After A Scam, No One Can Tell You How You Will React

Trauma and the Psychology of Scams

A SCARS Insight

Victim Trauma Response After The End Of A Relationship Scam Is Complex

It is always important to remember that trauma does not always manifest the same in everyone.

So much depends on a person’s resilience to determine the lasting effects of their trauma. Additionally, many victims may believe that they are just fine,  but this is just a trauma response. It is always important that every scam victim who has been emotionally affected see a trauma counselor or therapist within 90 days following the end of a relationship scam. A proper evaluation should be made of what trauma may be present and what lasting effect there may be. Without this, it is like trying to drive cross-country without a map or a GPS.

Resilient Responses to Trauma

Many people find healthy ways to cope with, respond to, and heal from trauma. Often, people automatically reevaluate their values and redefine what is important after a trauma. Such resilient responses include:

  • Increased bonding with family and community.
  • Redefined or increased sense of purpose and meaning.
  • Increased commitment to a personal mission.
  • Revised priorities.
  • Increased charitable giving and volunteerism.


“After a scam, no one can tell you how you will react!

Unfortunately, trauma causes so many variations. It can even make some believe that nothing is wrong with them, but the bomb is ticking waiting for the trigger.

Each person will react as they will.

Some can be helped and some cannot. Some have some control over their responses and some do not.

Everyone is advised to get trauma counseling or therapy because trauma is like a worm in your head burrowing deeper and deeper.

Some will be helped by support groups and some will not, because their trauma still makes learning impossible, or their responses push help away.

Don’t blame yourself for the scam or for how you feel. Get help and do your best to control your responses.

Some will get better. Some in very little time, some much longer – as long as they stay with it. Those that quit or don’t work on their recovery will not.

This is the way.

This is how recovery works.”

Tim McGuinness, Ph.D.
Managing Director
Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Inc.

Important Disclaimer

The contents of this SCARS website, such as text, graphics, images, and other material contained on this SCARS website (“content”) are for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your mental health professional or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding your condition. Never disregard professional advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this SCARS website!

If you are in crisis or you think you may have an emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. If you’re having suicidal thoughts, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or other crisis hotline in your location to talk to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area at any time (such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline). If you are located outside the United States, call your local emergency line immediately.

SCARS is not a medical or mental health service organization. SCARS does not recommend or endorse any clinicians, counselors, psychiatrists, social workers, physicians, products, procedures, opinions, or other information that may be mentioned on the website. Reliance on any information provided by SCARS, SCARS employees or volunteers, others appearing on this website at the invitation or publication of SCARS, or other visitors to the website is solely at your own risk.

Understanding the Impact of Trauma

Trauma-informed care (TIC) involves a broad understanding of traumatic stress reactions and common responses to trauma. Providers need to understand how trauma can affect treatment presentation, engagement, and the outcome of behavioral health services. There are common experiences survivors may encounter immediately following or long after a traumatic experience.

Trauma, including one-time, multiple, or long-lasting repetitive events, affects everyone differently.

Some individuals may clearly display criteria associated with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but many more individuals will exhibit resilient responses or brief subclinical symptoms or consequences that fall outside of diagnostic criteria. The impact of trauma can be subtle, insidious, or outright destructive. How an event affects an individual depends on many factors, including characteristics of the individual, the type and characteristics of the event(s), developmental processes, the meaning of the trauma, and sociocultural factors.

Let’s begin with an overview of common responses, emphasizing that traumatic stress reactions are normal reactions to abnormal circumstances.

It highlights common short- and long-term responses to traumatic experiences in the context of individuals who may seek behavioral health services. This chapter discusses psychological symptoms not represented in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013a), and responses associated with trauma that either fall below the threshold of mental disorders or reflect resilience. It also addresses common disorders associated with traumatic stress. This chapter explores the role of culture in defining mental illness, particularly PTSD, and ends by addressing co-occurring mental and substance-related disorders.

SCARS believes that the single most important function of those that want to assist scam victims is to recognize that most of them are incompetent and know little or nothing about how to help people suffering from trauma. Those that do have a duty of care to refer trauma sufferers to appropriate professional care, and to be trauma-informed in all the services that they provide!

