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How abuse affects survivors

Written by Jauhara Khan

With a little empathy and support, the community plays a role in helping victims to heal.

All forms of abuse – emotional, physical, and sexual – bring with it many emotions for survivors and their loved ones. These feelings can range from anger, confusion and sadness, to physical pain, illness and psychiatric disorders.

Vuk’uzenzele consulted with Tshwane clinical psychologists, Adel Ras and Jacques Labuschagne, to understand the psychological impact of abuse, and to find out how family, friends and communities can support survivors. 

 “When someone is being abused, the brain can perceive the threat and focuses on surviving the ordeal. Its ability to deal with emotions and abstract thought processes stops temporarily,” Ras explained. 

When the threat has passed and the abusive experience has ended, the survivor has to readjust to their environment, and the need for safety and protection becomes most important.

“Survivors are left confused, but once they have adjusted, they desperately seek out a place of safety, engaging people for assistance,” said Ras.

Once the survivor feels safe, they are able to think critically again.

Emotional impact

As time passes, survivors express feelings of numbness, helplessness, being wronged, unfairness, feeling dirty betrayal (especially if the perpetrator was someone they trusted).

There is a sense that what happened was out of their control and they cannot reconcile the experience with their own understanding of themselves.

 Survivors also report reliving experiences through nightmares or flashbacks that can slow down their process of healing.

“These feelings and reliving experiences are attempts by the mind to heal itself and should not be seen as unfavourable,” said Ras.

Individuals also attempt to avoid dealing with their emotions altogether, or try to deal with them alone, which could lead to further emotional suffering.

Mental health disorders

According to Ras and Labuschagne, the most common psychiatric diagnoses that may follow abuse include acute stress or adjustment disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety disorders.

“The survivor might experience trust and intimacy difficulties, isolation or blaming themselves, and feelings of guilt and self-esteem difficulties.”

Helping survivors of abuse

It takes courage and high levels of trust for survivors to speak out about their experiences. Survivors fear that they will be treated differently by their friends or family once they know what happened.  Ras advised family to be kind to the person who has been abused.

Ras and Labuschagne urged survivors, family members and friends to seek professional assistance from government via the Department of Health’s Crisis Centres.  

If you or a loved one need counselling after a traumatic experience, you can call the Department of Social Development Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Command Centre on 0800 428 428, or send a please call me to *120*7867#