The Impact of Shame And Blame After Trauma

Anxiety is common after trauma

Doubting The Victim

I recently listened to The Anatomy of Doubt, episode #581 of This American Life. The first half of the episode was about Shannon, who was sexually assaulted by a stranger who entered her home through an unlocked door.

Growing up she lived in multiple foster homes and became quite close to two of her foster mothers. After the sexual assault she called these two women and some friends to share what happened. Both mothers chose not to believe her. They told the interviewers that, at the time, they thought she was only trying to get attention. They communicated their doubts to the police too. I don’t want to rehash the entire episode (you can listen to it HERE) but not only did the police close the case without an investigation, they also charged Shannon with filing a false police report.


Years later, when the perpetrator was caught for another sexual assault, investigators found Shannon’s ID and photos taken that night in his apartment. He confessed to stalking and sexually assaulting many women, including her.

Doubting Your Memories

This story has stayed with me. It got me thinking, What is the impact on a trauma survivor when the people you trust don’t trust you? Shannon told the TAL interviewers that she began to doubt her memories. Her two primary supports and the police all implied she was lying. Although she was violated in her own home, she began to question what happened.

So, how do you overcome a traumatic experience when no one believes you, and this leads you to lose faith in yourself?

Trauma and PTSD

Traumatic experiences can lead some people to developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Nightmares or flashbacks
  • Avoiding things that remind you of the experience
  • Avoiding social situations
  • Distrust of the world and others
  • Numbing
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Trouble focusing
  • Easily startled
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Substance use

Other people might look for ways to avoid thinking or talking about what happened. Unfortunately, avoiding difficult emotions is usually a temporary fix, and can result in anxiety and depression.

You Deserve To Be Heard

You might say, this was one woman’s story—not a common occurrence.

Unfortunately, I can state from professional experience that it happens more often than you think. For years I worked as a crisis counselor for abuse victims at a local hospital. I had the privilege to counsel men, women and children who had experienced sexual assault, domestic violence, vulnerable adult abuse or child abuse during their lifetime.

Many survivors told me that when they disclosed the traumatic experiences to family, friends and/or police, it was suggested that they were lying or were partially to blame for what happened.

Many of those who came away from their traumatic experience feeling they were not supported or believed, later in life struggled with significant mental health and/or substance use issues.

Trauma, PTSD and Resilience

Counseling builds resilience after trauma

Research suggests that one of the key factors in resilience, or the ability to bounce back from trauma, is having a good support network and strong social connections such as family and friends. Psychiatrist Kathryn M. Connor, MD, wrote about measuring resilience after trauma in an article in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. Another protective factor is the ability to call on your past experiences for a reference when facing potential challenges in the future.

According to Dr. Connor, “Resilience has been shown to protect against posttrauma breakdown and may help alleviate an individual’s feelings of helplessness…” and potentially keep them from acquiring chronic PTSD.

It’s difficult enough for survivors to share what happened to them, because they often feel they are somehow to blame, or are shamed by the experience. If you were then questioned about the validity of your disclosure, it makes sense that such doubt would have an impact your ability to move on and heal. It would also affect how you handled any future trauma, making it difficult to trust others in a crisis.

How Counseling Can Help

Survivors of abuse have a lot of obstacles to overcome to move on from the trauma. The survivors I worked with who said their stories were doubted, or were told they were responsible for the traumatic experience often didn’t want to talk about the trauma, and avoided therapy, although they were struggling. Well, no wonder! Who would want to face the prospect of not being believed once again?

That being said, counseling can offer the opportunity to be heard, without judgment. Counseling moves at your pace, and you should never feel forced to talk about something until you’re ready to discuss it.

Counseling can also provide a safe space to explore the trauma while providing strategies for coping and moving forward.

Other Ways Counseling Can Help

Counseling can provide other tools to support healing, through:

  • Relaxations skills to stop your mind from racing, and calm your anxiety
  • Mindfulness techniques to keep you present in the here and now, instead of worrying about   past and future events
  • Body work to help understand the bodymind experience after trauma and improve self-regulation
  • Challenging the negative beliefs that undermine your self confidence, and make you feel “less than”
  • Art therapy to explore trauma through creativity
  • Play Therapy most often for children, to explore trauma through play
  • Group Therapy to share common experiences and get support  

Please share your thoughts below.

If you would like more information on how counseling can help you overcome a difficult life experience you can CLICK HERE to learn more about my Annapolis counseling practice. Or CONTACT ME to set up an appointment.