The Sequence Of Trauma Reactions

Survivors’ immediate reactions in the aftermath of trauma are quite complicated and are affected by their own experiences, the accessibility of natural supports and healers, their coping and life skills and those of immediate family, and the responses of the larger community in which they live. Although reactions range in severity, even the most acute responses are natural responses to manage trauma— they are not a sign of psychopathology. Coping styles vary from action-oriented to reflective and from emotionally expressive to reticent.

Clinically, a response style is less important than the degree to which coping efforts successfully allow one to continue necessary activities, regulate emotions, sustain self-esteem, and maintain and enjoy interpersonal contacts. Indeed, a past error in traumatic stress psychology, particularly regarding group or mass traumas, was the assumption that all survivors need to express emotions associated with trauma and talk about the trauma; more recent research indicates that survivors who choose not to process their trauma are just as psychologically healthy as those who do.

SCARS’ own work in being a trauma-informed services provider resulted from extensive training in trauma awareness for many of our management team, adding a clinical psychologist and other healthcare practitioners to our team, and making a serious effort to understand the trauma that affects scam victims.


Trauma can affect one’s beliefs about the future via loss of hope, limited expectations about life, fear that life will end abruptly or early, or anticipation that normal life events won’t occur (e.g., access to education, ability to have a significant and committed relationship, good opportunities for work).

Initial reactions to trauma can include exhaustion, confusion, sadness, anxiety, agitation, numbness, dissociation, confusion, physical arousal, and blunted effect. Most responses are normal in that they affect most survivors and are socially acceptable, psychologically effective, and self-limited. Indicators of more severe responses include continuous distress without periods of relative calm or rest, severe dissociation symptoms, and intense intrusive recollections that continue despite a return to safety. Delayed responses to trauma can include persistent fatigue, sleep disorders, nightmares, fear of recurrence, anxiety focused on flashbacks, depression, and avoidance of emotions, sensations, or activities that are associated with the trauma, even remotely.

Table: Immediate and Delayed Reactions to Trauma

Immediate Emotional Reactions

  • Numbness and detachment
  • Anxiety or severe fear
  • Guilt (including survivor guilt)
  • Exhilaration as a result of surviving
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Helplessness
  • Feeling unreal; depersonalization (e.g., feeling as if you are watching yourself)
  • Disorientation
  • Feeling out of control
  • Denial
  • Constriction of feelings
  • Feeling overwhelmed

Delayed Emotional Reactions

  • Irritability and/or hostility
  • Depression
  • Mood swings, instability
  • Anxiety (e.g., phobia, generalized anxiety)
  • Fear of trauma recurrence
  • Grief reactions
  • Shame
  • Feelings of fragility and/or vulnerability
  • Emotional detachment from anything that requires emotional reactions (e.g., significant and/or family relationships, conversations about self, discussion of traumatic events or reactions to them)

Immediate Physical Reactions

  • Nausea and/or gastrointestinal distress
  • Sweating or shivering
  • Faintness
  • Muscle tremors or uncontrollable shaking
  • Elevated heartbeat, respiration, and blood pressure
  • Extreme fatigue or exhaustion
  • Greater startle responses
  • Depersonalization

Delayed Physical Reactions

  • Sleep disturbances, nightmares
  • Somatization (e.g., increased focus on and worry about body aches and pains)
  • Appetite and digestive changes
  • Lowered resistance to colds and infection
  • Persistent fatigue
  • Elevated cortisol levels
  • Hyperarousal
  • Long-term health effects include heart, liver, autoimmune, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Immediate Cognitive Reactions

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Rumination or racing thoughts (e.g., replaying the traumatic event over and over again)
  • Distortion of time and space (e.g., a traumatic event may be perceived as if it was happening in slow motion, or a few seconds can be perceived as minutes)
  • Memory problems (e.g., not being able to recall important aspects of the trauma)
  • Strong identification with victims

Delayed Cognitive Reactions

  • Intrusive memories or flashbacks
  • Reactivation of previous traumatic events
  • Self-blame
  • Preoccupation with event
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Magical thinking: belief that certain behaviors, including avoidant behavior, will protect against future trauma
  • Belief that feelings or memories are dangerous
  • Generalization of triggers (e.g., a person who experiences a home invasion during the daytime may avoid being alone during the day)
  • Suicidal thinking

Immediate Behavioral Reactions

  • Startled reaction
  • Restlessness
  • Sleep and appetite disturbances
  • Difficulty expressing oneself
  • Argumentative behavior
  • Increased use of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco
  • Withdrawal and apathy
  • Avoidant behaviors

