Put the Focus on Victims
skip navigation 

Key Terms

Trauma- and Healing-Related Terms

Acute stress disorder: Symptoms include flashbacks, a weakened immune system, fatigue, anxiety, hypersensitivity, generalized fear, and depression. The symptoms last from a minimum of 2 days to a maximum of 4 weeks following a traumatic event.

Affect: A pattern of observable behaviors that express victims' emotions. Common examples of affect are sadness, elation, and anger. Affect is different from mood (which refers to a more sustained emotional state).

Anniversary reaction: An emotional response on the anniversary of a traumatic event. In some cases, victims may not consciously recall why they are feeling differently on that date. A common anniversary reaction is temporary depression.

Autonomic arousal: A physical response that bypasses the thinking process and can include an elevated heart rate, dilation of pupils, perspiring, and other fear responses. Victims may reexperience autonomic arousal when remembering their sexual assaults.

Counterintuitive behavior:9 Behaviors of sexual assault victims that conflict with the behavior the public expects. Without further explanation, these behaviors can translate into reasons to doubt victims' accounts of their sexual assaults.

Flashbacks: A type of spontaneous recall common to victims in the aftermath of trauma.

Flight or fight response: An automatic response following a perceived threat to survival. The response is activated in the part of the brain that regulates metabolic and autonomic function and prepares muscles to act.

Flooding: Flooding is the process of becoming overwhelmed by intrusive emotions, sensory experiences, or an intense reliving of a traumatic event.

Healing: The process of recovering from an act of violence or trauma.

Hypervigilance: This symptom of posttraumatic stress disorder may include an exaggerated startle response and/or unusual sensitivity to sounds and sights in the environment.

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD):10 A psychiatric disorder that can occur following sexual assault or other trauma and marked by clear biological changes and psychological symptoms. Victims who suffer from PTSD often relive the traumatic experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping, and feel detached or estranged from others. The symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to significantly impair the person's daily life. For example, PTSD is often linked to depression, substance abuse, memory and cognition difficulties, and other problems of physical and mental health.

Rape trauma syndrome (RTS): A spectrum of symptoms victims may experience after a sexual assault. Victims may feel the effects of RTS immediately after the assault or even weeks or months later. RTS has recently been replaced by the term "counterintuitive behavior."

Startle reaction: A symptom of both posttraumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety disorder in which an individual reacts strongly to new and unexpected stimuli in the environment. An example of a startle reaction would be jumping out of a chair when hearing a door slam.

Trigger: An event, object, person, and so forth that sets a series of thoughts in motion or reminds a victim of some aspect of his or her sexual assault. The person may be unaware of what is triggering the memory.

Vicarious trauma: The experiences of service providers who become overly empathic after listening to accounts of abuse or sexual violence by victims. Symptoms of vicarious trauma are similar to those experienced by individuals with posttraumatic stress disorder and include numbing, hypervigilance, sleep difficulties, and intrusive thoughts of traumas described by victims.