Recovering from Rape and Sexual Trauma

Recovering from Rape and Sexual Trauma

Tips for Regaining Your Sense of Safety and Trust

Distraught womanThe trauma of being raped or sexually assaulted can have long-lasting effects. It’s common to feel afraid, ashamed, and alone. But no matter how bad you feel right now, remember this: you didn’t deserve what happened to you and you are not permanently damaged. Recovering from sexual trauma takes time, and the healing process can be painful. But if you’re willing to put in the work, you’ll come out the other side wiser, stronger, and more resilient.

The aftermath of rape and sexual trauma

Sexual violence is epidemic in our society. According to the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, nearly 1 in 5 women in the U.S. have been raped or sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. And in most cases (the CDC estimates it at 80-90%), the crime is committed by someone the victim knows.

The impact goes far beyond any physical injuries. When you’ve been raped, the world doesn’t feel like a safe place anymore. You no longer trust others. You don’t even trust yourself. You question your judgment, your self-worth, even your sanity. You may blame yourself for what happened or believe you’re “dirty” or “damaged goods.” Relationships feel dangerous, intimacy impossible. And on top of that, you may—like many rape survivors—struggle with PTSD, anxiety, and depression.

It’s important to remember that what you’re experiencing is a normal reaction to trauma. Your feelings of helplessness, shame, defectiveness, and self-blame are symptoms, not reality. Dispelling the toxic victim-blaming myths about sexual violence can help you start healing.

Myths and facts about rape and sexual assault
Myth: You can spot a rapist by the way he looks or acts.

Fact: There’s no surefire way to identify a rapist. Many appear completely normal, friendly, charming, and non-threatening.

Myth: If you didn’t fight back, you must not have thought it was that bad.

Fact: During a sexual assault, it’s extremely common to freeze. Your brain and body shuts down in shock, making it difficult to move, speak, and think.

Myth: Women who are raped “ask for it” by the way they dress or act.

Fact: Rape is a crime of opportunity. Studies show that rapists choose victims based on their vulnerability, not on how sexy they appear or how flirtatious they are.

Myth: Date rape is often a misunderstanding.

Fact: Date rapists often defend themselves by claiming the assault was a drunken mistake or miscommunication. But research shows that the vast majority of date rapists are repeat offenders. These men target vulnerable women and often ply them with alcohol in order to rape them.

Myth: It’s not rape if you’ve had sex with the person before.

Fact: Just because you’ve previously consented to sex with someone doesn’t give them perpetual rights to your body. If your spouse, boyfriend, or lover forces sex against your will, it’s rape.

Healing after rape step 1: Reframe what happened to you

It can be extraordinarily difficult to admit that you were raped. There’s a stigma attached. It can make you feel dirty and weak. You may also be afraid of how others will react. Will they judge you? Look at you differently? It seems easier to downplay what happened or keep it a secret. But when you stay silent, you deny yourself help and reinforce your victimhood.

Our own story

It’s common to think that if you don’t talk about your rape, it didn’t really happen. But you can’t heal when you’re avoiding the truth. And hiding only adds to feelings of shame. As scary as it is to open up, it’s what will set you free. However, it’s important to be selective about who you tell, especially at first. Your best bet is someone who will be supportive, empathetic, and calm. If you don’t have someone you trust, talk to a therapist or call a rape crisis hotline.

Challenge your sense of helplessness and isolation

Trauma leaves you feeling powerless and vulnerable. It’s important to remind yourself that you have strengths and coping skills that can get you through tough times. One of the best ways to reclaim your sense of power is by helping others: volunteer your time, give blood, reach out to a friend in need, or donate to your favorite charity.

You may also want to consider joining a support group for other rape or sexual abuse survivors. Support groups can help you feel less isolated and alone. They also provide invaluable information on how to cope with symptoms and work towards recovery. If you can’t find a support group in your area, look for an online group.

Assign responsibility where it belongs: on the rapist

Even if you intellectually understand that you’re not to blame for the rape, you may still struggle with feelings of guilt and shame. But as you acknowledge the truth of what happened and own your story, it will be easier to fully accept that you are not responsible. You did not bring the assault on yourself and you have nothing to be ashamed about.

