Are you struggling to heal from sexual assault? Every year, women and men are sexually assaulted by a stranger or someone they trusted. There are many common reactions to sexual violence. Not all survivors of sexual violence are the same, nor will any act of sexual violence affect two people in the same way. There is no wrong or right way to feel or react. As the body and mind process the devastation of sexual violence, many different emotions, behaviors, and physical responses appear and disappear and may reappear.
THE EFFECTS OF SEXUAL ASSAULT
The impact of sexual assault far exceeds physical injuries. The trauma of sexual assault can leave you scared, ashamed, and plagued by flashbacks of the account. It becomes hard to trust others or even see yourself in a good light if you blame yourself.
While each survivor is unique in their experience, many survivors are impacted in the following ways:
Shame - Survivors thinking they are bad, wrong, dirty, or permanently flawed.
Guilt - Survivors feeling that the abuse was their fault. It is very difficult for survivors to place the blame on the person who assaulted them. Often the offender was a person close to them that they want to protect. Conversely, it may be that by placing the blame on the offender they then feel helplessness.
Minimizing - Minimizing the assault can be a coping strategy. It might include survivors thinking that their abuse was not as bad as someone else's.
Isolation - This is a big issue for adult survivors. Many feel that they do not deserve support, that they are tainted, and that others will not want to be their friends or lovers
Dissociation - A survivor may have dissociated during the sexual assault incident(s). They may describe "floating up out of their body" or "looking over their own shoulder" during the abuse. Dissociation can happen even when the survivor is not being assaulted/abused; an event or memory can bring up emotions which trigger dissociation.
Other related issues that may emerge are eating disorders, physical changes, changes in sexuality, substance abuse, self-harm, thoughts of suicide, anger, and mood disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress (PTSD).
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder that can result from a traumatic event. You may have heard the term used in relation to the military, but it can apply to survivors of any type of trauma, including sexual violence. Survivors might experience uncharacteristic feelings of stress, fear, anxiety, and nervousness—and this is perfectly normal. With PTSD, these feelings are extreme, can cause you to feel constantly in danger, and make it difficult to function in everyday life.
It is important to remember that sexual assault is never your fault. This is not something that anyone asks to happen. When terrible things happen, it is easy to dwell on the pain. But, you can regain your power by finding ways to heal from your pain.
Here are five ways to heal from sexual trauma.
1. Cope with Negative Feelings
Even if you know that you are not responsible for your sexual assault, there is a voice in your head that is still telling you otherwise. You may think you could have done something to stop the assault, but shock leaves you too frozen to fight back. Know that you did your best and would have stopped it if you could.
No victim is ever to blame for the crimes committed against them. Take small steps to give yourself grace. When you find yourself ruminating, remember you are strong and worthy of love and happiness.
2. Manage Flashbacks
A flashback is when memories of a past trauma feel as if they are taking place in the current moment. That means it’s possible to feel like the experience of sexual violence is happening all over again. During a flashback it can be difficult to connect with reality. It may even feel like the perpetrator is physically present.
Flashbacks may seem random at first. They can be triggered by fairly ordinary experiences connected with the senses, like the smell of someone’s odor or a particular tone of voice. It’s a normal response to this kind of trauma, and there are steps you can take to help manage the stress of a flashback.
Tell yourself that what you are experiencing is a terrible personal encounter that happened in the past. It is over, and you survived. Keep reminding yourself of that and know you are not in danger. Bring your focus to your five senses to help ground yourself. Noticing your current surroundings helps bring you back into the reality of the present.
3. Reconnect with Yourself
Your body can be in a hypersensitive state after sexual assault. This can cause you to try to numb your feelings or anything associated with the trauma. However, you cannot selectively numb one feeling without shutting out the rest. Without realizing it, you can alienate yourself from your body.
You can reconnect with your body through rhythmic movements. This can mean dancing, walking, running, and more. Yoga is beneficial in bringing awareness back into your body. Meditation can also get you back to the present by steering you away from intrusive thoughts.
4. Connect with People
It is normal to want to isolate yourself after a sexual assault. However, isolation will slow down and possibly halt your recovery. You don’t even have to talk about what happened if you don’t want. Enjoying yourself with others is enough to start the healing process. Reconnect with old friends and make new ones by participating in new social activities.
5. Talk with Someone Safe
It can be scary to talk about being raped or sexually assaulted for fear of blame or judgment. If you stay silent about what happened to you, those negative feelings that plague you can grow stronger. Find an empathetic person to talk to who is supportive and calm. Support groups can help you find a community of people who share similar experiences and lean on others for healing and growth.
If you are still struggling to heal from sexual trauma, you can also speak to a therapist or counselor who is appropriately trained to work with trauma and helping victims get their life back. Feel free to contact me to find out more about how beneficial trauma therapy can be.
Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs