Emotional responses of survivors will vary from individual to individual. Unfortunately, sexual assault does happen and it is a time that is frightening, confusing and generally full of emotions for the victim/survivor. Sexual assault can be extremely traumatic and life-changing. It’s important to remember that your responses are not crazy; they are normal reactions to a traumatic situation – sexual assault. My goal is to offer support, information and resources that encourage empowerment and healing. Below are some common questions and feelings survivors of sexual assault may experience but it is not necessarily an exhaustive list.
Shock and Numbness
This response may occur soon after a sexual assault. Survivors may experience feelings of disbelief or denial about what happened. Survivors may feel emotionally detached or drained, and at times may be unaware of what is happening around them. Other reactions to the emotional shock may include: crying uncontrollably, laughing nervously, withdrawing, or claiming to feel nothing or to be “fine”. Survivors often may feel overwhelmed to the point of not knowing how to feel or what to do.
Disruption of Daily Life
After an assault, victims/survivors may feel preoccupied with thoughts about the incident. It may be difficult for survivors to concentrate, attend class, or focus on work. It can be very upsetting to have reminders of the assault when trying to reclaim your normal life. Survivors may have nightmares, trouble sleeping, appetite changes, general anxiety, or depression. For the first few weeks or months after the assault, survivors may feel as though their life has been upset and may be wondering if it will ever be the same.
- If you are a victim/survivor, here are some tips that may help: It is important to be gentle with yourself and take steps to reclaim your life. After experiencing any kind of crisis, it is important to take time to grieve, to adjust, and to reorganize your life. Recognize that you will be able to go on with your life. Don’t be afraid to seek help if you are struggling academically or you need help dealing with the trauma.
Loss of Control
Survivors may feel disoriented and overwhelmed. They may also feel anxious, scared, or nervous and have a difficult time concentrating. Often, survivors feel unsure about themselves, and may temporarily lack their usual self-confidence. Decisions that were made routinely before now may feel monumental. Survivors may feel that because of the assault they will have to change their whole lifestyle to feel safe.
- If you are a victim/survivor, here are some tips that may help: Try to make as many of your own decisions as possible. Even making small decisions can help you regain a sense of control. You may want to make some changes in your life such as re-arranging the furniture in your room, changing your look by cutting your hair, or changing your routine by exercising in the morning instead of at night. Small changes can help you feel like you are taking back control. Although there are people to help you through your options and support you to make a decision that is best for you, it is important to trust your instincts about what is right for you.
It is not uncommon for victims/survivors to fear people and feel vulnerable even when going through the regular activities of life. They may be afraid to be alone, or afraid of being with lots of people. They may find themselves not knowing who to trust. Survivors may have lost their sense of safety in their own environment, which makes them feel vulnerable and may fear that they will be assaulted again. Survivors may also be more aware of sexual innuendos, stray looks, or whistles.
- If you are a victim/survivor, here are some tips that may help: Make any changes in your life that you need in order to feel safe. If possible, you may want to change your locks, take a self-defense class, or stay with a family member or friend. Temporarily “not trusting” is a protective device that is an emotional coping skill. Most of these fears will go away or lessen over time. You will be able to trust when you have had a chance to heal and are feeling less vulnerable. If it doesn’t get better and fear is getting in the way of your daily life, it may be helpful to speak to a counselor.
Guilt, Shame, Self-blame
Most victims/survivors feel guilty and ashamed about the assault. Survivors often question that they somehow may have “provoked” or “asked for it”, that they shouldn’t have trusted the assailant, or that they should have somehow prevented the assault. Some of these feelings are the result of society’s myths about sexual assault and sexuality. Survivors will often start to doubt their ability to make good judgments or trust their own instincts. Sometimes blaming themselves helps survivors to feel less helpless.
- If you are a victim/survivor, here are some tips that may help: It was not your fault. No one deserves to be sexually assaulted. Tell yourself that many times a day. Being sexually assaulted does not make you a bad person; you did not choose to be sexually assaulted. Realize that guilt and self-blame are efforts to feel some control over the situation. Many survivors also experience blame from individuals they tell about the incident. These reactions are fuelled by society’s myths about sexual assault. It is important to surround yourself with supportive people. Education about the facts surrounding sexual assault may also be helpful in dispelling shame and self-blame. You may want to find some resources on health and recovery after sexual assault.
Victims/Survivors may have different reasons to feel angry. There is often as much anger at the events following the assault, as toward the assault itself: changing lifestyle, loss of freedom, being told to “get over it” by friends and family. Anger is an appropriate, healthy response to sexual assault. It usually means that the survivor is healing and has begun to look at the assailant’s responsibility for the assault. Survivors vary greatly in how readily they feel and express anger. It may be especially difficult to express anger if a survivor has been taught that being angry is never appropriate. Anger can be vented in safe and healthy ways, or can be turned in, where it may become sadness, pain, or depression.
