You are here Understanding the impact of abuse

Last amended 
18 April 2017

Understanding the impact of abuse

The reactions to abuse and the coping strategies survivors use vary greatly from person to person. However, there are some common responses across different types of traumatic experiences. Being familiar with these reactions can help you better manage your interaction with clients.

Abuse can have a profound impact on how a person feels about himself or herself and sees the world. Common experiences include:

Guilt and Shame  Many survivors feel that the abuse or assault was their fault. This is often reinforced by how others respond to their experience. Survivors can come to believe that they are weak, bad, dirty, or permanently damaged by what happened to them.  

Trust  Abuse is a betrayal of trust. This is especially the case if the survivor knows the perpetrator. Survivors can also start questioning why the abuse happened to them and blaming themselves. As a result, many survivors find it difficult to trust other people and themselves.

Safety  A person’s sense of safety at work, in their home, community or the world may be deeply shaken or disappear entirely. They may feel as though something bad could happen at any time.

Control  Sexual and physical abuse takes away a sense of control. Some survivors feel helpless, as though there is nothing they can do to improve their situations. Others react badly to those whom they perceive as having control over them. They can become withdrawn, fearful or aggressive.

Reliving the event Survivors may experience unwanted and intrusive memories, vivid nightmares and flashbacks, and intense reactions (like strong feelings and physical sensations) when reminded of the trauma.

Feeling wound up and on edge  Survivors may have difficulty sleeping or concentrating. They may also feel angry and irritable, and take more risks. It is also not unusual for survivors to be easily startled and constantly ‘on guard’ for danger.

Avoidance of reminders of the trauma  It is common for survivors to avoid activities, places, people and thoughts that bring back memories of the trauma. These reminders can also include objects, physical sensations, smells and sounds. In order to cope, people often use a range of strategies to avoid distressing feelings and reminders of the trauma, including using drugs and alcohol, gambling or withdrawing from usual activities and people that would normally provide them with support. These strategies can lead to long-term problems and can get in the way of recovery.

Other negative consequences In addition to guilt, shame and anger, survivors may feel flat, and lose interest in day-to-day activities. They may also feel isolated and cut off from friends and family. Over time, other issues may emerge such as depression, sexual difficulties, substance abuse, eating disorders, self-harm, and suicidality.

In the case of repeated abuse and trauma occurring early in life, survivors may experience more pervasive and complex problems such as:

  • Difficulty managing emotions including recognising emotions, having extreme emotional reactions such as rage or shame or despair, having difficulties in changing feelings, and taking a long time for unpleasant feelings to settle.

  • Impulsive, self-destructive behaviour like excessive risk taking, or having frequent thoughts of suicide and self-harm.

  • Difficulties with relationships like having difficulty trusting people, feeling hostile and separate from others, and having difficulty establishing or maintaining safe relationships.


What do impacts look like for a survivor of abuse?


Responses to abuse vary  People can react very differently to a traumatic event. Some people will be quite distressed initially but then bounce back quickly and return to their usual level of functioning. Others may appear largely unaffected at first, but then go on to experience difficulties later. While many people recover after experiencing a traumatic event, the experience of trauma can elevate the risk of experiencing serious mental health problems. This is particularly the case with trauma that involves violence experienced at the hands of another person. Mental health problems commonly experienced by survivors of abuse include depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and drug or alcohol abuse.


Impacts of trauma in their own words…

…on relationships

“I don’t trust anyone… I feel like there’s just no point, because they’re just going to hurt me anyway.”


…on feelings

“Something affects my mood to a point where it intensifies, and once it hits a certain threshold, I just shut down and I just stop responding.”

…on taking risks

“Hanging out with the wrong people, going into the wrong areas, not really thinking about it; thinking, what’s the worst that can happen? When I’ve actually thought about it, it’s a really stupid idea … I think it is connected to what I’ve been through when I was younger because it, it just makes me so desensitised to everything.”


