrong or that something bad has
© 2001 National Organization for Victim Assistance
happened but they cannot comprehend the event or its impact. They may be unable to move or react. They may become disoriented because seconds before everything in their life was "normal" and now the world seems to be radically different and chaotic.
“ ‘Your son was murdered last night.’ Dorothy’s arms and legs went numb. The words hit her face like a brick. She couldn’t move; the bench was like stone and offered no comfort. She was out there alone with those words and this detective and the unbelievable thought that her Sheldon was no longer alive.” From “The Besses,” a chapter in
What Murder Leaves Behind, D. Magee, 1983, Dodd, Mead & Co.: NY.
[This example, like others that follow, is an illustration of how one common crisis reaction was manifested in one individual. There is a great variety of illustrations that victims and their advocates can use to describe the basic ideas; a review of several of these with any one reaction being discussed is a testament to the individuality of victims, even as they experience many of the responses reviewed here.]
2. Adrenaline immediately affects the body’s response to the event. Once the senses detect a threat, the body generates the power to fight or flee from the situation. The reaction to fight or flee is