Understanding Trauma

If you are a victim of a sexual assault or sexual violence or know someone who has been a victim, it is important to understand the type of trauma this type of incident can cause.  For support or if you wish to speak to someone about what has happened, please contact Counseling Services, the Behavioral Intervention Team or the Title IX coordinator.  Below is a list of valuable information from the Rape, Assault and Incest National Network (RAINN), regarding the types of trauma that victims may experience. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder that can result from a traumatic event. You may have heard the term used in relation to the military, but it can apply to survivors of any type of trauma, including sexual violence. Survivors might experience uncharacteristic feelings of stress, fear, anxiety, and nervousness—and this is perfectly normal. With PTSD, these feelings are extreme, can cause you to feel constantly in danger, and make it difficult to function in everyday life.

While all survivors react differently, there are three main symptoms of PTSD:

  1. Re-experiencing: feeling like you are reliving the event through flashbacks, dreams, or intrusive thoughts

  2. Avoidance: intentionally or subconsciously changing your behavior to avoid scenarios associated with the event or losing interest in activities you used to enjoy

  3. Hyper-arousal: feeling “on edge” all of the time, having difficulty sleeping, being easily startled, or prone to sudden outbursts

To get support or if you need someone to talk through your difficulties, contact Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at  (408) 924-5910 or counseling.services@sjsu.edu.


What is self-harm?

According to Rape, Assault, and Incest National Network (RAINN) , deliberate self-harm, also called self-injury, is when people inflict physical harm on themselves, usually in private and without suicidal intentions. Some survivors of sexual assault may use self-harm to cope with difficult or painful feelings.

Common forms of self-harm include:

  • Biting

  • Burning

  • Cutting

  • Hitting the body

  • Pulling out hair

  • Scratching and picking skin

Self-harm isn’t necessarily a warning sign for suicide, but it can be a sign that someone has survived a serious trauma. You might be trying to numb the pain, feel a release, or regain a sense of control. Unfortunately, this relief is often short-lived, and the urge to self-harm can return, encouraging a cycle of self-harm that may cause damage, infection, and sometimes life-threatening medical problems.

What can I do if I am thinking about harming myself?

  • Leave the room where the object is that you were going to use for self-harm. If this is not possible, put the object out of your sight until the urge to self-harm passes.

  • Control your breathing. Take slow deep breaths, counting to five as you inhale, holding your breath for three more seconds, then counting to five as you exhale. Repeat this five to ten times.

  • Go outside and take a walk. Describe to yourself everything you see in great detail.

  • Write it out. Write down what you are thinking and feeling. For some people this helps them move through the difficult time. Other people like writing about something different—what they’re doing on the weekend, or what they’re looking forward to.

  • Send a text message to someone—it can be about anything. It can be about how you are feeling or something that seems unimportant. Keeping your hands busy is important, and texting a friend or loved one can help you get through this time.

  • Draw on yourself or use henna tattoos on the part of the body where you wanted to self-harm.

  • Take a hot shower or a bath, but first remove any razors that are in the area. Stay in the shower or bath until the urge to self-harm fades.

  • Rub ice across the part of your body where you typically self-harm.

  • Tear up newspapers, magazines, or cardboard into the smallest pieces you can make.

If I notice self-harm, what can I do?

To an outsider, self-harm might not be very apparent. Survivors tend to do these activities in secret. They put effort into covering up signs of self-harm, like wearing long sleeves over cut skin. It’s often loved ones or people who spend a lot of time with the survivor who are the first to notice changes in behavior.

If you think that someone you care about is self-harming, you can play an important role in that person’s recovery.

  1. Start by asking them more generally how they’re doing. How are things at home? How are their relationships?

  2. Explain that you care about their well-being overall.

  3. Then, let them know you’ve noticed signs of self-harm. The survivor may be receptive or they may not be. Either way, you’ve made a positive step forward by communicating that someone notices, and someone cares about their health.

To get support or if you need someone to talk through your difficulties, contact either Counseling Services at  (408) 924-5910 or counseling.services@sjsu.edu.


A flashback is when memories of a past trauma feel as if they are taking place in the current moment. That means it’s possible to feel like the experience of sexual violence is happening all over again. During a flashback it can be difficult to connect with reality. It may even feel like the perpetrator is physically present.

Flashbacks may seem random at first. They can be triggered by fairly ordinary experiences connected with the senses, like the smell of someone’s odor or a particular tone of voice. It’s a normal response to this kind of trauma, and there are steps you can take to help manage the stress of a flashback.

What helps during a flashback?

If you realize that you are in the middle of a flashback, consider the following tips:

  • Tell yourself that you are having a flashback. Remind yourself that the actual event is over and that you survived.

  • Breathe.

    • Take slow, deep breaths by placing your hand on your stomach and taking deep breaths. You should see your hand move out with the inhalations, and watch it fall in with the exhalations.

    • When we panic, our body begins to take short, shallow breaths, and the decrease in oxygen can make you feel more panicked. Deep breathing is important because it increases the oxygen in your system and helps you move out of anxious state faster.

  • Return to the present by using the five senses.

