Sexual Assault and PTSD: How to Recognize if You Have it and What You Can Do

In the United States, a person is sexually assaulted every 68 seconds according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Because of the high volume of assaults we see as a nation every day, April has been designated as Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This month focuses not only on increasing the public’s awareness about sexual assaults but providing education to prevent future assaults and information on where to seek resources as well. 

Recent research published in the peer-reviewed journal Trauma, Violence, & Abuse shows that one month after a sexual assault, 75% of victims met the criteria for post-traumatic stress (PTSD). The only light in this disturbing statistic is that PTSD now has evidenced-based treatments that are working. 

Identifying PTSD in Sexual Assault Victims

First things first. Trauma and PTSD are not the same. It is possible as a sexual assault victim to have trauma without being diagnosed with PTSD. Trauma is defined as a past experience that is difficult to get over. PTSD however, is a DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) diagnosis that is generally broken into 5 categories. Let’s take a deeper look.

Defining PTSD:

Intrusive Memories – These are thoughts that come into your mind without request. Memories of the trauma may occur out of what seems like nowhere, preventing you from participating in the present. When sexual assault victims begin a new relationship, they may experience intrusive thoughts from their previous assault.

Avoidance – People with PTSD often try to avoid thinking about the trauma they experienced. They may do this by finding ways to stay busy and avoiding places or people related to the trauma. Sexual assault victims may try to avoid relationships or intimacy entirely.

Negative Thoughts – Negative thoughts about one’s self, others, or the world are regularly experienced by people with PTSD. A common negative thought among sexual assault victims is “It’s my fault.” This thought is a big indicator that the person is experiencing PTSD.

Negative Emotions – Negative emotions like fear, shame, or disgust take over the person making it difficult to experience positive feelings. A sexual assault victim may develop the fear that the gender of their assailant as a class are untrustworthy. For example, if a woman’s assailant was male, she may create the fear that all men are untrustworthy even though that’s not reality.

Hyperarousal – Hyperarousal is when the brain is activated on high alert. This often leads to difficulty sleeping and a high startle reaction. For sexual assault victims, this sometimes manifests into hypervigilance making the person feel the need to be on guard for seemingly no reason at all.

Treating PTSD:

Fortunately, there are evidenced-based treatments that have proven to lead to remission for both victims of PTSD and trauma. Three of the most recognized treatments include:

Exposure Therapy
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) Therapy
CPT (Cognitive Processing Therapy)

Not everyone responds to the same treatment, so it is important to find what works best for the individual. Treatment methods vary in the amount of effort required by the individual but within 6-12 sessions the person should begin to see progress. Like many things that require treatment, the sooner better.

Too often victims of sexual assault associate the difficulty with healing as a weakness. But that’s simply not the case. Sexual assault victims are survivors who should be very proud of the work they’ve done to recover from their assault. Seeking help with healing is not a weakness, it shows strength.

Journey to Recovery

Recovering from a traumatic event like sexual assault is a journey. Whether the individual is receiving support from a professional counselor or navigating this trauma alone, below are five simple things that can be done on the journey to recovery.

Confide in a trusted friend or family member. It may be challenging but sharing this trauma with another is important step in the journey.

Process your feelings. When feelings of shame or self-blame occur, counter them with thoughts like “I did my best” and “It’s not my fault”.

Prepare yourself for flashbacks and intrusive memories. When experiencing a flashback or intrusive memory, implement grounding techniques such as noticing where you are, feeling your feet on the floor, and the room surrounding you. Counting backwards from 100 by 3s is another way to return yourself to the present moment.

Stay connected with friends and your community. It is easy to disconnect to protect yourself from future harm, but connections are a key element in healing.

Engage in self-care. Find an activity that brings you joy or calmness to help bring balance to your feelings. Self-care can be small like meditation or big like going on a trip.

Moving Forward 
Whether you are a victim yourself or know someone who has been sexually assaulted, know you’re not alone. There is help for those who want it. To make an appointment with a Mindfully counselor, visit www.mindfully.com. If you’re not ready for professional support but need someone to talk to, the Sexual Assault Hotline is available 24/7 by phone at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or by chat

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