Delayed Behavioral Reactions

  • Avoidance of event reminders
  • Social relationship disturbances
  • Decreased activity level
  • Engagement in high-risk behaviors
  • Increased use of alcohol and drugs
  • Withdrawal

Immediate Existential Reactions

  • Intense use of prayer or religiosity
  • Restoration of faith in the goodness of others (e.g., receiving help from others)
  • Loss of self-efficacy
  • Despair about humanity, particularly if the event was intentional
  • Immediate disruption of life assumptions (e.g., fairness, safety, goodness, predictability of life)

Delayed Existential Reactions

  • Questioning (e.g., “Why me?”)
  • Increased cynicism, disillusionment
  • Increased self-confidence (e.g., “If I can survive this, I can survive anything”)
  • Loss of purpose
  • Renewed faith
  • Hopelessness
  • Reestablishing priorities
  • Redefining meaning and importance of life
  • Reworking life’s assumptions to accommodate the trauma (e.g., taking a self-defense class to re-establish a sense of safety)

Sources: Briere & Scott, 2006b; Foa, Stein, & McFarlane, 2006; Pietrzak, Goldstein, Southwick, & Grant, 2011.

Common Experiences and Responses to Trauma

A variety of reactions are often reported and/or observed after trauma.

Most scam survivors exhibit some immediate reactions, yet these may typically resolve without severe long-term consequences, though some will not resolve easily and require professional care. This is because most trauma survivors are highly resilient and develop appropriate coping strategies, including the use of social supports, to deal with the aftermath and effects of trauma. Most recover with time, show minimal distress, and function effectively across major life areas and developmental stages. Even so, victims who show little impairment may still have subclinical symptoms or symptoms that do not fit diagnostic criteria for acute stress disorder (ASD) or PTSD. Only a small percentage of people with a history of trauma show impairment and symptoms that meet the criteria for trauma-related stress disorders, including mood and anxiety disorders.

But remember, everyone is different. You may have symptoms that could be very might, or severe. Either way, SCARS recommends that you see a professional trauma counselor or therapist for a proper evaluation within 90 days of the end of the scam. If there are obvious reactions or responses than you should see a trauma counselor or therapist immediately.

The following focuses on some common reactions across domains (emotional, physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, and developmental) associated with singular, multiple, and enduring traumatic events. These reactions are often normal responses to trauma but can still be distressing to experience. Such responses are not signs of mental illness, nor do they indicate a mental disorder. Traumatic stress-related disorders comprise a specific constellation of symptoms and criteria.


Emotional reactions to trauma can vary greatly and are significantly influenced by the individual’s history. Beyond the initial emotional reactions during the scam, those most likely to surface include anger, fear, sadness, and shame. However, individuals may encounter difficulty in identifying any of these feelings for various reasons. They might lack experience with or prior exposure to emotional expression in their family or community. They may associate strong feelings with the past trauma, thus believing that emotional expression is too dangerous or will lead to feeling out of control (e.g., a sense of “losing it” or going crazy). Still, others might deny that they have any feelings associated with their traumatic experiences and define their reactions as numbness or lack of emotions.


Some trauma survivors have difficulty regulating emotions such as anger, anxiety, sadness, and shame. In individuals who are older and functioning well prior to the trauma, such emotional dysregulation is usually short-lived (though not always) and represents an immediate reaction to the trauma, rather than an ongoing pattern. Self-medication—namely, substance abuse (alcohol and medication)—is one of the methods that traumatized people use in an attempt to regain emotional control, although ultimately it causes even further emotional dysregulation (e.g., substance-induced changes in affect during and after use). Other efforts toward emotional regulation can include engagement in high-risk or self-injurious behaviors, disordered eating, compulsive behaviors such as gambling or overworking, and repression or denial of emotions; however, not all behaviors associated with self-regulation are considered negative. In fact, some individuals find creative, healthy, and industrious ways to manage the strong effects generated by trauma, such as through renewed commitment to physical activity or by volunteering with an organization (such as SCARS) to support survivors of relationship scam trauma.

Traumatic stress tends to evoke two emotional extremes: feeling either too much (overwhelmed) or too little (numb) emotion. Treatment can help the victim find the optimal level of emotion and assist him or her with appropriately experiencing and regulating difficult emotions. In treatment, the goal is to help people learn to regulate their emotions without the use of substances or other unsafe behavior. This will likely require learning new coping skills and how to tolerate distressing emotions; some victims may benefit from mindfulness practices, cognitive restructuring, and trauma-specific desensitization approaches, such as polyvagal theory, exposure therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).