Elizabeth Cush, MA, LCPC, is an Annapolis therapist helping people manage their stress and anxiety. Progression Counseling, offices in Arnold and Annapolis. 410-340-8469

The Anxious Traveler

Anxious traveler

Vacation Anxiety

My family recently took an overseas vacation and it got me thinking about the effects of travel on anxiety. Travel is stressful. Many things are beyond our control, and this can trigger anxiety and stress.

Humans And Life Are Messy

The reality is that we can’t control much of anything in our lives except ourselves. We have even less control over situations when traveling with others to an unfamiliar place. Here are a few things that can take control of our vacations in a hurry:

  • Each person has a unique travel agenda
  • Hunger
  • Being tired and cranky
  • Getting lost
  • Stuff is closed
  • Getting caught in the rain and no rain gear because the Weather Channel said there was only a 10 percent chance of precipitation (this happened to us)

During our trip, when it seemed like all of the above messy issues were in play, I began to feel a looming anxiety. My anxiety usually starts in my chest. I feel tightness and then an increased sense of danger or fear. It is uncomfortable, and my first response is to try to figure out how to make it go away. I started thinking of things I could say to make everyone laugh, and to ease the tension. I wanted to try to accommodate everyone’s needs, in order to make them all happy.

How Our Body Reacts to Anxiety

When we’re in a situation that makes us anxious, our brain then goes into protection mode and gets us ready to fight, flee or freeze. The bodily functions that work to keep us safe, and have been around since forever, start cranking. Our heart races, skin gets flushed, breath quickens and muscles tense. Once the process starts it’s harder to get back to an emotional and physical balance.

If you want to know more about the physical affects of anxiety you can read more about it here

And here is an infographic on the body’s response to anxiety.

Using Mindfulness When Life Gets Uncomfortable

Practicing mindfulness can help us to take a step back and check in with ourselves when the anxiety begins. Mindfulness allows us to notice those physical symptoms and gives us a chance to interrupt the cycle.

If we can learn to calm ourselves before the anxiety kicks into high gear, we can maintain emotional balance even in stressful situations.

Allowing your thoughts to come and go like waves on the ocean, mindfulness calms the anxious mind

Allowing your thoughts to come and go like waves on the ocean, mindfulness calms the anxious mind

7 Steps to Help Recognize Anxiety Before It Takes Over

  1. Take note of situations that make you anxious
  2. Ask yourself, “What is the first sign of my anxiety being triggered?” Often it is a physical response.
  3. Pay attention to your physical symptoms, especially if you know the situation would trigger anxiety.
  4. When the physical symptoms appear, STOP whatever you are doing.
  5. Take a slow deep breath. Take another… and another.
  6. Ask yourself in a kind, non-judgmental way, “What’s going on for me, right now?”
  7. Acknowledge the situations that are beyond your control.

So, while we were walking down a beautiful street, filled with shops, people and sights I had never seen before—which I was totally missing because I was so caught up in how to make everyone happy—I noticed I was anxious and took a slow, deep breath and asked myself what was going on for me.

In that moment, I realized that although my family was cranky, hungry, and everyone’s needs were not being met, it was not up to me to make each person happy. Not only was it not up to me, but also it was an impossible task!

Learning to Accept the Things We Can’t Control

As I said, our anxiety is triggered by situations where we feel powerless. In reality, we don’t have the power to control most of the stuff in our lives, and that means we have the potential be anxious a lot. The key to managing the anxiety is to be able to acknowledge that we have no control, and that this is OK.

If we can acknowledge that life and humans are messy and imperfect, and understand that we can’t control a lot of what happens, then we can allow events to unfold naturally and this can reduce our anxiety. By letting go of the need to “fix-it” or control it we can be there fully and appreciate what is happening in the moment.

For the rest of the journey I worked to let go of the need to take charge of everyone else’s experiences. To recognize the value of being together as a family, in a beautiful country, and to take note of the good and the stressful times together allowed me to enjoy each moment as it came along, and made for an incredibly memorable experience.

I will be leading mindfulness groups for women beginning in October. If you're interested in signing up, or learning more please drop me a line.

This blog post was featured in the Health & Fitness section of the Severna Park Voice.

Elizabeth Cush, MA, LCPC, is an Annapolis therapist helping people manage their stress and anxiety. Progression Counseling, offices in Annapolis. 410-340-8469