Understanding their reactions

Family, whānau, and friends can suddenly be called on to help someone who is a victim of a crime or a traumatic event. Your caring support can help the person feel safe and more able to cope.

Crime and traumatic events are often overwhelming for those experiencing or witnessing them. People will react in their own ways. You might see someone you know doing or saying things that are different from normal. These are completely normal reactions to a traumatic situation and most people find their reactions gradually lessen in the coming days and weeks. However, some people may find they continue or get worse.

A person might:

  • be unable to remember exactly what happened – details might come back at different times and they may get things out of order. This is because the brain’s focus was on keeping the person safe and storing memories wasn’t its priority.
  • feel ongoing fear and anxiety even though the situation is over and they’re safe now
  • be jumpy, on constant alert and unable to relax
  • feel exhausted
  • seem detached, quiet, and withdrawn, or keen to be near others more and talk
  • feel guilty that they might have said or done the wrong thing at the time, let others down or didn’t do enough, even if most often this is not true
  • want to ‘keep busy’ to avoid the distress of thinking about what happened.

Their reactions can be physical: shaking, racing heart, headaches, body aches, nausea, or changes in eating or sleeping habits.

Mentally they might find it hard to concentrate on things, be forgetful, and have to deal with ongoing distressing memories, nightmares, or flashbacks, as if it’s all happening again.

Emotionally it can be a very up and down time. They may be more irritable, anxious, angry, scared, guilty. They may have mood swings.

Spiritually big life questions are common: Why did this happen? Why me/us? People might want to be near or away from others. There can be tensions within relationships.

You can find out more about common reactions to a traumatic experience here.

Recovering from trauma
It usually takes a person longer than they or others expect to recover from traumatic experiences. Recovery involves thinking through what happened, realising it’s in the past, and recognising they can now be safe again. This happens differently for everyone, in their own time. Having the support of others is really valuable for someone’s recovery. See our information sheet Coping with Trauma.

Dealing with flashbacks
Flashbacks can be terrifying. To understand more about them see Dealing with Fashbacks.

Experiencing grief as well
While the person you’re supporting is working through what’s happened, it’s likely they’ll also be grieving as they deal with difficult changes and loss. To understand more about grief, please see our information sheet When you are Grieving.

If children or young people have been affected by what’s happened
See our information sheet for parents and caregivers about Supporting your child or young person after a crime or traumatic event. Don’t hesitate to get them some extra professional help if they are struggling to cope. Helpful places to go for that help are listed towards the back of this information sheet.