Numbing is a biological process whereby emotions are detached from thoughts, behaviors, and memories. In many cases, a victim’s numbing is evidenced by her or his limited range of emotions associated with interpersonal interactions and their inability to associate any emotion with their recent experience. Because numbing symptoms hide what is going on inside emotionally, there can be a tendency for the victim,  family members, counselors, and other behavioral health staff to assess levels of traumatic stress symptoms and the impact of trauma as less severe than they actually are.


Diagnostic criteria for PTSD place considerable emphasis on psychological symptoms, but some people who have experienced traumatic stress may present initially with physical symptoms. Thus, primary care may be the first and only door through which these individuals seek assistance for trauma-related symptoms. Moreover, there is a significant connection between trauma and chronic health conditions. Common physical disorders and symptoms include somatic complaints; sleep disturbances; gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, neurological, musculoskeletal, respiratory, and dermatological disorders; urological problems; and substance use disorders.


Somatization indicates a focus on bodily symptoms or dysfunctions to express emotional distress. Somatic symptoms are more likely to occur with individuals who have traumatic stress reactions, including PTSD. People from certain ethnic and cultural backgrounds may initially or solely present emotional distress via physical ailments or concerns. Many individuals who present with somatization are likely unaware of the connection between their emotions and the physical symptoms that they’re experiencing. At times, victims may remain resistant to exploring emotional content and remain focused on bodily complaints as a means of avoidance. Some victims may insist that their primary problems are physical even when medical evaluations and tests fail to confirm ailments. In these situations, somatization may be a sign of a mental illness. However, various cultures approach emotional distress through the physical realm or view emotional and physical symptoms and well-being as one. It is important not to assume that victims with physical complaints are using somatization as a means to express emotional pain; they may have specific conditions or disorders that require medical attention. Foremost, counselors need to refer for medical evaluation.


Trauma biology is an area of burgeoning research, with the promise of more complex and explanatory findings yet to come. Although a thorough presentation on the biological aspects of trauma is beyond the scope of this publication, what is currently known is that exposure to trauma leads to a cascade of biological changes and stress responses. These biological alterations are highly associated with PTSD, other mental illnesses, and substance use disorders. These include:

  • Changes in limbic system functioning.
  • Hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis activity changes with variable cortisol levels.
  • Neurotransmitter-related dysregulation of arousal and endogenous opioid systems.


A common symptom that arises from traumatic experiences is hyperarousal (also called hypervigilance). Hyperarousal is the body’s way of remaining prepared. It is characterized by sleep disturbances, muscle tension, and a lower threshold for startle responses and can persist years after trauma occurs. It is also one of the primary diagnostic criteria for PTSD.

Hyperarousal is a consequence of biological changes initiated by trauma. Although it serves as a means of self-protection after trauma, it can be detrimental. Hyperarousal can interfere with an individual’s ability to take the necessary time to assess and appropriately respond to a specific input, such as loud noises or sudden movements. Sometimes, hyperarousal can produce overreactions to situations perceived as dangerous when, in fact, the circumstances are safe.

Along with hyperarousal, sleep disturbances are very common in individuals who have experienced trauma. They can come in the form of early awakening, restless sleep, difficulty falling asleep, and nightmares. Sleep disturbances are most persistent among individuals who have trauma-related stress; the disturbances sometimes remain resistant to intervention long after other traumatic stress symptoms have been successfully treated. Numerous strategies are available beyond medication, including good sleep hygiene practices, cognitive rehearsals of nightmares, relaxation strategies, and nutrition.


Traumatic experiences can affect and alter cognitions (thinking). From the outset, trauma challenges the just-world or core life assumptions that help individuals navigate daily life. For example, it would be difficult to leave the house in the morning if you believed that the world was not safe, that all people are dangerous, or that life holds no promise. The belief that one’s efforts and intentions can protect oneself from bad things makes it less likely for an individual to perceive personal vulnerability. However, traumatic events—particularly if they are unexpected—can challenge such beliefs.


The following examples reflect some of the types of cognitive or thought-process changes that can occur in response to traumatic stress.

