Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Cognitive and Emotional Impact of Crime, Part 2

By Carol Wilson, Director, York-Poquoson Victim Witness Assistance Program

Crime and other traumatic incidents are often so devastating because these events deeply impact our brains, bodies and belief systems in ways that impair our abilities to cope. For victims of crime, the belief that the world is a safe place is damaged; they now understand that the world is dangerous, and personal control can be taken away in a moment’s notice. This realization is frightening, disturbing and often triggers a cognitive, physical, moral or religious crisis.

The goal following victimization is re-establishing equilibrium. For some victims, regaining balance may be a struggle. This is especially true with violations such as sexual assault, robbery and stalking. The emotional and cognitive impact of crime is real, and it can stop many survivors from living happy, healthy lives. If these symptoms become severe and on-going, and the individual does not seek help for them, the problems may spread to the survivor’s family life and into the workplace.

Common Effects of TraumaTrauma survivors often relive their traumatic event, both mentally and physically.

Mental symptoms include:
  • Upsetting and/or intrusive thoughts about the event or “flashbacks”
  • Bad dreams/nightmares
  • Being “returned” to feelings of the trauma by “triggers” (sights, sounds, feelings, smells that are reminders of the event)
  • Trouble controlling emotions
  • Anger/aggression & defensiveness
  • Constant stress, anxiety/fear or agitation, feeling agitated or constantly scanning the environment for dangerTrouble concentrating or thinking clearly
Physical symptoms include:
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Being easily started by noises, sudden motion
  • Feeling shaky and sweaty
  • Having trouble breathing
  • Experiencing a racing heart
Avoidance Symptoms
Re-experiencing symptoms are a sign that the body is actively struggling to cope with an event that was uncontrollable. This is often painful for the survivor, sometimes causing individuals to avoid anything that reminds them of the traumatic event. Signs of avoidance include:
  • Actively avoiding trauma-related thoughts, memories and conversations
  • Avoiding places, people and activities that might remind them of the trauma
  • Trouble remembering important parts of what happened during the trauma
  • Shutting down emotionally and feeling emotionally or physically numb
  • Feeling “cut off” from the world / Things seem strange or unreal
  • Losing interest in the things that were once enjoyed
  • Using substances like alcohol or drugs to “block” out the pain or fear
Avoidance may alleviate the symptoms for a time, but does not resolve the effects the trauma is having on the body and mind. The effects of trauma don’t just go away. Failure to face these reactions in the weeks and months following the trauma often means that long term, traumatic symptoms will persist.
Additional Effects
In addition, there are many additional or secondary symptoms that may occur after a trauma, including:
  • Self-blame, guilt and shame
  • Hopelessness, despair and depression
  • Changes in beliefs about the world as a safe place or changes in religious beliefs
  • A loss of trust
  • Social isolation or fights with friends and loved ones
  • Problems in relationships as a result of withdrawal, anger, feeling numb or detached
  • Problems with self-esteem, sense of self or self-identity
  • Feeling permanently damaged or feeling that one can never get better
  • Physical health symptoms and problems due to constant heightened stress levels
What do Survivors Need to Know?
  1. Traumas happen to many competent, healthy, strong people. No one can completely protect themselves from potentially traumatic experiences.
  2. Having symptoms after a traumatic event is not a sign of personal weakness. Many psychologically well-adjusted and physically healthy people have short-term and long-lasting reactions following traumatic experiences.
  3. Individuals reacting to trauma are NOT “going crazy”. They are experiencing symptoms and problems connected to having been in a traumatic situation.
  4. When a person understands trauma reactions better, he or she will be less fearful and better able to manage them.
  5. By recognizing the effects of traumatic events and knowing more about symptoms, survivors can better decide about getting treatment.
  6. Recovery from a traumatic event is possible. An even higher level of functioning following a traumatic event is possible.
How to Cope
Although people who have experienced a traumatic event may feel overwhelmed by symptoms, it is important to remember that these are normal reactions to an abnormal event. It is also important that individuals take care of themselves by eating properly, exercising, trying to maintain regular sleep patterns and “being good” to themselves—giving themselves permission to rest, grieve, do something fun. It is important for survivors to focus on the positive aspects of their lives. If symptoms persist, or are especially problematic, there are helpful mental health and medical resources available to provide support, intervention and relief. In traumatic reactions, early intervention is essential to regaining one’s balance and one’s life.
The Importance of Victim Support and Victim Services
Most individuals have very little experience with the Criminal or Juvenile Justice processes. Yet, at the time when they our experiencing the most trauma, they are suddenly thrust into the unfamiliar world of the judicial system. Victims typically have no knowledge of the complicated justice process and little ability or energy to engage the system when coping with their trauma. The Victim and Witness Bill of Rights Act declares that crime victims and witnesses are to be treated with dignity, respect and sensitivity, their privacy is to be protected to the extent permissible under law, that they are to be informed of the rights provided to them and to receive authorized services.
Victim-Witness Assistance Programs were created to inform victims of their rights and provide them with assistance and support. These programs work very closely with community-based services, such as rape crisis centers, domestic violence services programs, anti-drunk-driving advocacy programs and counseling agencies. The York-Poquoson Victim-Witness Assistance Program collaborates with Avalon, The Center for Sexual Assault Survivors, Colonial Behavioral Health, MADD, Transitions Family Violence Services and others.
Under the Code of Virginia, Victim-Witness Assistance Programs help victims understand and navigate the court process. Staff makes sure victims have the opportunity to be heard at all critical stages of the criminal justice process, can make the courts aware of the full impact of the crime, and help victims understand their Right to Protection, their Right to Financial Assistance, their Right to Receive Notifications, their Right to Victim Input, and their Right to Courtroom Assistance. Victim-Witness Program staff provide information about (and assistance in obtaining) levels of protection and confidentiality available under Virginia law. We provide on-going updates on court dates, defendant incarceration status and restitution payments. We also attend court with victims. But, most importantly, we provide a human contact in the system, someone who can offer crisis intervention when the impact of the crime or the court process becomes overwhelming; referrals to community resources which help mitigate the impact of the crime, and serve as a source of support throughout the criminal justice process. Ultimately, the goal of the Victim-Witness Program is to make court a little less confusing and the aftermath of crime a little less traumatic. By providing timely information and participation in the process, as well as financial assistance and resources to assist with coping needs, the goal is to help victims re-establish their sense of control over their world, regain a sense of security, and transition from victim to survivor.
For more information and helpful resources, go to:
Carol Wilson has been employed by the York-Poquoson Victim-Witness Assistance Program since 1996, and the director of the program since 2002.  She is a Credentialed Advanced Victim Advocate through the National Organization for Victim Assistance’s National Advocate Credentialing Program, and certified in Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Peer and Group Crisis Intervention through the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. She currently sits on the York-Poquoson Child Advocacy Team, the Colonial Area Intimate Partner and Family Violence Fatality Review Team, and is the Team Coordinator for the York County Violence Against Women Task Force.