Posttraumatic Stress and Recovery after Sexual Assault
Although there is no official definition of sexual assault, it is commonly accepted that sexual assault is sexual contact or behavior that is made without clear, voluntary consent. Sexual assault, sometimes called sexual violence or sexual abuse, can include fondling or groping (molestation), penetration (rape), and attempted rape.
Sexual assault, no matter when or how it happened, commonly leads to a posttraumatic stress response. Posttraumatic stress can include intrusions, negative changes in thinking and mood, hyperarousal, and avoidance of trauma reminders.
Intrusions are those upsetting memories, thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations from the sexual assault that pop up and cause distress. They may arise seemingly out of nowhere or when something in the environment reminds the survivor of the assault. Intrusions can also include nightmares of the assault and feeling like the assault is actually happening again. Although intrusions themselves aren’t dangerous, they can feel that way.
Negative Changes in Thoughts and Mood:
Experiencing a sexual assault can impact how a survivor sees themself, others, and the world. Often, survivors experience changes in the way they think about safety, trust, power/control, esteem, and intimacy. They may experience extreme thoughts such as, “the world is unsafe,” “I can’t trust my own judgment,” or “I’m damaged”.
It’s also common for a survivor to erroneously blame themself for what happened, such as believing “I shouldn’t have gotten drunk” or “I should’ve fought harder.” And if they’ve experienced a sexual assault or other traumatic event before, it’s common for previous negative beliefs to be reinforced by the new assault.
Common emotions that arise from a sexual assault are shock, confusion, and intense sadness, anger, guilt, shame, horror, and fear. Some people find that they also have a hard time feeling positive emotions, finding interest in things, or feeling connected to others.
Hyperarousal refers to the feeling of being “on edge.” Survivors might be hypervigilant, jumpy, have difficulty concentrating and sleeping, be irritable, and partake in risky behaviors. It might feel like they are often in flight/flight/freeze mode and have trouble relaxing.
There are two types of avoidance that many people experience after a sexual assault – avoidance of internal reminders of the traumatic event and avoidance of external reminders. Avoidance of internal reminders is when someone tries to get rid of thoughts, feelings, and memories of the event. Substance use, self-harm, staying busy, and “moving on” are common types of avoidance. Avoidance of external reminders is when someone avoids people, places, and situations that remind them of the sexual assault.
Avoidance is a natural response. It is natural to not want to think about being sexually assaulted, to not want to feel the painful emotions, to want to “move on.” Although avoidance often works in the short-term, it has negative long-term consequences: Ignoring a problem doesn’t fix it.
Coping and Recovery After Sexaul Assault:
Posttraumatic stress is not permanent. It is possible to recover from sexual assault and live a meaningful, rich life. The most important and effective way to recover from a sexual assault is to safely “approach” the memories, thoughts, feelings, and trauma reminders instead of avoiding them. For some people, approaching can look like talking to nonjudgmental and supportive friends or family or joining a support group, while others would benefit from also addressing the trauma with the help of a therapist.
Psychotherapy is a powerful and safe way to approach memories of sexual assault and its impact on a survivor’s life. With the right therapist, the sexual assault can become part of an individual’s story instead of the whole story.
Effective therapy treatments for posttraumatic stress include Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE), and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). With these therapies, intrusions have the chance to reduce, the body is no longer in fight/flight/freeze mode, mood can improve, negative thoughts can be replaced with more realistic, helpful ones, and avoidance is lessened.
Additionally, healthy coping strategies are also an important tool in getting through the aftermath of a sexual assault. Eating regular meals, getting outside, physical activity, spending time with trusted loved ones, and getting regular sleep, can contribute to a survivor’s recovery.
Therapy with Shara:
I have helped individuals recover from traumatic events since 2016, 6 of those years were exclusively dedicated to working with survivors of sexual assault. I provide counseling for adults at our beautiful Planation, Florida office and online via our secure telehealth platform for those who reside in the state of Florida.
If you think it’s time to pursue therapy, I invite you to contact us to schedule a phone consultation with me at 954-391-5305.
If you’re currently experiencing a mental health crisis, call 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, 911, or go to your nearest emergency room.
If you’ve recently been sexually assaulted and need immediate support or want to learn more about your rights and options, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
***Disclaimer: The following information does not constitute medical or mental health diagnosis, treatment, or advice and is provided for general informational purposes only. ***