How to Heal from Sexual Trauma
No one deserves to experience sexual assault, but if you have, there are ways to recover…
1. Go easy on yourself
Healing from sexual trauma is not a linear process. The journey is gradual, ongoing, and there is no one-size-fits-all. It doesn’t happen overnight, nor are memories of trauma able to be buried away. The best way to deal with the feelings is to feel them, but it’s important to take your time. This can feel like an arduous task, but despite not being able to erase the memory, it is possible to lessen the pain and control the memory has over you. It takes work, but if you can withstand the trauma, you can withstand the healing. Remember to be kind and gracious to yourself along the process, the point is to stretch yourself enough to bend, but not to break. You may have experienced a loss of control, but you have control over your healing, and there are many steps you can take to cope with the residual symptoms.
2. Open up about what happened (to someone you trust), and stay connected
It can be extremely difficult to speak out about sexual assault. There are many reasons why people choose not to speak out, including fear of retaliation, not being believed, fear of being judged, and the overall stigma. In addition, you may be worried about how others may view you differently after you tell them. Though it may seem easier to minimize the assault or keep it a secret, when you deny yourself a voice, you deny part of your healing. On top of that, silence breeds shame. Many try to stifle their trauma or just try not to feel the pain, but the only way to work through the pain is to feel it, and that starts with talking about it. As intimidating as it is to open up, it will set you free; however, it’s important to be selective about who you open up to.
It’s best to choose someone whom you can trust. Someone who is understanding, supportive, and calm. If you don’t have someone you trust, talk to a therapist or call a rape crisis hotline. It may also be helpful to consider joining a support group of other survivors with whom you can learn from and develop a community of support. Support groups can help you feel less isolated and alone in what you’ve experienced. 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.
3. Cope with feelings of guilt and shame
The only reason a person gets raped, is because they were in the presence of a rapist. Even though you may understand intellectually that you are not to blame for sexual assault, you may still carry some unresolved feelings of guilt and shame. These feelings can occur directly following the assault, after a trigger, or many years later.
Oftentimes, people feel shame because they didn't prevent the assault from happening. However, there is no way to perfectly respond to that type of situation. In fact, it is almost impossible to control your body’s autonomic response to fight, flee, freeze, or fawn in such a situation. It's ok if your body just froze or you weren't able to physically fight off the attack, your body was doing what it needed to do to survive. And you did. You survived. You did the best you could.
Other times, people feel that they trusted someone they shouldn’t have, or that they were “too drunk,” used drugs, broke some rules, or weren’t “careful enough.” No matter the circumstances, no matter what state you were in, no one has the right to violate you. Again, the only reason a person gets sexually assaulted, is by being in the presence of an attacker, and most of the time, we don’t know who those are until it is too late. The shame and the blame is on them.
By starting with opening up to a trusted person, you can begin to process the assault and fully accept that you are in no way responsible for being sexually assaulted, and there is nothing to be ashamed about.
4. Prepare for triggers, flashbacks, and difficult memories
Nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3%) and 1 in 71 men (1.4%) in the United States have reported being raped at some time in their lives (Black, et al., 2010). About 30% of all PTSD cases in the United States can be attributed to sexual violence, with the lifetime prevalence of PTSD for women who have been sexually assaulted being 50% (Burgess P, McFarlane, 2001). Moreover, sexual assault is the most frequent cause of PTSD in women, with one study reporting that 94% of women experienced PTSD symptoms during the first two weeks after an assault (ncptsd, 2005).
As mentioned above, when you experience a traumatic event, your body goes into an automatic “fight, fight, freeze, or fawn” reaction. Generally, this mode of functioning subsides once the threat is gone; however, traumatic experiences such as sexual assault can cause your nervous system to become stuck in this state of hyper-vigilence, or alertness. This can manifest as symptoms of PTSD and other mental health concerns, causing you to be hyper-sensitive to stimuli that can trigger flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, and intrusive memories.
There are steps you can take to reduce the stress and intensity of triggers and upsetting memories. These include anticipating and preparing for potential triggers, tuning into your bodily and emotional responses, grounding yourself in the present, reminding yourself that you are safe now, and self-soothing to calm anxiety before it gets unmanageable.
5. Reconnect to your body and your emotions
In addition to hypersensitivity, many people experience a sense of numbness from attempts to stifle or avoid emotions after the assault. This may seem nice, but one cannot simply turn on or off their feelings. Instead, you end up disconnecting from your body and emotions, and not just for the unpleasant feelings, but the pleasant ones too. This disconnection from you body and/or emotions can manifest as feeling physically shut down (unable to experience pain or pleasure), dissociation (feeling separate from your body, people, or environment), engaging in risky behaviors to avoid pain (such as alcohol or drug use and risky sex), escaping into isolation, and feeling detached from reality.
Though selectively numbing or avoiding associations with the trauma may feel good in the short term, long-term recovery after sexual assault requires reconnecting to your body and emotions. Once you can re-establish the mind-body connection, you will feel more safe, powerful, and in control. This can be done a number of ways, including mindfulness, meditation, getting back into your body through movement (dance, exercise, yoga, etc.), massage (or other forms of consensual, pleasurable human touch), and therapy. Some research-proven modalities for treating traumas include: EMDR, CBT, and Psychosomatic work. If interested in any of these therapies or additional support, please reach out. Whether from myself, another therapist, a trusted friend, a support group, or a crisis hotline, help is out there and available.
References: Black, M. C., Basile, K. C., Breiding, M. J., Smith, S. G., Walters, M. L., Merrick, M. T., Chen, J., & Stevens, M. R. (2011). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 summary report. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/NISVS_Report2010-a.pdf
Creamer M, Burgess P, McFarlane AC Psychol Med. (2001). Post-traumatic stress disorder: findings from the Australian National Survey of Mental Health and Well-being. Oct; 31(7):1237-47.
National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. (2005). Epidemiological Facts About PTSD - A National Center for PTSD Fact Sheet. Retrieved April 1, 2005 from http://www.ncptsd.va.gov/facts/general/fs_epidemiological.html.
Finding a Sexologist or Sex Therapist
Are you struggling with any of these concerns or another sex-related matter? If you are in search of someone who is certified, you can check the listing at the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT) online directory. Lastly, if you are interested in working with a sexologist, I encourage you to ask about their area of focus and their background or credentials. That way, you can make the most informed decision about who to trust with your sexual health.
Who am I? A message from Holly…
My name is Holly and I am a Trauma-Informed and Board Certified Clinical Sexologist. I provide sex therapy and coaching to individuals and couples that are struggling with reaching their full potential. As a clinician, I am passionate about helping people achieve their goals and live happy, healthy, rewarding lives. I truly believe that trauma is the source of pathology, and that everyone has within them the capacity to heal. Furthermore, I am dedicated to fostering a safe environment, working with each individual to develop the necessary skills to achieve lifelong change to improve their quality of life. As your therapist, I can’t guarantee that I will be able to fully understand what it is like to walk in your shoes, but I can guarantee that I can help you to sort things out, let go of what does not serve you, and create the life you truly want. Peaceful. Connected. Powerful. And Pleasurable.
I offer a judgment-free zone, hold space for healing, and offer straight forward, no-nonsense feedback (if that’s what you need). Overall, I offer you the tools and guidance to get past your past and develop the necessary skills to achieve lifelong change and truly start living. - Holly Wood, MS., PhD(c), LMFT
Visit www.thehollywoodsexologist.com to learn more and request a consultation.