  • Cognitive errors: Misinterpreting a current situation as dangerous because it resembles, even remotely, a previous trauma (e.g., a client overreacting to an overturned canoe in 8 inches of water, as if she and her paddle companion would drown, due to her previous experience of nearly drowning in a rip current 5 years earlier).
  • Excessive or inappropriate guilt: Attempting to make sense cognitively and gain control over a traumatic experience by assuming responsibility or possessing survivor’s guilt, because others who experienced the same trauma did not survive.
  • Idealization: Demonstrating inaccurate rationalizations, idealizations, or justifications of the perpetrator’s behavior, particularly if the perpetrator is or was a caregiver. Other similar reactions mirror idealization; traumatic bonding is an emotional attachment that develops (in part to secure survival) between perpetrators who engage in interpersonal trauma and their victims, and Stockholm syndrome involves compassion and loyalty toward hostage-takers.
  • Trauma-induced hallucinations or delusions: Experiencing hallucinations and delusions that, although they are biological in origin, contain cognitions that are congruent with trauma content (e.g., a woman believes that a person stepping onto her bus is her father, who had sexually abused her repeatedly as a child because he wore shoes similar to those her father once wore).
  • Intrusive thoughts and memories: Experiencing, without warning or desire, thoughts and memories associated with the trauma. These intrusive thoughts and memories can easily trigger strong emotional and behavioral reactions as if the trauma was recurring in the present. The intrusive thoughts and memories can come rapidly, referred to as flooding, and can be disruptive at the time of their occurrence. If an individual experiences a trigger, he or she may have an increase in intrusive thoughts and memories for a while. For instance, individuals who inadvertently are retraumatized due to program or clinical practices may have a surge of intrusive thoughts of past trauma, thus making it difficult for them to discern what is happening now versus what happened then. Whenever counseling focuses on trauma, it is likely that the client will experience some intrusive thoughts and memories. It is important to develop coping strategies before, as much as possible, and during the delivery of trauma-informed and trauma-specific treatment.

Many factors contribute to cognitive patterns prior to, during, and after a trauma.

Trauma can alter three main cognitive patterns: thoughts about self, the world (others/environment), and the future.

To clarify, trauma can lead individuals to see themselves as incompetent or damaged, to see others and the world as unsafe and unpredictable, and to see the future as hopeless—believing that personal suffering will continue, or negative outcomes will preside for the foreseeable future. Subsequently, this set of cognitions can greatly influence victims’ belief in their ability to use internal resources and external support effectively. From a cognitive-behavioral perspective, these cognitions have a bidirectional relationship in sustaining or contributing to the development of depressive and anxiety symptoms after trauma. However, it is possible for cognitive patterns to help protect against debilitating psychological symptoms as well. Many factors contribute to cognitive patterns prior to, during, and after a trauma.


An integral part of experiencing trauma is feeling different from others, whether or not the trauma was an individual or group experience. Traumatic experiences typically feel surreal and challenge the necessity and value of mundane activities of daily life. Survivors often believe that others will not fully understand their experiences, and they may think that sharing their feelings, thoughts, and reactions related to the trauma will fall short of expectations. However horrid the trauma may be, the experience of the trauma is typically profound.

The type of trauma can dictate how an individual feels different or believes that they are different from others. Traumas that generate shame will often lead survivors to feel more alienated from others—believing that they are “damaged goods.” When individuals believe that their experiences are unique and incomprehensible, they are more likely to seek support, if they seek support at all, only with others who have experienced similar trauma.



A trigger is a stimulus that sets off a memory of a trauma or a specific portion of a traumatic experience.

Imagine you were trapped briefly in a car after an accident. Then, several years later, you were unable to unlatch a lock after using a restroom stall; you might have begun to feel a surge of panic reminiscent of the accident, even though there were other avenues of escape from the stall. Some triggers can be identified and anticipated easily, but many are subtle and inconspicuous, often surprising the individual or catching him or her off guard. In treatment, it is important to help victims identify potential triggers, draw a connection between strong emotional reactions and triggers, and develop coping strategies to manage those moments when a trigger occurs. A trigger is any sensory reminder of the traumatic event: a noise, smell, temperature, other physical sensation, or visual scene. Triggers can generalize to any characteristic, no matter how remote, that resembles or represents a previous trauma, such as revisiting the location where the trauma occurred, being alone, having your children reach the same age that you were when you experienced the trauma, seeing the same breed of dog that bit you, or hearing loud voices. Triggers are often associated with the time of day, season, holiday, or anniversary of the event.


