Dealing with Trauma of Sexual Assault
The aftermath of sexual assault can be a lonely and traumatic experience. You may feel shocked, confused, overwhelmed, or unprepared to deal with the many emotions that arise in you. You may find that you can't eat, can't sleep, or that you're afraid to do things that once came naturally. This could affect your life at home, work, and in social situations.
Know that these are all normal reactions to sexual assault and that you’re not alone. This guide will help you understand your trauma and can help you take your first steps towards recovery.
Why did this happen to me?
This is a common question that you may ask yourself. You may continually review the sequence of events and wonder how you might have handled the situation differently. But one of the oldest and most persistent misunderstandings about sexual assault is that the victim was in some way to blame for the offense.
Sexual assault is not the consequence of your behavior. You may have been going about your daily routine and were the victim of a random attack. Or more commonly, you may have trusted someone you knew, and that trust was violated. You are not able to control the actions of others and without question, the person responsible for the assault is the assailant. Recovery from sexual assault trauma progresses faster when you and your support systems understand this.
Immediate or acute phase
Days to weeks after the assault. During the first days following an assault, you may feel stunned, dazed, shocked, and a sense of numbness. You may try to block out the experience, but eventually it may be impossible to suppress your feelings, and a time of considerable distress may follow. During this acute phase you may experience anxiety, sleeping and eating pattern disturbances, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, mood swings, and fears about your personal safety. There may be feelings of guilt, self-blame, shame, and anger. There may also be physical reactions, like pain in a specific body area that was involved in the assault. You may even feel out of control, as if you are "going crazy." It’s important to know that this is a normal reaction to trauma and it will subside.
Outward adjustment phase (weeks to months after the assault)
During this phase, you may experience pervasive feelings of fear specific to the circumstances of the assault, like fear of being alone, paranoia, or anxiety. You may find yourself changing your social lifestyle, withdrawing by spending less time outside your home, or avoiding being out alone. You may have nightmares about sexual assault in which you are powerless. You may replay in your mind what took place and have feelings of guilt, shame, and self-blame regardless of the circumstances of the assault. Some people experience sexual dysfunction, including fear and avoidance of sex, problems with arousal, and even flashbacks during sex.
Integration/resolution phase (months to years following the assault)
You may find that symptoms you experience during prior phases may last for a while or they may overlap into this resolution phase. The most common long-term problems are fears about personal safety, anxiety, and intrusive recollections of the experience. But the images, dreams, and feelings occur less often now. As you integrate the experience into your life, you may find yourself more cautious and more aware. Your new goal is to find a new way of being in the world. While you may never be the same as you were before, you do not have to be less than you were before. With the right support you can emerge with newfound strengths and insights.
Stages of recovery
While no two people react to a sexual assault in the same way, certain patterns are common, including the following “Stages of Recovery.”
When will I feel like myself again?
Many factors affect recovery from sexual assault, so it’s difficult to estimate how long it will take before you feel like yourself again. Each situation is unique. Sexual assault trauma can be resolved and put into perspective, but it can never be forgotten. Since time alone doesn’t heal all wounds, here are some steps you can take to accelerate your recovery:
Steps to recover from the trauma of sexual assault
- Acknowledge your feelings are real and legitimate. Your thoughts and feelings are not crazy, irrational, or non-existent.
- Be open to reaching out to your family, friends, a Sex Abuse Treatment Center (SATC) crisis counselor or therapist, and other willing professionals for information and support. Be willing to ask as specifically as possible for the support you need.
- Be mindful to take care of your total self. Be aware of what you can do to strengthen yourself physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.
- Learn to relax when you are feeling tense and frightened. If you need help in this area, your aid at SATC knows techniques to help you relax and work through your fears.
- See yourself as capable of recovering. Take pride in the steps you are taking to help yourself.
- Give yourself time to feel better.