Understanding The Impact of Sexual Assault

Common Reactions to Sexual Assault
The psychological trauma caused by a sexual assault can be severe and long-lasting. The emotional consequences of rape continue well beyond when you are sexually violated. Because people react in very different ways, it is not possible to predict exactly how you will feel. The effects may be influenced by the severity of the assault, your existing coping skills, your past experiences, and the support you have after the assault. There is nothing right or wrong about whatever you are feeling and experiencing. And, it may be helpful for you to know some of the most common responses of sexual assault victims.


Shock and Disbelief


  • "I feel numb.""I can't believe this happened to me."Initially, most sexual assault victims react with shock and disbelief. You may feel numb and dazed, withdrawn and distant from other people. You may want to forget about what happened and avoid people or situations that remind you of the assault, or you might go to classes or work as though nothing happened.


  • Remembering details about what happened and what it felt like"Sometimes, I can't stop thinking about it.""For weeks, I couldn't wash away his smell.""It comes back out of nowhere. I feel like it's happening all over again."There may be periods when you are preoccupied with thoughts and feelings about the assault. You may have unwanted memories or flashbacks and nightmares. When you think about what happened, you may re-experience some of the sensations and feelings you had during the assault, such as fear and powerlessness.



Intense Emotions and Severe Distress


  • "I feel very sad, like I lost a part of me.""I have this intense anger that I never felt before."Many survivors experience intense emotions in the aftermath of a sexual assault. You might feel confused, disoriented, angry, or full of rage. And, you may feel anxious or depressed. It is not unusual for survivors to feel like they are on an exhausting emotional roller coaster. A high percentage of those who have been sexually assaulted feel hopeless at some point during the aftermath of the trauma, and they contemplate or attempt suicide. If your intense feelings lead you to want to hurt yourself or someone else, it is important to tell someone about your experience, and to seek help from others. You did not ask to be hurt, and you deserve to be supported through your distress.


Feeling Fearful


  • "Every night when I come home, I search my apartment. I look in the closets and under the bed to be sure no one is there.""I can't go out alone at night because I am too scared.""I feel like I can't trust anyone anymore."Fears about personal safety are an almost universal response to a sexual assault. Survivors often become fearful in situations and places where they were never frightened before. In many sexual assault situations, the victim feels powerless and/or terrified of being killed or seriously harmed. Afterwards, you may continue to feel frightened and vulnerable for a while. Survivors often find it difficult to trust and to be intimate with others. This is especially true if you are assaulted by someone you know.


Diminished self-esteem, self-blame and shame


  • "I felt like it was my fault.""I was angry at myself and hated my body.""I wondered if guys would think I was damaged."Feelings of guilt, shame, anger, humiliation, and powerlessness are also frequent reactions. Because of misconceptions about rape, victims may blame themselves, doubt their own judgment, or wonder if they were in some way responsible for the assault. Feelings of guilt and self-blame may be reinforced by the reactions of others, who, because of prevalent myths about rape, may blame the victim or criticize his or her behavior. You may also feel ashamed. Some victims describe feeling dirty, devalued, and humiliated as a result of a sexual assault. A victim's attitude toward his/her body may be negatively affected. This change may lead to self-abuse (i.e. alcohol abuse, overeating, self-mutilation, etc.) Feelings of shame are sometimes a reaction to being forced by the assailant to participate in the crime.


Physical symptoms


  • "I couldn't sleep through the night. I had trouble falling asleep and then I would wake up every night at the same time that the rape happened."Some victims have physical symptoms, such as sleep disturbances, headaches, nausea, and stomach aches. You may find that it is very difficult to concentrate on routine activities like reading for class or doing your homework. You may also experience changes in your sexuality, such as a loss of interest in sex or avoidance of sexual situations.


Each person is different....it takes time to feel better


  • "One minute I feel okay and I think I can deal with what happened, and then the next minute I feel overwhelmed and weak. Sometimes it seems like it will never go away.""It's been 8 months since my rape. It's still always there, but I don't think about it every day anymore."Each person is unique. Although many victims experience similar reactions, there are still individual differences in how they respond to the trauma of rape. You may experience some or all of these symptoms. They may occur immediately, or you may have a delayed reaction weeks or months later. Certain situations, such as seeing the assailant or testifying in court, may intensify the symptoms or cause them to reoccur after a period during which you have been feeling better.




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