Survivor’s Head Space – Ongoing Stressors.

The more people I talk to, the more I realise that there’s often a real lack of awareness of the potential physical, emotional, psychological, and even spiritual long-term impact of violent incidents. And it’s not that people are callous or impatient: it’s that they genuinely can’t empathise or sympathise because they just don’t get it. They haven’t experienced certain situations, so they can’t put themselves in the head space of the survivors. I’m going to be writing a few blogs presenting some of the main disconnects.

Ongoing stressors. 

Survivors may be a bit more tightly wound than normal for an extended period of time. This is often seen as related to the impact of trauma and people’s varying abilities in processing it, but this is not necessarily the case. The issue can have less to do with the survivors ability to handle stress and more with the sheer number and intensity of the stressors they are subjected to.

The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale provides a handy guide for calculating the level of stress someone is under based on the stressors they are subjected to. Interpersonal violence is not listed; however, some of its resulting effects are.I believe that the way many people deal with survivors would be instantly improved if they took the time to go through the list and tick the relevant stressors before passing judgement on a survivor’s coping abilities.

Let’s take something light and jolly: a domestic incident in which Partner A is violently attacked by Partner B. Partner A defends him/herself and in doing so causes the death of Partner B. S/he claims self-defence but is jailed pending trial. The possible resulting stressors and their intensity are:

1 Death of spouse (100)
4 Jail term (63)
6 Personal injury or illness (53)
8 Fired at work (47)
16 Change in financial state (38)
21 Foreclosure of mortgage or loan (30)
23 Son or daughter leaving home (29)
24 Trouble with in-laws (29)
28 Change in living conditions (25)
31 Change in work hours or conditions (20)
32 Change in residence (20)
34 Change in recreation (19)
35 Change in church activities (19)
36 Change in social activities (18)
38 Change in sleeping habits (16)
39 Change in number of family get-togethers (15)
40 Change in eating habits (15)

This gives us a total score of 556, which is insanely high. And, although it is a pretty bleak worst case scenario, it does not take into account the psychological impact of the specific event, the absence of certain potentially traumatic experiences from the list (e.g. battery, court attendances, medical procedures), or the fact that each separate event should be counted individually.

Even events in which one is found completely innocent and is free of legal repercussions may have fallouts that take months or years to resolve, if they ever do. For instance, after a sexual assault it takes 3-6 months to find out if it has resulted in an HIV infection. If the result is positive, that is something that will have to be handled for the rest of one’s life. In domestic situations a violent partner may have a huge amount of control over capital and financial resources, or ongoing visiting rights over children. The survivor may have to manage contact and all associated risks for years to come. And, lo and behold, guilty parties who are being punished can be particularly non-cooperative towards the people they consider responsible for that punishment.

All too often onlookers tend to think that a violent event is over when it ends, completely disregarding the aftermath. They expect survivors to just put the event behind them and carry on as normal, or see a failure to do so as a result of personal weakness. No consideration is given to the fact that survivors may still be dealing with very real, practical, and measurable stressors.

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