How to cope after a burglary

The damage break ins cause isn’t only in broken windows and upturned bedrooms. It’s time to talk about the emotional and mental distress it creates too.

By Shilpa Ganatra

When accountant Luke Malone and his wife came back to their home in Bristol one seemingly usual evening in 2018, it took them a few minutes to clock that it had been broken into. Only when they noticed some items missing – a laptop, their bikes – that it dawned on them what had happened.

person standing outside a house smiling
Luke Malone

“Then everything just felt…a bit gross. It’s hard to explain. I just felt invaded,” he says, struggling to articulate the feeling. “If you asked me before, I would have thought I’d be logical and unemotional about a break-in. Like, ‘Oh, opportunists are around, that’s annoying. Let’s just organise the insurance company to pay out’. But I wasn’t having those feelings – I was devastated. I felt horribly violated. Especially because they dumped stuff on our bed where we sleep. That felt sickening.”

It just so happened that their jewellery with sentimental value wasn’t stolen, but that didn’t stop the feeling that their personal space had been violated.

“A burglary is a loss – a loss of privacy”

Luke’s trauma is extremely common. Much of the post-burglary narrative revolves around practical aspects like replacing stolen items and claiming insurance, and the emotional impact remains under reported. Reports from the Office of National Statistics show that almost nine in 10 victims of burglary report being emotionally affected by it, with anger, annoyance and shock the most common responses.1

Jackie Rogers, an accredited BACP counsellor and a volunteer for Victim Support for 15 years, explains that “a strong emotional reaction is extremely common because your home is your castle. It’s your personal stuff. Even if you’ve got nothing of value at home, or nothing major was stolen, victims still feel violated.”

As time went on, the emotions that Luke felt changed – he got mad, and largely at himself. “I was cross with myself because I was really bad at locking the front door. It had a deadbolt on the bottom, which I didn’t lock that day.”

The anger, the guilt, the fear, is all caused by the loss that we feel, says Rogers. “A burglary is a loss – a loss of privacy. So you might see symptoms of bereavement, and they might return at different points in the healing process.”

You show “stress-related” symptoms

The feeling of loss is compounded by our animal instincts to protect our territory, notes Rogers. When burgled, one reacts with a fight or flight response – “you’re going to be paranoid, and think they’re coming back. You’ll hear everyday sounds like a car door shutting and it will make you jumpy,” she explains.

This state of stress leads to a number of other symptoms of emotional trauma. “Victims could be feeling sick, they could be light-headed and they may not sleep, which brings a lot of other symptoms. There may be bowel problems, breathlessness, unexplained aches and pains, which are all stress-related.

“Or rather than being on edge, they go to opposite end of freeze/flop response, with no energy and just wanting to hide,” she adds. “If they’re having flashbacks of going home and discovering it, or if they were home when they were burgled, potentially it could cause post-traumatic stress disorder.”

“I felt like I was abandoning my house”

Lady standing outside front door
Cathy White

For writer Cathy White, whose London home was broken into around 15 years ago, her overriding feeling was anxiousness. While she was out one day, burglars gained entry by breaking in through her back window. They stole smaller items like her MP3 player, a camera and an old phone, as well as her grandmother’s ring.

Akin to Aviva’s promise of getting a tradesperson out to secure a home within two hours of a report of a break-in* to help customers feel secure, her window was boarded up that same evening. But the next day, her hyper-vigilance was in full flow. “I stayed off work, citing having to wait in for fingerprints to be taken, but really, I didn’t want to leave the house,” she recalls. “I had to leave it later to go to the shop and I cried all the way there. I felt like I was abandoning my house and leaving it vulnerable to another attack.

“I was convinced the burglar would be back to take the larger items like the TV, stereo and computer. Over the next few days, I couldn’t sleep at all.”

In the aftermath, Cathy found that securing her home further helped to calm her nerves. “I got bars installed the downstairs windows and I felt so much safer,” she says. “It meant I started to sleep again as I figured no one could get through the back windows.”

The Malones, meanwhile, took control of their home by scrubbing it top to bottom as soon as the forensics team left. “It was almost empowering – as if we could wash away where these scummy people had been,” says Luke.

“Anything that helps the person feel reassured”

Jackie agrees that practical actions can help victims cope with the emotional effect of a burglary. “You could speak to your community police officer and get security advice about things like extra locks, burglar alarms and timers on lights – anything that helps the person feel reassured. But that’s not blaming – that’s not saying if the house was more secure, it wouldn’t have happened.”

Talking helps too, and the sooner after the event, the more useful a person will find it. “Especially if they’re getting recurrent symptoms after two weeks and it’s impacting their life, it’s important to seek professional help,” Jackie says. “Counsellors will be able to help with coping strategies, and just talking about it helps to release emotions. Us British have been told to have a stiff upper lip and that there’s always people worse off, but that doesn’t make you feel any better.”

There are no set timings to getting over a traumatic incident, and Jackie is aware that the loss felt in a burglary might reignite other events of loss or trauma, which adds to the pain. “Whether it’s a day after or ten years after, if you’re struggling, then reach out to somebody who can help.”

Organisations like the Victim Support can help put victims in touch with counsellors, or GPs are a good first port of call too.

“Give yourself compassion”

15 years on, Cathy reports that while she’s been able to move on to a large extent, “I don’t think I ever have fully recovered. It was a long time ago but thinking about it again brings it all back,” she says. “All that trauma for a few items that the burglar probably cashed in for £20.”

The Malones took as many positives as they could from the situation. Like Cathy, they improved their security, and it also prompted a relocation to Gloucestershire countryside.

“I almost feel grateful to these scummy people, because it’s meant that we’ve moved on with our lives positively,” says Malone. “My advice to others would be that there’s no point beating yourself up, it’s happened now. Unless it was aggravated burglary, it’s just material items. If you’ve made a mistake in security, like we did, learn from that. And just remember these people are opportunists – it’s not a personal vendetta against you.”

These first-hand tips, along with talk therapy when needed, can minimise the emotional impact of a burglary. Above all, it’s important to understand that an emotional response is a natural reaction, and respond accordingly. “It’s understandable that people are going to feel on edge for a while. Validate it, and give yourself some compassion.”

Get a better idea of what thieves look for when targeting a home  from ex-professional burglar turned security consultant, Michael Fraser.

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