    • Sight: Look around you. Make a list of the items in the room; count the colors or pieces of furniture around you. What do you see?
    • Smell: Breathe in a comforting scent, or focus on the smells around you. What do you smell?
    • Hearing: Listen to the noises around you, or turn on music. What do you hear?
    • Taste: Eat or drink something you enjoy. Focus on the flavor. What do you taste?
    • Touch: Hold something cold, like a piece of ice, or hot, like a mug of tea. What does it feel like?
  • Recognize what would make you feel safer.

Wrap yourself in a blanket, or go into a room by yourself and close the door. Do whatever it takes for you to feel secure.

How do I prevent flashbacks?

You may be able to take steps to prevent future flashbacks by identifying warning signs and triggers:

  • Be aware of the warning signs.

  • Flashbacks sometimes feel as though they come out of nowhere, but there are often early physical or emotional warning signs. These signs could include a change in mood, feeling pressure in your chest, or suddenly sweating. Becoming aware of the early signs of flashbacks may help you manage or prevent them.

  • Identify what experiences trigger your flashbacks.

  • Flashbacks can be triggered by a sensory feeling, an emotional memory, a reminder of the event, or even an unrelated stressful experience. Identify the experiences that trigger your flashbacks. If possible, make a plan on how to avoid these triggers or how to cope if you encounter the trigger.

To get support or if you need someone to talk through your difficulties, contact either Counseling Services at  (408) 924-5910 or counseling.services@sjsu.edu.

Sexually Transmitted Infection

A sexually transmitted infection (STI) is a bacterial or viral infection passed from one person to another through vaginal, anal, or oral contact. STIs can be transmitted whether this contact was consensual or not.

STIs can infect a person of any age or gender. Although the signs may vary, when an STI starts showing symptoms, it’s called a sexually transmitted disease, or STD.

What if I’m concerned about having an STI or STD?

  • If you want to be tested, you may need to ask. Not all healthcare professionals automatically test for STIs after a sexual assault. Even if you agree to a sexual assault forensic exam, it may not include these tests. Be aware that there may be necessary follow-up testing.

  • You may not show symptoms. Some STIs won’t show symptoms right away, but if left untreated they can worsen. Testing is the best way to diagnose and treat the infection when there are no symptoms. You can be tested at any time, no matter how much time has passed since the event.

  • You can get help. Most STIs and STDs are curable with antibiotics that you can get by visiting a healthcare professional. STIs caused by a virus, like herpes, can often be managed over time with the help of medications.

Where can I learn more and get help?

You can be tested for STIs and STDs by visiting a healthcare professional or a clinic. Find a free or low-cost clinic near you by checking out the CDC database. You may also be eligible for support from your state’s Crime Victim Compensation Program to help with the costs of tests and treatment.


Depression is a mood disorder that occurs when feelings associated with sadness and hopelessness continue for long periods of time and interrupt regular thought patterns. It can affect your behavior and your relationship with other people. Depression doesn’t discriminate—it can affect anyone of any age, gender, race, ethnicity, or religion. In 2012, an estimated 16 million adults experienced depression, according to the NIH.

It’s normal for survivors to have feelings of sadness, unhappiness, and hopelessness. If these feelings persist for an extended period of time, it may be an indicator of depression. Depression is not a sign of weakness and it’s not something you should be expected to “snap out of.” It’s a serious mental health condition and survivors can often benefit from the help of a professional.

When should I get help?

You might have a difficult time coming forward about the possibility of depression because you think you’re just “feeling down.” If these feelings are interfering with your daily life, know that there is help available.

Where can I find help and learn more?

Learn more about depression from the National Institute of Mental Health or the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

To find a mental health facility or program, you can use the Mental Health Treatment Locator function from the The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Find the center that is closest to you and best fits your needs.

There are also apps and websites that can help you manage some of these feelings. Finding Optimism is an mobile app and website that can be helpful for people who struggle with depression or anyone who wants to improve their mental health. You can use it to identify what might be causing "bad days" and what coping strategies are most effective for dealing with those scenarios.

To get support or if you need someone to talk through your difficulties, contact either Counseling Services at  (408) 924-5910 or counseling.services@sjsu.edu.

Substance Use

What are some reasons for substance use?

There are a number of reasons that survivors report using substances like alcohol and drugs. A few of these reasons include:

  • Wanting to feel better

  • Trying to numb or escape the pain

  • Fear that family or friends won’t understand

  • Confusion or self-consciousness about the experience

  • Lacking an effective support system or care

What are the warning signs for substance use?

If you are concerned that you’re using substances in a way that could be harmful to your health or have concerns for someone you care about, consider the following warning signs:

  • Spending time with new friends who may encourage substance use

  • Taking or borrowing money or valuables from family and friends to buy substances

  • Giving up past activities or hobbies that don’t involve substance use

  • Performing poorly at work or school due to substance use

  • Lying to hide substance use

  • Avoiding friends and family that criticize substance use

  • Driving while under the influence

  • Getting into legal trouble or breaking laws

To get support or if you need someone to talk through your difficulties, contact Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at  (408) 924-5910 or counseling.services@sjsu.edu.