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