Overcoming Sexual Assault: Symptoms & Recovery
Seeking treatment after sexual assault is incredibly important.
Sexual Assault Statistics
According to RAINN.org (2017) statistics, an American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds. This statistic alone is incredibly alarming, but other statistics suggest that:
- One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old (National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 2015).
- One in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college (National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 2015).
Sexual assault is an under-reported crime. It is estimated that only 63% of incidents are reported to the authorities—and just 12% of child sexual abuse cases (NSVRC, 2015). Beyond the obvious legal implications of not reporting these crimes, those who do not report sexual assault incidents are less likely to receive appropriate treatment.
What Is Sexual Violence?
The term “sexual violence” is an all-encompassing, non-legal term that refers to crimes like sexual assault, rape, and sexual abuse. Sexual assault is defined by the United States Department of Justice as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.” This can mean inappropriate and unwanted touching and forced sexual acts (including attempted acts) such as sexual intercourse or oral sex.
Common Experiences and Symptoms Following Sexual Assault
Sexual assault is traumatic. Similar to other traumatic experiences, it is normal for a person to experience trauma-reaction symptoms in the weeks following an assault. In fact, 94% of women who are raped experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in the two weeks following the assault. This is normal. It is a reaction to the fear, feeling of loss of control, and vulnerability that one experiences following any unexpected and shocking event (i.e., what is called trauma). These symptoms generally include:
- Intrusive re-experiencing (through memories or reminders) of the assault
- Avoidance of trauma-related stimuli or reminders
- Alterations in thoughts and mood (negative thinking and depressed, anxious, or angry mood)
- Increased arousal and reactivity (anxiety, hypervigilance, irritability, easily startled)
The relationship that a person had with the perpetrator prior to the assault also significantly impacts the frequency and intensity of distress that is likely to follow. Generally speaking, the closer you were with the person who committed the assault, the more likely you are to be impacted by the trauma. NSVRC (2015) found that 84% of survivors victimized by an intimate partner are likely to experience psychological distress and related difficulties at work or school, 79% of survivors victimized by a family member, close friend, or acquaintance experience distress, and 67% of survivors who were victimized by a stranger experience distress.
Some good news is that research shows that 90% of individuals “naturally recover” from a traumatic event, meaning that their PTSD symptoms dissipate over time. It is not exactly known why some individuals recover more quickly than others, but one theory is that those individuals who recover do not “avoid” the trauma. That is, they do not avoid thinking about it, talking about it (which is suggested, with a trained mental health professional), and expressing natural emotions related to the assault. Conversely, avoidance is known to be the most significant factor that creates, prolongs, and intensifies trauma-reaction or PTSD symptoms.
Unhelpful Ways of Coping
Making the decision to not report a sexual assault may temporarily help you to believe you are “fine,” in control of yourself and the situation, or that you are not too bothered by what occurred. Making the decision to not seek professional mental health treatment may also help to temporarily reinforce these desired beliefs. While these are understandable acts of demonstrating resiliency to yourself (and perhaps others), these actions, unfortunately, do not work to actually relieve you of the psychological distress that is likely to follow.
Some readers may be thinking, “well, I’ve managed what happened to me well and I am fine” or “I got past it.” It is possible that you may feel that way—albeit temporarily. Very often when individuals forego trauma treatment, they may temporarily feel a lot better and not even think about what happened too often. This effect may even last for several years.
However, unfinished psychological business can create significant distress in your life.
Research shows that 70% of sexual assault survivors experience moderate to severe distress, which is a larger percentage than for any other violent crime (NSVRC, 2015). The importance of seeking professional help and not engaging in avoidance behaviors cannot be understated. Avoidance is a short-term strategy to relieve yourself of distress, but unfortunately, it creates much more severe long-term difficulties. Therefore, avoidance does not actually work. While you may think you are reducing your suffering by not dealing with the assault (i.e., not talking about the assault, holding back/repressing your emotions, and avoiding reminders of the trauma), this will only prolong and intensify psychological suffering.
When to Seek Treatment
It is highly suggested that you seek treatment sooner rather than later. Some of the more easily identifiable benefits to doing this include shortened treatment time, quicker recovery, and less time spent missing out on life. From a clinical perspective, the amount of suffering and distress is substantially reduced when a person seeks treatment earlier on. This can be hard to appreciate when you have never experienced severe anxiety, depression, irritability and anger, or intimacy problems. Other common maladaptive reactions that are more likely to be prevented with early treatment include increased use of illicit substances, suicidal ideation, and difficulty functioning at work, school, and at home.
More specifically, NSVRC (2015) research on sexual assaults found:
- 33% of women who are raped contemplate suicide
- 13% of women who are raped attempt suicide
- Victims are 3.4 times more likely to use marijuana than the general public…
- 6 times more likely to use cocaine than the general public, and
- 10 times more likely to use other major drugs than the general public
- 38% of victims of sexual violence experience work or school problems
- 37% experience family/friend problems, including getting into arguments more frequently than before, not feeling able to trust their family/friends, or not feeling as close to them as before the crime
One of the goals of this article is to help anyone reading this to avoid experiencing such significant problems altogether by seeking treatment early on.
There are highly effective, trauma-focused therapy treatments available. These include Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), Prolonged-Exposure Therapy (PE), and Eye-Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR). Each of these treatments looks different in practice, but helps the individual to work through the traumatic experience(s) and move forward in life.
Trauma-focused therapy can:
- Help you calm and soothe yourself
- Increase your awareness of, and access to, inner strengths and outside resources
- Process specific memories, through carefully guided talk and/or writing
- Challenge yourself to reconnect and do non-dangerous things you have been avoiding since the traumatic event(s)
- Challenge trauma-based thinking, so that you can restore a healthy mental framework for living
- Make meaning of what happened and how it has affected your deepest self and your family
- Reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Increase a personal sense of confidence and competence
- Regain your quality of life, including enhanced relationships with others, greater activity level, and more positive and stable mood
- Reduce, if not eliminate, trauma-reaction symptoms/symptoms of PTSD
Military Sexual Trauma (MST)
VA uses the term “military sexual trauma” (MST) to refer to sexual assault or harassment experienced during military service. MST includes any sexual activity that you are involved with against your will.
- Being pressured or coerced into sexual activities, such as with threats of negative treatment if you refuse to cooperate or with promises of better treatment in exchange for sex
- Someone having sexual contact with you without your consent, such as when you were asleep or intoxicated
- Being physically forced to have sex
- Being touched in a sexual way that made you uncomfortable
- Repeated comments about your body or sexual activities
- Threatening and unwanted sexual advances
Anyone can experience MST, regardless of gender. Like other types of trauma, MST can negatively affect a person’s mental and physical health, even many years later.
Things you may experience could include:
- Disturbing memories or nightmares
- Difficulty feeling safe
- Feelings of depression or numbness
- Problems with alcohol or other drugs
- Feeling isolated from other people
- Problems with anger, irritability, or other strong emotions
- Issues with sleep
- Physical health problems
- Conflict with interpersonal relationships