Trauma-Related Responses

Anyone can experience trauma: individuals, families, or communities, regardless of socioeconomic status, cultural or ethnic demographic, or gender. Vulnerable populations, especially children, girls and women, youth, LGBTQ persons, individuals with disabilities, and older adults, are disproportionately affected by trauma. In the United States, 61 percent of men and 51 percent of women report exposure to at least one lifetime traumatic event [1]. Further, studies show that between 15 and 43 percent  of girls and 14 and 43 percent of boys go through at least one trauma.

After a person experiences a traumatic event, including human trafficking, the way they think, feel behave, and even physically respond is called a trauma response. Not everyone who experiences a trauma event will develop trauma, just as not everyone who experiences the same crime will react in the same way. In addition, given the same event, one cannot assume that a specific aspect, detail, or meaning of the event will lead to the same level of distress in all individuals. The way trauma impacts an individual depends on many different factors, including: 

  • History and background of the individual 
  • Previous history of trauma
  • Details of the traumatic event(s)
  • Resources available in the direct aftermath of the trauma
  • Meaning of the specific traumatic event(s) for the individual, family, and community

Some of the signs of trauma that may manifest themselves are listed here, but this is not a comprehensive list. A person can manifest a single sign of trauma or a combination of several different signs. Cultural norms and communication styles may also shape the way a person reacts to a trauma event. 



  • Low energy
  • Hyperarousal
  • Hyypoarousal
  • Paleness
  • Lethargy
  • Somatic complaints
  • Lack of coordination or balance
  • Headaches
  • Digestive complaints


  • Anxiety
  • Emotional numbness
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Fear
  • Avoidance


  • Substance and alcohol use
  • Eating disorders
  • Compulsive behaviors
  • Changes in interpersonal relationships
  • Anger-related issues
  • Isolation and detachment from others


  • Inability to concentrate
  • Memory lapses
  • Learned helplessness
  • Increased distraction
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Dissociation
  • Cognitive errors
  • Flashbacks


When left untreated, the symptoms of trauma may contribute to a person’s seeking, coping, and adaptive behaviors. In reality, there is an underlying cause for this behavior, rooted in reactions to trauma. In many instances, prior untreated traumas will create a cascading effect of unresolved trauma, untreated symptomology, and, often, unhealthy coping mechanisms that the individual has used to go on surviving. When you understand the type of trauma that someone has endured, it is easier to see why they might seek solace in things like food, drugs, alcohol, or sex. This is what might be referred to as "high-risk behavior," but it is also a coping mechanism and greatly impacts help-seeking behavior.

The stigma, shame, and persistent fear that is so common in trafficking exacerbates the impact of trauma experienced over the lifetime and can make it more challenging for these individuals to recognize that they have experienced trafficking and to seek and accept help. Consider strategies you can use to help survivors minimize self-blame and work to identify positive coping strategies.

Many survivors of human trafficking have had multiple, repeated contact with various systems over the course of their lives. Negative contacts, or even a provider’s previous unsuccessful attempt to help, can all color the way a survivor views helping professionals in the present tense. For example, for many individuals, homelessness and housing will be a focus of survival and unless basic shelter needs are met, there is little chance they will be able to feel safe. These contributing, or compounding factors are illustrated below.

social services related to survivors of human trafficking diagram
Housing, Employment, Health/Mental Health, Education and Training, Criminal Justice System, Nutrition/Basic Needs, Immigration


Safety is your first priority when assisting someone who has experienced trafficking. Speak with them about their immediate basic needs.

Many survivors reference prior arrests and convictions for trafficking-related offenses as being among the most significant barriers to recovery. These not only frame the survivor as a perpetrator and at fault by the system, but can also have a real, lasting effect on their ability to seek housing and employment, obtain a loan, and further their education.

Survivors may face anxiety and stress about the unknown, which is why a trauma-informed approach aims to provide open communication and provide as much information as possible so that survivors can prepare for and anticipate what may happen next.

Check out our additional resources.


[1] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Health Resources and Services Administration. Trauma.


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