…on unhelpful ways of viewing self

“I’m not good enough … that I’m pathetic and worthless, that I’m a freak, that I’ll amount to nothing, that this is what my life is meant to be like.”

Case studies

Below are two examples of people who have experienced abuse in the military and have contacted DVA to seek compensation[1]. These case studies illustrate different types of abuse and their impacts.

Case study 1-Tom

Tom rings DVA to investigate how he could get compensated for sexual abuse that occurred during his apprenticeship in the Navy the late 1950’s. He has recently attended a VVCS Lifestyle course with his wife where he disclosed the abuse for the first time. The support he received from his wife and other course participants has encouraged him to come forward with his story. He rings stating he would like “justice” for what happened to him but that he doesn’t “trust DVA”. He has been involved with the VVAA but has not talked to an advocate about contacting DVA about the sexual abuse.

Tom was in the Navy for a little over 20 years, and was deployed during the Vietnam War. Tom was sexually abused as part of the bastardisation process when he first joined the Navy (at the age of 17). The abuse consisted of being asked to masturbate in front of other sailors and senior officers and being raped over a number of months by older sailors and officers. Tom was discharged from the Navy in the 1970s on medical grounds. Tom has a TPI pension, and has been diagnosed with PTSD and Alcohol Dependence. He reports that he had a negative experience while first lodging his claims for war-related PTSD with DVA and is still angry about how he was treated. He is constantly fearful about losing his TPI entitlement.

Tom has a history of heavy drinking but has cut down since he started seeing a counsellor at VVCS two months ago. He still binges at least twice a week, usually on weekends with friends. He still experiences some of his PTSD symptoms but now reports having “fewer nightmares and panic attacks”. He feels like he has lost his sense of purpose since he left the Navy but at the same time harbours a lot of resentment about what was done to him when he first joined. He was diagnosed with PTSD because of his experiences on a ship ferrying troops to Vietnam. However, he now reports that he also has had nightmares and intrusive thoughts about being sexually assaulted during his first months in the Navy.

Case study 2 - Stacey

Stacey rings DVA to investigate how DVA could compensate her and help her access support regarding a sexual assault that happened to her while she was deployed in Timor. She has never contacted DVA before despite hearing information about what the Department had to offer during a transition seminar she attended. She has a very hazy memory of the information provided during the seminar.

Stacey was in the Army for two years before being deployed to Timor where she was exposed for the first time to large-scale poverty. She was also sexually assaulted by a colleague during that time. She stated that she knew the perpetrator well and had briefly dated him a year and a half prior to the assault. She did not report the assault right away because she felt “confused and ashamed” about what had happened and feared that no one would believe her. She only reported what happened when she came back to Australia and discovered that the perpetrator was telling colleagues that she was a “slut” and “had it coming”. She felt that Command took her complaint seriously and helped her seek appropriate support. However, she did not end up pressing charges with police as she was “not coping at the time”. She was discharged from the army on medical grounds shortly after making the complaint and was diagnosed with Depression at the time.

She experiences intrusive images of the assault on a daily basis. She often feels scared when walking alone at night and finds herself constantly “looking over her shoulder” for a potential attacker. Her memories of Timor include feeling useful and proud on occasions, but also helpless much of the time. She feels deeply ashamed when recalling the assault and feels that she should have done more to stop it and questions herself constantly about not reporting it right away.

Stacey stated: “For a long time I thought I deserved the treatment I got because I had come into a male domain. The way you ended up feeling a lot of the time was, “They did not invite me in. I invited myself”.

Stacey is currently unemployed and reports feeling “tense and teary most of the time”. She is on antidepressants but no longer sees a therapist. She has great difficulties talking about what has happened to her and fears how this will impact on her mood.


[1] Information used in the case studies is based on typical DVA client presentations but does not refer to actual people. Any similarities with a current or former DVA client is therefore purely coincidental.