Overcoming Sexual Assault: Symptoms & Recovery

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Sexual Assault Statistics

According to RAINN.org (2017) statistics, an American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds. This statistic alone is incredibly alarming, but to define this more, other statistics suggest that:

  • In the U.S., one in five women and one in 71 men will be sexually assaulted at some point in their life.
  • 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).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, is that rape is the most under-reported crime, with only 63% of sexual assaults being reported to the police and 12% of child sexual abuse reported to authorities (NSVRC, 2015). Beyond the obvious legal limitations of not reporting these crimes, those who do not report sexual assault incidents are less likely to receive appropriate treatment.

This can mean months, and likely years, of struggling with anxiety, depression, intrusive memories, and intimacy difficulties.

What is Sexual Violence?

The term “sexual violence” is an 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, forced sexual acts including sexual intercourse, sodomy, oral sex, and rape or attempted rape.

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, hyper vigilance, irritability, easily startled)

The relationship that a person had with the perpetuator 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 to do 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. This is because sexual assaults are traumatic, and pretending it does not exist does not change the fact that it happened.

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, all unfinished psychological business eventually catches up and 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 be appreciate when you have never experienced severe anxiety, depression, irritability and anger, and 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.
  • 3.4 times more likely to use marijuana than the general public.
  • 6 times more likely to use cocaine than the general public.
  • 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.

Effective Treatments

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 their life. Benefits of trauma-focused therapy include:

  • 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 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

References

National Sexual Violence Resource Center. (2015). Statistics about Sexual Violence.Retrieved from: http://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/publications_nsvrc_factsheet_media-packet_statistics about-sexual-violence_0.pdf

RAINN.org (2017). Types of Sexual Violence. Retrieved from: https://www.rainn.org/types-sexual violence.

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