If you’re feeling guilty or ashamed because…

  • You didn’t stop the assault from happening: After the fact, it’s easy to second guess what you did or didn’t do. But when you’re in the midst of an assault, your brain and body are in shock. You can’t think clearly. Many people say they feel “frozen.” Don’t judge yourself for this natural reaction to trauma. You did the best you could under extreme circumstances. If you could have stopped the assault, you would have.
  • You trusted someone you “shouldn’t” have. One of the most difficult things to deal with following an assault by someone you know is the violation of trust. It’s natural to start questioning yourself and wondering if you missed warning signs. Just remember that your attacker is the only one to blame. Don’t beat yourself up for assuming that your attacker was a decent human being. Your attacker is the one who should feel guilty and ashamed, not you.
  • You were drunk or dressed a certain way… You may be wondering if you are somehow to blame because of the way you were dressed or because you were drunk and not cautious enough. But it’s important to remember that regardless of the circumstances, the only one who is responsible for the assault is the perpetrator. You did not ask for it or deserve what happened to you.

Step 2: Prepare for flashbacks and upsetting memories

When we go through something stressful, our body temporarily goes into “fight-or-flight” mode. When the threat has passed, our body calms down. But traumatic experiences such as rape can cause our nervous systems to become stuck in a state of high alert. We’re hyper sensitive to the smallest of stimuli. This is the case for many rape survivors. Flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive memories are extremely common, especially in the first few months following the assault. For those who go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they can last much longer.

The following tips can help you prevent and cope with flashbacks and other upsetting memories and sensations.

Try to anticipate and prepare for triggers. Common triggers include anniversary dates; people or places associated with the rape; and certain sights, sounds, or smells. If you are aware of what triggers may cause an upsetting reaction, you’ll be in a better position to understand what’s happening and take steps to calm down.

Pay attention to your body’s danger signals. Your body and emotions give you clues when you’re starting to feel stressed and unsafe. These clues include feeling tense, holding your breath, racing thoughts, shortness of breath, hot flashes, dizziness, and nausea.

Take immediate steps to self-soothe. When you notice any of the above symptoms, it’s important to quickly act to calm yourself down before they spiral out of control. One of the quickest and most effective ways to calm anxiety and panic is to slow down your breathing.

Soothe panic with this simple breathing exercise

  • Sit or stand comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
  • Take a slow breath in through your nose, counting to four. The hand on your stomach should rise. The hand on your chest should move very little.
  • Hold your breath for a count of seven.
  • Exhale through your mouth to a count of eight, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but your other hand should move very little.
  • Inhale again, repeating the cycle until you feel relaxed and centered.

Tips for dealing with flashbacks

It’s not always possible to prevent flashbacks. But if you find yourself losing touch with the present and feeling like the assault is happening all over again, there are things you can do.

Accept and reassure yourself that this is a flashback, not reality. The traumatic event is over and you survived. Here’s a simple script that can help: “I am feeling [panicked, frightened, overwhelmed, etc.] because I am remembering [traumatic event], but as I look around I can see that [traumatic event] isn’t happening right now and I’m not actually in danger.”

Ground yourself in the present. Grounding techniques help you direct your attention away from the flashback and back to your present environment. Some examples include tapping or touching your arms or describing your actual environment and what you see when look around (for example, name the place where you are, the current date, and 3 things you see when you look around).

Step 3: Reconnect to your body and feelings

Because of the hypersensitive nervous system following rape, many survivors start doing things to numb themselves or avoid any associations with the trauma. But you can’t selectively numb. When you shut down the scary sensations, you also shut down your self-awareness and capacity for joy. You end up disconnected both emotionally and physically—existing, but not fully living.

Symptoms that you’re avoiding and numbing in unhelpful ways:

  1. Feeling physically shut down. You don’t feel bodily sensations like you used to (you might even have trouble differentiating between pleasure and pain).
  2. Feeling separate from your body or your surroundings (you may feel like you’re watching yourself or the situation you’re in, rather than participating in it).
  3. Trouble concentrating and remembering things.
  4. Using stimulants, risky activities, or physical pain to feel alive and counteract the empty feeling inside of you.
  5. Compulsive use of drugs or alcohol.
  6. Escaping through fantasies, daydreams, or excessive TV, video games, etc.
  7. Feeling detached from the world, the people in your life, and the activities you used to enjoy.

To recover after rape, you must reconnect to your body and feelings

It’s frightening to get back in touch with your body and feelings following a sexual trauma. In many ways, rape makes your body the enemy. It’s something that’s been violated and contaminated—something you may hate or want to ignore. It’s also scary to face the intense feelings associated with the assault. But while the process of reconnecting may feel threatening, it’s not actually dangerous. Feelings, while powerful, are not reality. They won’t hurt you or drive you insane. The true danger to your physical and mental health comes from avoiding them. Once you’re back in touch with your body and feelings, you will feel more safe, confident, and powerful.

