If you’ve experienced sexual assault or relationship abuse, you may react in a variety of ways. Reactions are based on individual coping styles, personality, and external factors such as religion or culture.
Some people may have immediate emotional reactions, and some may appear more composed. Some may immediately disclose to a friend, family member, or authority figure, and some may wait a considerable amount of time before telling anyone. Some may seek out and take advantage of support resources, and others may find this unappealing. It’s important to know that survivors are doing what they can in order to regain stability and take care of themselves, even if that looks very different from the way others may believe they would react.
It’s definitely okay to wait to reach out until you are ready. We encourage you to talk to someone you trust as soon as you can, though, to get support and assistance.
Trauma and Traumatic Response
Sexual assault and relationship abuse are examples of traumatic events.
A traumatic event is one that threatens the life, health, or safety of the person experiencing or witnessing it. Traumatic events are so powerful because they disrupt our sense of the way the world is supposed to work--they cut against our assumptions of safety and balance.
Events can be traumatic when they are experienced directly, such as a car accident, a sexual assault, or the unexpected death of a loved one. They can also be indirect, such as witnessing a terrible accident, watching a natural or manmade disaster unfold, or being close to someone who experiences an assault. Every person will be affected differently by violence, tragedy, or accidents--we all have a different threshold for what is a traumatic event.
“Post Traumatic Stress” refers to a pattern of trauma response symptoms that do not resolve after an average period of time. Studies from the National Center for PTSD (US Dept. of Veterans’ Affairs) show that approximately one third of sexual assault and rape survivors experience Post Traumatic Stress during their lifetimes.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and The Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) have extensive information about trauma and traumatic response.
Effects of Sexual Assault and Relationship Abuse
Unpredictable Emotions and Reactions
In the first few days and weeks following the assault, it is normal to experience intense and sometimes unpredictable emotions. You may also experience:
Repeated strong memories or nightmares about the event that are difficult to ignore
Difficulty sleeping and feeling constantly “on edge”
Individuals respond differently as time progresses and there is not a distinct timeline for coping or recovery. If you are reacting in a way that does not allow you to live your daily life, you may be experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
Regardless of how you are feeling, it’s important to talk to someone and determine the support that you need.
Health effects related to sexual assault and abuse will vary. The most common emotional and physical effects include:
Headaches, nausea and GI distress, and body aches
Hypersensitivity to environment
Changes in sleep and eating habits
Increase in risky behaviors, such as alcohol, drug use, or self injury
Change in normal social activity and daily routine
Difficulty around intimate and sexual relationships
Intensified emotions such as anger, fear, sadness, embarrassment, and shame
Intrusive thoughts, such as flashbacks or nightmares
Inability to feel focused or balanced
Coping with Sexual Assault and Relationship Abuse
Suggestions for Coping with Sexual Assault or Relationship Abuse
- Talk to Someone. You don’t have to heal alone. Whether you talk to trusted friends or family, a professional counselor, the Title IX Response Coordinator, or someone else, reaching out for support is often an essential step to regaining balance and control.
- Be Patient with Yourself. Recovery from trauma doesn’t happen on a set time frame or set of steps. You will probably have good days and bad days, and you might sometimes feel overwhelmed. This is all normal.
- Attend to Your Basic Needs. It might sometimes be difficult to prioritize your basic needs, but this is an essential foundation for healing. Try to get enough sleep and eat well. Try to move your body with exercise or yoga or whatever feels good to you. Try to maintain social contact with people who make you feel safe and happy.
- Try to Prioritize Fun. The idea of “fun” might seem out of place when talking about the aftermath of sexual assault, but it isn’t and can really help with the healing process. Do things that make you happy and try to get back into routines that have worked for you in the past. Ask a friend to help you with this to make it seem more attainable.