A flashback is re-experiencing a previous traumatic experience as if it were actually happening at that moment. It includes reactions that often resemble the client’s reactions during the trauma. Flashback experiences are very brief and typically last only a few seconds, but the emotional aftereffects linger for hours or longer. Flashbacks are commonly initiated by a trigger, but not necessarily. Sometimes, they occur out of the blue. Other times, specific physical states increase a person’s vulnerability to re-experiencing a trauma, (e.g., fatigue, high-stress levels). Flashbacks can feel like a brief movie scene that intrudes on the client. For example, hearing a car backfire on a hot, sunny day may be enough to cause a veteran to respond as if he or she were back on a military patrol. Other ways people reexperience trauma, besides flashbacks, are via nightmares and intrusive thoughts of the trauma.


Dissociation is a mental process that severs connections among a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, and/or sense of identity. Most of us have experienced dissociation—losing the ability to recall or track a particular action (e.g., arriving at work but not remembering the last minutes of the drive). Dissociation happens because the person is engaged in an automatic activity and is not paying attention to his or her immediate environment. Dissociation can also occur during severe stress or trauma as a protective element whereby the individual incurs distortion of time, space, or identity. This is a common symptom in traumatic stress reactions.

Dissociation helps distance the experience from the individual. People who have experienced severe or developmental trauma may have learned to separate themselves from distress to survive. At times, dissociation can be very pervasive and symptomatic of a mental disorder, such as dissociative identity disorder (DID; formerly known as multiple personality disorder). According to the DSM-5, “dissociative disorders are characterized by a disruption of and/or discontinuity in the normal integration of consciousness, memory, identity, emotion, perception, body representation, motor control, and behavior”. Dissociative disorder diagnoses are closely associated with histories of severe childhood trauma or pervasive, human-caused, intentional trauma, such as that experienced by concentration camp survivors or victims of ongoing political imprisonment, torture, or long-term isolation. A mental health professional, preferably with significant training in working with dissociative disorders and with trauma, should be consulted when a dissociative disorder diagnosis is suspected.

Potential Signs of Dissociation:

  • Fixed or “glazed” eyes
  • Sudden flattening of affect
  • Long periods of silence
  • Monotonous voice
  • Stereotyped movements
  • Responses not congruent with the present context or situation
  • Excessive intellectualization


Traumatic stress reactions vary widely; often, people engage in behaviors to manage the aftereffects, the intensity of emotions, or the distressing aspects of the traumatic experience. Some people reduce tension or stress through avoidant, self-medicating (e.g., alcohol abuse), compulsive (e.g., overeating), impulsive (e.g., high-risk behaviors), and/or self-injurious behaviors. Others may try to gain control over their experiences by being aggressive or subconsciously re-enacting aspects of the trauma (scambaiting, revenge, and other behaviors).

Behavioral reactions are also the consequences of, or learned from, traumatic experiences. For example, some people act like they can’t control their current environment, thus failing to take action or make decisions long after the trauma (learned helplessness). Other associate elements of the trauma with current activities, such as by reacting to an intimate moment in a significant relationship, such as a strong focus on the dialogs that a scam may have generated.


A hallmark symptom of trauma is re-experiencing the trauma in various ways. Re-experiencing can occur through reenactments (literally, to “redo”), by which trauma survivors repetitively relive and recreate a past trauma in their present lives.  Attempts to understand reenactments are very complicated, as reenactments occur for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, individuals reenact past traumas to master them. Examples of reenactments include a variety of behaviors: self-injurious behaviors, hypersexuality, walking alone in unsafe areas or other high-risk behaviors, driving recklessly, or involvement in repetitive destructive relationships (e.g., repeatedly getting into romantic relationships with people who are abusive or violent), to name a few.


Self-harm is any type of intentionally self-inflicted harm, regardless of the severity of the injury or whether suicide is intended. Often, self-harm is an attempt to cope with emotional or physical distress that seems overwhelming or to cope with a profound sense of dissociation or being trapped, helpless, and “damaged”. Self-harm is associated with past childhood sexual abuse and other forms of trauma as well as substance abuse. Thus, addressing self-harm requires attention to the client’s reasons for self-harm. More than likely, the client needs help recognizing and coping with emotional or physical distress in manageable amounts and ways.

