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The Cognitive and Emotional Impact of Crime, Parts 1 and 2

3/14/2012 8:00:00 AM
Written By:
Carol Wilson

The Cognitive and Emotional Impact of Crime, Part 1

Many people are aware of the financial impact of crime-the stolen car, the broken window, the medical bills from the fractured arm.  But few comprehend the cognitive and emotional cost of crime on its victims and society. Yet, while the financial burden of criminal transgressions can leave a long-lasting impact on the innocent, it is often the hidden mental effects that take the largest toll. 

What are Traumatic Events?

Traumatic events often occur suddenly and without warning.  When people find themselves in danger, they can be overwhelmed by fear, helplessness, or horror.  Common traumatic experiences include robbery, a serious accident, sexual assault, home invasion or burglary..  After these events, survivors may experience physical, mental and emotional reactions.

Specific Crimes Have Specific Effects and Specific Needs

Anycrime can trigger a reaction. Losing a loved one to violence is a devastating event and grieving is complicated by the suddenness of the crime. Family members and friends struggle with their loss while coping with participation in a court process.  And while it may be easy to see the impact that a crime such as murder can have on family and friends of the victim, other crimes also can have deep and lasting impact. 

Following victimization, many individuals cope with inconvenience caused by the crime, fear, anger or resentment, depression, self-blame, and/or a sense of loss. They may ask, "Why me?" or second-guess their reaction during the crime. If they knew the person who perpetrated the crime, they may begin to doubt their judgment and ability to assess others' character and their intentions; they may begin to distance themselves from friends.

The National Victim Center describes robbery as one of the most feared crimes because it not only involves a loss of property, but also includes the threat, or use, of violence. Some victims remember very little of the event while others may recall parts of the incident in excruciating detail. If the robbery occurred at work, victims may have difficulty returning to work, or no longer feel safe there.  In addition to injuries and loss of time from work, many who are injured in an attack may have flashbacks of the event.

Sexual assault is the most devastating form of assault. Individuals who have been sexually assaulted either as a child or an adult have experienced a violation of the body, mind, soul and spirit.  The effects of rape and other sexual violations cannot be exaggerated. The impact is even more devastating if the assault is perpetrated by someone the victim knows. Sexual assault does NOT have to involve violent force to have serious impact on the victim. Research shows that victims who experience sexual assault are significantly more likely to experience substance abuse, depression and suicidal thoughts. These effects often linger months, years, even decades after the assault occurred.  Resolving these natural reactions can be complicated by victim-blaming messages in media coverage surrounding the court case, ill-informed negative attitudes of family members or friends, and the repeated court appearances required by the criminal justice process.  

Stalking can also have severe impact.  Unlike most crimes, which occur and then end, stalking is ongoing-victims are always waiting for the next incident to occur, so they are always "looking over their shoulder."  Over time, stalking victims can become irritable, angry, paranoid; concentration suffers, normal activities may be sacrificed, relationships may end.

Finally, property crime may be one of the most overlooked areas of criminal activity in terms of its effects on its victims. Vandalism can include destructive hate messages; fraud can take elderly victims' entire life savings; identity theft can ruin a good reputation, trigger bankruptcy or lead to a false arrest. Burglary and home invasion often leave a family shaken and experiencing vulnerability; these victims frequently suffer from a sense of violation-a feeling that their home is no longer safe.

Despite the differences in all of these crimes, they all have one trait in common-for the victim, the event is unexpected, uncontrollable and can create a traumatic reaction.

How do Traumas Affect Us?

Traumatic events often "short-circuit" our ability to cope because the events are not normal.  Studies show that life-threatening events cause a series of chemicals to be released into the blood stream which trigger responses in the brain and body.  In the past, this response was simply often referred to as "Fight or Flight." Researchers now recognize that reactions may vary, and can even include "Freeze" in response to a traumatic event. Once in the bloodstream, these chemicals prepare the brain and body to survive the dangerous event.  However, these chemicals often have side effects that can linger in the body for days or weeks after the traumatic event, such as impaired memory, heightened emotions, sleeplessness and a number of other cognitive, emotional and physical disturbances.  Add this biochemical impact on the body to the shattering of one's belief in the world as a safe place, and it is believed that almost everyone would develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) if they were exposed to a severe enough trauma.  The severity of the effects often depends on the person's life experiences before the trauma, a person's natural coping skills, how serious the trauma was, and what kind of support is available from family, friends, work, religion, and professionals immediately after the trauma.  If an incident triggers a fear of death, an individual is at much greater risk for significant symptoms that may become long-lasting.

Because most people are not familiar with the impact of trauma, they often have trouble understanding the symptoms they experience. They may think the traumatic reaction is their fault: that they are going crazy or that something is wrong with them because the traumatic event is "getting to them" when they should be "strong".  Survivors may withdraw from family and friends or turn to drugs and alcohol in an attempt to feel better.  Unfortunately, these actions do not help survivors recover from the trauma.

The Cognitive and Emotional Impact of Crime, Part 2

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 Trauma

Trauma 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 danger
  • Trouble 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.

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 Internation.

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