The Victim’s Response to Crime

Our daily lives have a certain rhythm or balance. Emotional balance involves good times, like a wonderful dinner with family, or bad times like a rough day at work. For the most part, we stay within a familiar range of experiences. When unexpected things happen, we can be thrown into a state of crisis. Our daily rhythm is thrown off and it is difficult to get our lives together.

A crime victim is traumatized by a terrible event. No one is ever prepared to be a crime victim. During the crime, the victim experiences a crisis reaction. This is normal, even though it hardly seems normal at the time. A crisis reaction has two parts: the physical reaction and the emotional response.

During the physical response, we react immediately to our basic animal instincts. These differ for each person, but generally include 1.) frozen fear, a state of physical disorientation or numbness; 2.) fight or flight, where adrenaline flows through the body, heart rate increases, hyperventilation occurs, certain physical senses become super sharp, and the person decides to fight back or flee depending upon the danger; 3.) exhaustion, which follows the physical arousal of fighting or fleeing. A victim’s physical response settles down after the event, but may occasionally reoccur as nervousness, tension and sleeplessness.

The emotional reactions are more long-term and come in various stages. These stages generally include: 1.) shock, disbelief and denial; 2.) a range of alternating emotions such as anger, rage, fear, terror, sorrow, grief, confusion, frustration, self-blame, and guilt; 3.) eventual reconstruction of equilibrium, whereby a person finds a new sense of balance and rhythm in life.

The shock that a victim experiences and their sense of loss often turns into a period of grief and bereavement. At some point the victim may think “if only I had done this”, or “I should have done that”. Grief has its own timetable for each person; some people recover in a short period of time, and others take longer. During their recovery time, victims often experience “trigger events” that bring back some of the original trauma. These events include anniversaries of the event, holidays, news reports, and seeing the defendant.

During the various stages of the criminal justice process, a crime victim can expect to experience a wide range of emotions, which often include fear, anxiety, irritability and anger. The whole process sometimes seems confusing and frustrating, and victims often become upset with those trying to help. Although many crime victims are eventually satisfied that justice is done, the police, prosecutors and court system must balance a wide range of concerns. Therefore the procedures and outcome of a criminal case do not always seem right to the victim.

It takes time for a crime victim to fully restore their normal rhythm of life. The victim’s family and friends should not necessarily expect the problem to quickly pass. Any crime leaves emotional scars no matter what the financial and physical injuries might be. If the victim has any trouble or uncertainty about resuming the responsibilities of daily life, or “just doesn’t seem to be coming out of it”, they should seek professional counseling assistance. The Morris County Victim-Witness Advocacy Office is available to all Morris County crime victims as a place to talk, and a resource to help the victim gain the assistance they need and deserve. This includes professional counseling referrals, referrals for other life needs such as child care, transportation and housing, assistance with insurance claims and NJ V.C.C.O. claims, and assistance in participating in the criminal justice process.

Source: A Crime Victim’s Guild to the Criminal Justice System (2nd Ed. 1997), Chapt. 8, State Office of Victim Witness Advocacy, NJ Dept. of Law and Public Safety.