It should be noted that suicide is a significant risk with scam victims. It is important to distinguish self-harm that is suicidal from self-harm that is not suicidal and to assess and manage both of these very serious dangers carefully.

Most people who engage in self-harm are not doing so with the intent to kill themselves—although self-harm can be life-threatening and can escalate into suicidality if not managed therapeutically. Self-harm can be a way of getting attention or manipulating others, but most often it is not. Self-destructive behaviors such as substance abuse, restrictive or binge eating, reckless automobile driving, or high-risk impulsive behavior are different from self-harming behaviors but are also seen in victims with a history of trauma. Self-destructive behaviors differ from self-harming behaviors in that there may be no immediate negative impact of the behavior on the individual; they differ from suicidal behavior in that there is no intent to cause death in the short term.


Substance use often is initiated or increased after trauma. Victims in early recovery— especially those who develop PTSD or have it reactivated—have a higher relapse risk if they experience trauma.


The use of substances can vary based on a variety of factors, including which trauma symptoms are most prominent for an individual and the individual’s access to particular substances. Unresolved traumas sometimes lurk behind the emotions that victims cannot allow themselves to experience. Substance use and abuse in trauma survivors can be a way to self-medicate and thereby avoid or displace difficult emotions associated with traumatic experiences. When the substances are withdrawn, the survivor may use other behaviors to self-soothe, self-medicate, or avoid emotions. As likely, emotions can appear after abstinence in the form of anxiety and depression.


Avoidance often coincides with anxiety and the promotion of anxiety symptoms. Individuals begin to avoid people, places, or situations to alleviate unpleasant emotions, memories, or circumstances. Initially, the avoidance works, but over time, anxiety increases, and the perception that the situation is unbearable or dangerous increases as well, leading to a greater need to avoid. Avoidance can be adaptive, but it is also a behavioral pattern that reinforces perceived danger without testing its validity, and it typically leads to greater problems across major life areas (e.g., avoiding emotionally oriented conversations in an intimate relationship). For many individuals who have traumatic stress reactions, avoidance is commonplace. A person may drive 5 miles longer to avoid the road where he or she had an accident. Another individual may avoid crowded places in fear of an assault or circumvent strong emotional memories about an earlier assault that took place in a crowded area. Avoidance can come in many forms. When people can’t tolerate strong effects associated with traumatic memories, they avoid, project, deny, or distort their trauma-related emotional and cognitive experiences. A key ingredient in trauma recovery is learning to manage triggers, memories, and emotions without avoidance—in essence, becoming desensitized to traumatic memories and associated symptoms.


It is very important to establish, confirm, or reestablish a support system, including culturally appropriate activities, as soon as possible. Social supports and relationships can be protective factors against traumatic stress. However, trauma typically affects relationships significantly, regardless of whether the trauma is interpersonal or is of some other type. Relationships require emotional exchanges, which means that others who have close relationships or friendships with the individual who survived the trauma(s) are often affected as well—either through secondary traumatization or by directly experiencing the survivor’s traumatic stress reactions. In natural disasters, social and community supports can be abruptly eroded and difficult to rebuild after the initial disaster relief efforts have waned.

Survivors may readily rely on family members, friends, or other social supports—or they may avoid support, either because they believe that no one will be understanding or trustworthy or because they perceive their own needs as a burden to others. Survivors who have strong emotional or physical reactions, including outbursts during nightmares, may pull away further in fear of being unable to predict their own reactions or to protect their own safety and that of others. Often, trauma survivors feel ashamed of their stress reactions, which further hampers their ability to use their support systems and resources adequately.

To Learn More

Obviously, this article could easily turn into a textbook on trauma, but this is not our intent. Our intent is to share information about trauma and provide a framework to help each victim understand potential symptoms or responses. Additionally, our goal is to help victims acquire a vocabulary that can be discussed with their counselors or therapists that will lead to more informed outcomes.

We publish many articles on trauma in our Psychology of Scams Article Catalog – click here  Take the time to learn about what has affected you and the many ways that trauma can influence your life, even if you do not feel it!

If you are looking for local trauma counselors please visit

As always, we hope that all relationship scam victims find the help they need – with SCARS or Professional Providers. Amateur instant experts are everywhere and can cause lasting harm for a traumatized victim. We hope that you chose wisely.

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