- If you are a victim/survivor, here are some tips that may help: Allow yourself to be angry. You have a right to feel angry. However, it is important to feel angry without hurting yourself or others. As part of your anger, you may find yourself more irritable at home, school, or work. Anger can be expressed physically without harming yourself or others. Some people find that physical activity (such as walking, running, biking, hitting pillows, etc.) can help release the physical tension that often accompanies anger. Writing in a journal, playing music, or singing out loud to music are also helpful and healthy ways to release anger. Reporting the sexual assault may be another way you choose to turn your anger into a positive action. Many people often find it useful to speak with other survivors. Be careful to avoid unhealthy ways of coping with anger such as alcohol or drug use, cutting, or other self-destructive behavior.
Some sexual assault victims/survivors feel their experience sets them apart from others. Oftentimes, they feel differently or think that others can tell that they have been sexually assaulted just by looking at them. Some survivors do not want to bother anyone with their troubles, so they do not talk about the incident or their feelings. Survivors may withdraw or distance themselves from family and friends.
- If you are a victim/survivor, here are some tips that may help: You are not alone in what you are feeling. Many people find benefit in speaking with other survivors. Reading more about the topic can also be reassuring and validating. If you are feeling alone, call a trusted friend or family member. It can make all the difference to be with someone who cares about you.
Anxiety, Shaking, Nightmares
Victims/Survivors may experience shaking, anxiety, flashbacks, and nightmares after an attack. This can begin shortly after the attack and continue for a long period of time. Nightmares may replay the assault or include dreams of being chased, attacked, etc. Survivors often fear that they are “losing it” and may feel that they should be “over it by now”.
- If you are a victim/survivor, here are some tips that may help: These responses, as scary as they are, are normal reactions to trauma. These physical reactions are ways your emotions respond to the fear you experience. It is important to be able to discuss your nightmares and fears, particularly how they are affecting your life. Keeping a journal to write about your feelings, dreams, and worries can be a helpful tool in the recovery process.
Concern for the Assailant
Some victims/survivors express concern about what will happen to the assailant if the attack is reported or prosecuted. Others express a concern that an assailant is sick or ill and needs psychiatric care more than prison. It is human to show concern for others, especially those who are troubled, destructive, and confused. Some of these attitudes may be the result of the survivors’ effort to understand what happened, particularly if there was a previous relationship. These attitudes might also be the result of the survivors blaming themselves for the assault. If survivors feel sorry for the assailant, they might find it difficult to express their anger and indignation for what they suffered.
- If you are a victim/survivor, here are some tips that may help: The sexual assault was not your fault. Only the assailant is responsible for what happened. You have a right to feel and express anger. It is important to hold the assailant accountable. You can have mixed feelings – you can love/like the assailant as a person and still hate what that person did to you. Pushing yourself to prematurely “forgive” the assailant may force you to bury your feelings of anger and rage. Reporting the sexual assault may be one way you choose to turn your anger into a positive action. Reporting may also be the only way for the assailant to get treatment.
Victims/Survivors may experience a variety of sexual concerns after an assault. Some survivors may want no sexual contact whatsoever; others may use sex as a coping mechanism. Some people may experience some confusion about separating sex from sexual abuse. Particular sexual acts may provoke flashbacks and thus, be very difficult for the survivor to engage in.
- If you are a victim/survivor, here are some tips that may help: Sexual healing takes time. Go at your own pace. Be very clear with your partner about your needs and limits when it comes to any type of sexual touching or sexual contact. You have a right to refuse to be sexual until you feel ready. Tell your partner what kinds of physical or sexual intimacy feels comfortable to you. Sexual assault is not sex. Intimate consensual lovemaking should be pleasurable for both partners. A patient, gentle, intimate partner is helpful in your healing process. A therapist with experience in sexual trauma recovery can be very helpful to your healing process.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, also known as PTSD, involves a pattern of symptoms survivors may experience after a sexual assault. Symptoms of PTSD include repeated thoughts of the assault; memories and nightmares; avoidance of thoughts, feelings, and situations related to the assault; and increased stimulation (e.g., difficulty sleeping and concentrating, jumpiness, irritability). One study that examined PTSD symptoms among women who were raped, found that 94% of women experienced these symptoms during the two weeks immediately following the rape. Nine months later, about 30% of the women were still reporting this pattern of symptoms. The National women’s Study reported that almost 1/3 of all rape survivors develop PTSD sometime during their lives and 11% of rape survivors currently suffer from the disorder.
- If you are a victim/survivor, here are some tips that may help: Treatment for PTSD typically begins with a detailed evaluation and the development of a treatment plan that meets the unique needs of the survivor. PTSD-specific treatment is usually begun only after people have been safely removed from a crisis situation.
Adapted from the Sexual Violence Center of Hennepin County, “Coping with Sexual Assault” by Terri Spahr Nelson, The Aurora Center for Advocacy & Education Sexual Assault Info Packet, and Becoming Whole Again – Healing from Sexual Assault, The University of Texas at Austin Counseling & Mental Health Center.