Dealing with the Trauma of a Sexual Assault

Sexual assault can be a lonely and frightening experience. You may be left feeling shocked, confused, and overwhelmed. You may find yourself unprepared to deal with the many thoughts and emotions that arise. You may find that you can't eat, can't sleep, or that you're petrified to do things that used to come naturally. Sometimes you may feel like your mind has detached from your body and it's just watching what your body is doing. These are all normal reactions if you have been sexually assaulted.

In time, you may find yourself trying to understand why the assault occurred in the first place.

Why did this happen to ME? Did I do something to encourage the assault? Why didn't I resist more or fight harder? What sort of person would commit such a crime against another?

How long will it be before I feel like myself again? What can I do to start feeling better? Will I ever be able to put this experience into perspective? Let's take a more in-depth look at some of these questions.

What Is Happening to Me?

People who have been sexually assaulted often experience intense physical and emotional reactions during and immediately following the assault and for considerable time thereafter.

Sexual assault comes as an unexpected intrusion in one's life and can cause problems at home, at work, and in social situations. No two people react to a sexual assault in exactly the same way. However, certain patterns are common, as are the stages of recovery:

  1. Immediate or Acute Phase (lasts from days to weeks after the assault) During the first days following an assault, you may feel stunned or dazed. You may feel shock and a sense of numbness. You may actively try to block out the experience and associated feelings. Eventually, though, you may find it impossible to suppress the feelings, and a time of considerable distress may follow.

    During this acute phase, you may experience fears about your personal safety, anxiety, sleeping and eating pattern disturbances, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and mood swings. There may be feelings of guilt, self-blame, shame, and anger. There may also be physical reactions such as a general feeling of soreness or pain in a specific body area that was involved in the assault. There may be such a flood of symptoms that you may feel out of control and as if you are "losing it" or "going crazy." However, it is important to know that this is a normal reaction to trauma and it will subside.

  2. Outward Adjustment Phase (lasts from weeks to months following the assault) During this phase, you may experience pervasive feelings of fear or phobias specific to the circumstances of the assault such as fear of being alone or paranoia, and anxiety. You may find yourself changing your social lifestyle. You may limit time you spend outside your home, you may withdraw, move residences, or avoid being out alone. You may have dreams and nightmares. Initially these dreams may be of sexual assault scenes in which you are powerless, but as time progresses the dream material may change and there may be mastery in your dream. You may have feelings of guilt, shame and self-blame regardless of the circumstances of the assault, and you may find yourself replaying and reviewing in your mind what took place. Some people experience sexual dysfunction including fear and avoidance of sex, problems with arousal and desire, and even flashbacks during sex.

  3. Integration/Resolution Phase (lasts from months to years following the assault) You may find that symptoms you experience during the phase before may last for quite a while and may overlap into the resolution phase. The most common long-term problems are fears about personal safety, anxiety, and intrusive recollections of the experience. But the images and feelings occur less often than during earlier stages. As you integrate the experience into your life, you may find yourself more cautious, and more aware. The 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.

Why Did This Happen to Me?

This question may haunt you. Immediately following the assault, you may continually review the sequence of events and wonder how you might have handled the situation differently. One of the oldest and most persistent misunderstandings about sexual assault is that the victim was in some way to blame for the offense.

If a person was threatened at knife point and robbed, we would probably sympathize and support this person. Yet we often question a victim's integrity when the crime is a sexual assault. We are asking the wrong question. We need to ask: what right does one person have to sexually assault another?

Part of the recovery process is trying to understand why the assault occurred. It is important to understand what we can do to reduce risks in potentially dangerous situations. However, we must not be confused about who is responsible. Nothing you did or did not do gives another person the right to assault you. Nothing.

Often there is little you can do to reduce risks. You may have been going about your daily routine -- walking home, getting out of your car, or sleeping in your own bed -- and still you were the victim of a random attack. Or more commonly, you may have trusted someone you knew, and this trust was violated. Sexual assault is not the consequence of how you dress or how you behaved. You are not able to control the actions of other people. Without question, the person responsible for the assault is the assailant. Recovery from "rape trauma" progresses at a more accelerated pace when you and your support systems understand this.

When Will I Feel Like Myself Again?

Many factors affect recovery from sexual assault. It is impossible to estimate how long it will be before you feel like yourself again. Each situation is unique. Rape trauma is something that can be resolved and put into perspective, but it can never be forgotten. It is possible that after the initial crisis is over, there will be flashbacks of the assault. Assault related feelings may resurface.

Time alone does NOT heal wounds. Here are some steps you can take to hasten your recovery from the psychological trauma of sexual assault:

  • Acknowledge your feelings as 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) 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 person; that is, 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 worker at SATC knows ways 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.