Reactions by victims of a criminal offence and their relatives

Being a victim of a criminal offence can trigger a number of physical and behavioural reactions. You may experience a range of thoughts and emotions that can be difficult to manage. Even though these reactions are quite normal, you may feel that you cannot cope with them and that you are losing control, which can be quite frightening.

You may identify with many or none of the reactions described here. There is no set pattern to how you might feel or react. We all react in different ways to overcome difficulties in our lives. Usually these reactions work very well and help us. However, when faced with a crime, the impact will be greater and our usual reactions may not be sufficient to cope.

Trauma-related dissociation

Being a victim, some people will experience dissociation, characterised by a change in their state of consciousness during the event. This allows them to cut themselves off, at least in part, from the reality and violence of the event, which is so intense that it becomes unbearable. For example, trauma-related dissociation can be expressed as:

  • The feeling of being disconnected from your body, of no longer feeling any emotion or physical sensation;
  • A feeling of unreality, of like being in a film, of being ‘in a bubble’ or having ‘an out of body experience’;
  • Changes in your perception of time, places and people;
  • Psychological and physical immobilisation (inability to think and move);
  • Automatic actions that you are unaware of doing.


Being a victim, some people constantly relive what happened to them. This can take the form of flashbacks, recurrent and intrusive memories beyond the victim’s control, arriving unbidden. Flashbacks can be triggered by an image, a smell, a sound, physical contact, etc. The memories can give the impression that the event is happening again (‘as if’) with the same psychological suffering.

Anxiety and avoidance

Being a victim, some people experience unease, acute stress, permanent and excessive anxiety. This feeling of discomfort or fear will stop them carrying out their daily activities. The victim may display avoidance behaviour such as not wanting to leave the house, or staying away from any situations (e.g. places, discussions) that remind them of the circumstances in which the crime was committed. Psychological suffering can also manifest itself physically (skin diseases, back pain, neck pain, digestive problems, etc.).

Mood disorders and depressive symptoms

Being a victim, some people have difficulty regulating or controlling their own emotions. They can switch from one emotion to another in a matter of seconds and can no longer recognise themselves. Victims may feel hypersensitive, irritable, impulsive, impatient, or even become aggressive in fits of anger. Some victims may exhibit signs of depression, such as a low mood, decreased interest, extreme fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, loss of hope and dark thoughts (recurrent thoughts of death or suicide). If the suicidal thoughts intensify, it is important to seek outside help (e.g. from relatives or health professionals).

Sleep disorders

As a victim, some people experience nocturnal episodes that disrupt the quality, quantity, or timing of their sleep. These disruptions may involve difficulties in falling asleep, insomnia, early awakening, traumatic nightmares, non-restorative sleep (such as not feeling like you have slept), etc.

Hyper-vigilance and attention and concentration disorders

Being a victim, some people are always on alert, on the lookout. The victim’s brain is always at a maximum level of vigilance, because it cannot accept that the danger has passed. The victim may startle at the slightest noise and in an exaggerated manner. Faced with this intellectual hyper-stimulation, attention and concentration are affected and victims show signs of inattention, forgetfulness, an inability to stay focussed, etc.

Guilt and shame

Being a victim, some people may feel responsible (‘it’s all my fault’), feel guilty (being alive while others have died) or feel ashamed. This is a very legitimate feeling. It is due to a mechanism designed to make sense of the event and to find an answer to the questions ‘why me? What have I done to deserve this?’. It is also a way of rationalising the situation, of not collapsing under the weight of it, and of taking control (‘if I am guilty, then I can take steps to ensure it never happens again’).

Reactions of victims’ relatives

Your relatives may not understand your reactions since the offence. Feeling powerless, they may not be fully available to listen, and urge you to ‘move on’ quickly. The distress you feel is difficult for you to understand, but it will be even more difficult for others to understand. Your loved ones may also be impatient that you are not back to the person you were before the event. They may be upset that after a few months, you still need time to recover from this ‘invisible psychological injury’ or to control your emotions. Your relatives can also benefit from support in the form of guidance from professionals trained in psychological trauma.

I was a victim of a criminal offence: consequences and reactions The rights of victims of a criminal offence Criminal proceedings Who is who in criminal proceedings

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