Recovering from sexual assault can be a lengthy process. Survivors, as well as friends and family, should be aware of the long-term effects of sexual assault and the resources available to aid in the healing process. This handout presents some issues that survivors may confront after an assault.
Sexual assault is a crisis, and we all handle crisis in different ways. Some survivors go into shock after being assaulted, or experience overwhelming fear, anger, shame or anxiety. The emotional reaction to sexual assault is complex and often confusing. Survivors should remember that their feelings and experiences are not abnormal and that they are not alone. Friends and family should have patience with the healing process. It could take weeks, months or years for the healing to take place, and healing time varies from person to person.
After the initial shock of the assault, survivors may want to forget the attack or may find themselves withdrawing from people and trying to give the impression that they are all right. Survivors may try to regain control by the way they think about the problem, by not caring or through anger. Survivors may also find themselves not caring about things that are usually important to them. They may be dealing with certain fears, such as fear of death, or being fearful in situations that serve as reminders of the assault. They may have fears of seeing the assailant again. Survivors may feel depressed or guilty, and they may have negative feelings about themselves. All of these feelings are common. However, it is important for survivors to deal with their feelings to prevent a problem later in their recovery.
The fear and confusion will lessen with time, but the trauma may disrupt the survivor's life for awhile. Sleeping and eating patterns may change and may include sleeping disorders, nightmares, or eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. Survivors may think about hurting themselves or others, or turn to alcohol or drugs to block out the problem. They may experience dramatic mood swings, crying spells or panic attacks, become irritable and short-tempered, and have difficulty making decisions. Survivors may also develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is the result of a traumatic experience, especially person to person crimes such as rape. Symptoms include persistent re-experiencing of the traumatic event, avoidance of stimuli associated with the event, numbing of general responsiveness and symptoms of increased arousal.
Talking with someone who understands can help survivors sort out the emotional aftermath of a sexual assault. A counselor who has knowledge of trauma related to sexual assault can help survivors gain perspective on the situation. No matter how difficult the coping process is, it does not mean that the survivor has serious mental or emotional problems. The recovery process may help survivors develop confidence, strength, insights and abilities.
Those who are close to someone who has been assaulted may also seek counseling. This can help them cope with the stress the incident has brought to their own lives, and help them to be understanding and supportive of the sexual assault survivor. See the Info for Friends and Family web page for more information.
Flashback and Nightmares
It is normal for survivors to experience flashbacks or nightmares after an assault. Here are some things that may help afterwards:
- Remind yourself that the feelings and sensations are memories of the past; that you survived the trauma; and that you are safe now.
- It is normal when you are scared to stop breathing regularly, which intensifies feelings of panic. Take deep breaths. Breathing helps re-orient you in the present. Focusing on your senses can also help. Ask yourself what you are seeing, hearing and feeling right then.
- Take time to recover, and reach out for support as you need it. Tell someone that you had the flashback or nightmare. Call a friend, family, or crisis hotline.
- Take steps to keep yourself safe. Identify ways in which you feel vulnerable, and work with friends, family or advocates at a crisis center to make a plan that will keep you safe.
Sexuality After Sexual Assault
Survivors: Rape can affect your feelings about sexuality for some time afterwards. You may find that sex stirs up frightening feelings associated with your assault. If you are single, take time to decide if and when you want to share your experience with potential partners. Communication is the key to maintaining healthy intimacy. If you are in a relationship, it is important to tell your partner how you feel and talk about your comfort level with intimacy. A loving partner should respect your needs. On the other hand, you may experience no difficulty in this regard, distinguishing quickly between assault and consensual activity, and might welcome your partner's desire for intimacy. In any case, a lover must recognize the possibility of temporary or permanent change in an intimate relationship.
Partners: If your partner wants to refrain from sexual activity for awhile, it is essential that you honor her or his wishes. Otherwise she or he may feel rushed or frightened by your desire to be sexual. Try to talk openly about this issue even if you have never talked openly about this subject before. It is vital to communicate now. If your partner hasn't brought up the subject, gently ask her or him about it. As in other aspects of recovery from assault, your partner's needs should be of primary concern and should guide your actions. Your partner's attitude about sexuality may be an impact on you. The opportunity to talk about this with someone outside the relationship has been helpful to others who have been intimately involved with a survivor. Consider seeing a counselor to discuss your feelings. Remember that even though some things may change between you and your partner for some time, most survivors recover from the trauma and have healthy, loving lives.
Find out about community resources for survivors of sexual assault. These may include a twenty-four hour crisis hotline, support groups, and individual therapy. Be aware that not all therapists have training in the special needs of sexual assault survivors. Get referrals from your local rape crisis center, and ask potential therapists about their experience and background with this issue. Do not hesitate to change therapist if you are not satisfied.
**Additional information can be obtained by contacting OCOSA at (614) 268-3322, RAINN at 1-800-656-HOPE, or your local rape crisis center.