Here are some techniques that can help you reconnect with your body and the way you feel:

Rhythmic movement. Rhythm can be very healing. It helps us relax and regain a sense of control over our bodies. Anything that combines rhythm and movement will work: dancing, drumming, marching. You can even incorporate it into your walking or running routine by concentrating on the back and forth movements of your arms and legs.

Mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation can be practiced anywhere, even while you are walking or eating. To practice, simply focus on what you’re feeling in the present movement—including any bodily sensations and emotions. The goal is to observe without judgement.

Yoga, Tai Chi, and Qigong. Yoga, tai chi, and qigong combine body awareness with relaxing, focused movement. Studies show that they can help relieve symptoms of PTSD and trauma.

Massage. After rape, you may feel uncomfortable with human touch. But touching and being touched is an important way we give and receive affection and comfort. You can begin to reopen yourself to human contact through massage therapy.

A powerful program for reconnecting to your feelings and physical sensations

Helpguide offers a free, online program that can help you recover after rape. Our Emotional Intelligence Toolkit teaches you how to reconnect to uncomfortable or frightening emotions without becoming overwhelmed. It also teaches you techniques for quickly calming yourself down when things start to get too intense. The toolkit can be used in conjunction with therapy, or on its own. Over time, it can make a huge difference in your ability to manage stress, balance your moods and emotions, and take back control of your life. START NOW

Step 4: Stay connected and nurture yourself

Healing from sexual trauma is a gradual, ongoing process. It doesn’t happen overnight, nor do the memories of the trauma ever disappear completely. This can make life seem difficult at times. But there are many things you can do to cope with residual symptoms and reduce your anxiety and fear.

Stay connected to family and friends

It’s common to feel isolated and disconnected from others following a sexual assault. You may be tempted to withdraw from social activities and your loved ones. But it’s important to stay connected to life and the people who care about you. Support from other people is vital to your recovery. But remember that support doesn’t mean you always have to talk or dwell on what happened. Having fun and laughing with people who care about you can be equally healing.

Support healing by nurturing yourself

Take time to rest and restore your body’s balance. That means taking a break when you’re tired and avoiding the temptation to lose yourself by throwing yourself into activities. Avoid doing anything compulsively, including exercising and working. If you’re having trouble relaxing and letting down your guard, you may benefit from relaxation techniques such as meditation and yoga.

Be smart about media consumption. Avoid watching anything that could trigger bad memories or flashbacks. This includes obvious things such as news reports about sexual violence and sexually explicit TV shows and movies. But you may also want to temporarily avoid anything that’s overly stimulating, including social media and music.

Take care of yourself physically. It’s always important to eat right, exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep—doubly so when you’re healing from trauma. Exercise in particular can soothe your traumatized nervous system, relieve stress, and help you feel more powerful and in control of your body.

Avoid alcohol and drugs. Avoid the temptation to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. Substance use worsens many symptoms of trauma, including emotional numbing, social isolation, anger, and depression. It also interferes with treatment and can add to problems at home and in your relationships.


If you want to learn skills for connecting to others in ways that reduce stress and anxiety, read FEELING LOVED.

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More help for rape and sexual trauma

Resources and references

National Sexual Assault Hotline – Confidential, free 24/7 hotline for one-on-one crisis support. Call 1-800-656-HOPE or chat online. (RAINN)

Sexual Healing from Sexual Abuse – Advice from therapist Wendy Maltz, an internationally-recognized expert in sexual healing after rape and sexual abuse. (HealthySex.com)

After Sexual Assault: A Recovery Guide for Survivors (PDF) – Learn what to do in the aftermath of sexual assault. Includes legal and medical advice as well as general recovery tips. (Safe Harbor)

Tips for Survivors on Consuming Media – Tips on how to limit your exposure to media that could prompt flashbacks and uncomfortable experiences for sexual assault survivors. (RAINN)

Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics – Learn more about the scope of the problem in the U.S. (RAINN)

Rape Culture, Victim Blaming, and the Facts – Learn about the dangers of rape culture and victim blaming. (Southern Connecticut State University)

Authors: Melinda Smith, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last updated: October 2016.

Reposted from: http://www.helpguide.org/articles/ptsd-trauma/recovering-from-rape-and-sexual-trauma.htm

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