Sexual assault is a violent or coercive invasion of personal privacy and space, and can be a humiliating and a terrifying experience. Sometimes victims fear for their lives. In other cases, sexual activity without consent may not have violent overtones, but it can still radically affect the survivor in all aspects of life. The experience of sexual assault has different meanings for different people. Survivors typically experience a variety of behavioral and emotional reactions, based on their experiences, their support systems, and the characteristics of the assault itself.
Feelings after an assault vary widely and are wholly dependent on the emotional makeup of the individual survivor. But the range of reactions has a name: Rape Trauma Syndrome, which is often referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. It means that a survivor has experienced a trauma or a significant, terrifying event.
Many survivors of sexual assault find support and understanding in talking with other survivors to see how they have reacted to their own experiences of assault. Healing is facilitated by developing a support network. Not everyone has understanding friends or family, yet there are ways to find the support you need. Research shows that the sooner a survivor can speak of her/his experience in a supportive environment, including with family, friends, and professional counselors, the more rapid and thorough the healing process. Professional counselors with experience in this area understand Rape Trauma Syndrome. They can help you sort out your options and refer you to support groups for survivors or individual counseling.
Survivors of sexual assault may experience a spectrum of fears, and have a legitimate concern for their safety. These fears are normal, and each person will need her/his own time to heal and to feel safe again.
Some people are afraid at home (whether or not the assault occurred there), and some may be afraid when they go out. They may fear being alone while at the same time have a need to isolate themselves. Others feel mistrustful of others; this is especially true if you know your assailant. These feelings will go away, but it will take time for them to subside. Staying with a close friend or supportive relative for a while may be helpful. Talking with a sexual assault counselor can be a vital connection that can help you through this difficult time.
It is not uncommon after a sexual assault to want to purchase a weapon. Weapons can foster dependence on an external object for protection or can be taken away and used against you. Some people, especially those who are trained in the use of weapons, find this to be a viable choice.
A more empowering alternative to weapons may be to enroll in a self-defense course. This can help turn fear into anger and anger into action. You can learn how to use awareness, assertiveness, and physical action to defend yourself. Learning self-defense is one way of dealing with fear and anxiety. It can empower you and help you heal more quickly from the assault, especially if you were assaulted by someone you know. Look for a class your local sexual assault center recommends. Becoming familiar with self-protection strategies and being alert can help you regain a feeling of safety inside and outside your home.
Another effective method for calming these fears is called systematic desensitization. With the help of a partner or close friend, make a list of the things you are afraid of doing. Put the things you fear least at the top of the list and end with activities you fear most. Take a few deep, relaxing breaths, and then imagine yourself doing the first thing on the list. Try to keep your body relaxed as you visualize successfully completing the activity. Proceed to the next item on the list only if you feel relaxed and able to do so. Take as much time as you need to work through each listing. The next step is to try the activity, first with a friend and later alone, if you feel it is safe to do so. Confronting each fearful situation at your own pace will help empower you to live without the fears and constraints that naturally occur following an assault.
Fear and mistrust are very normal, natural, and common reactions to a sexual assault. Many survivors look for quick solutions, which can create a sense of guilt. You may think you could have prevented the assault. But, the responsibility for sexual assault lies with the offender, even if you knew him or her.
Ways to Take Care of Yourself
Get support from friends and family -- try to identify people you trust to validate your feelings and affirm your strengths.
Talk about the assault and express feelings -- choose when, where, and with whom to talk about the assault, and set limits by only disclosing information that feels safe for you to reveal.
Use stress reduction techniques -- hard exercise like jogging, aerobics, walking; relaxation practices like yoga, massage, music, hot baths; prayer and/or meditation.
Maintain a balanced diet and sleep cycle as much as possible, and avoid overusing stimulants like caffeine, sugar, and nicotine.
Discover your playful and creative self. Playing and creativity are important for healing. Find time for noncompetitive play -- start or resume a creative activity like piano, painting, gardening, handicrafts, anything you enjoy.
Take time out. Give yourself permission to take quiet moments to reflect, relax, and rejuvenate -- especially during times you feel stressed or unsafe.
Try reading. Reading can be a relaxing, healing activity. Try to find short periods of uninterrupted leisure reading time.
Consider writing or keeping a journal as a way of expressing thoughts and feelings.
Release some of the hurt and anger in a healthy way. Write a letter to your attacker about how you feel about what happened to you. Be as specific as you can. You can choose to send the letter or not. You can also draw pictures about the anger you feel towards your attacker as a way of releasing the emotional pain.
Hug those you love. Hugging releases the body’s natural pain killers.
Remember you are safe, even if you don’t feel it. The rape is over. It may take longer than you think, but you will feel better.
Robin et all