Common Reactions of Victims

Many crimes involve the use of force or violence against victims. Crime victims of all types of crime may experience trauma, such as physical damage to their bodies or emotional wounds or shock caused by the violence against them. Reactions to trauma vary from person to person and can last for hours, days, weeks, months or years. Every victim’s reaction will be different, and it is important to not use their reaction or lack thereof as a basis for judging the impact of their trauma.

Physical trauma: Crime victims may experience physical trauma, such as serious injury or shock to the body, as from a major accident. Victims may have cuts, bruises, fractured arms or legs or internal injuries. They may have intense stress reactions. Their breathing, blood pressure and heart rate may increase, and their muscles may tighten. They may feel exhausted but unable to sleep, and they may have headaches, increased or decreased appetites or digestive problems.

Emotional trauma: Victims may experience emotional trauma, such as emotional wounds or shocks that may have long-lasting effects. Emotional trauma may take many different forms:

  • Shock or numbness: Victims may feel frozen and cut off from their own emotions. Some victims say they feel as if they are watching a movie rather than having their own experiences. Victims may not be able to make decisions or conduct their lives as they did before the crime.
  • Denial, disbelief and anger: Victims may experience denial, an unconscious defense against painful or unbearable memories and feelings about the crime. They may experience disbelief, telling themselves that this could not have happened to them. They may feel intense anger and a desire to get even with the offender.
  • Acute stress disorder: Some crime victims may experience trouble sleeping, flashbacks, extreme tension or anxiety, outbursts of anger, memory problems, trouble concentrating and other symptoms of distress for days or weeks following a trauma. A person may be diagnosed as having acute stress disorder (ASD) if these or other mental disorders continue for a minimum of two days to up to four weeks within a month of the trauma. If these symptoms persist after a month, the diagnosis becomes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Secondary Injuries: When victims do not receive the support and help they need after the crime, they may suffer secondary injuries. They may be hurt by a lack of understanding from friends, family and the professionals with whom they come into contact, particularly if others seem to blame the victim for the crime (suggesting they should have been able to prevent or avoid it). Police, prosecutors, judges, social service providers, the media, coroners and even clergy and mental health professionals may contribute to such secondary injuries.

All rights reserved. Copyright © 2008 by the National Center for Victims of Crime. This information may be freely distributed, provided that it is distributed free of charge, reprinted in its entirety, and includes this copyright notice.