Dealing With Sexual Trauma
What is Sexual Trauma?
Sexual trauma can be many things. It can be one event or a series of events that may escalate over time. It can be sexual harassment, rape, inappropriate touching, being pressured to perform or engage in sexual activity or threat of harm if you do not do a sexual act. Many people think that sexual trauma has to be violent to be traumatic, but in fact, a majority of sexual assaults that occur do not have significant violent behavior, but instead are done with a threat of harm or embarrassment for the individual involved. Sexual trauma is “traumatic” when the person involved feels a sense of fear, helplessness, injury or threat of injury. The level of perceived threat and traumatic reaction to that threat is very individual and almost impossible to anticipate. One person may react far differently than another despite very similar situations.
What are the common reactions?
A person’s response to sexual trauma will change as time passes. It is common to have feelings of fear, grief, sadness, and physical feelings of nausea, dizziness, changes in appetite, and changes in sleep patterns. Reactions to the sexual trauma can last for weeks to months before you start to feel “normal” again. Most people report feeling better within three months after the sexual trauma. However, if the feelings become worse or last longer, you may be suffering from Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression. If you have been dealing with intense to moderate symptoms for longer than three months, you should see a mental health professional at Carruth Center for Psychological and Psychiatric Services 304.293.4431. Below is a list of common reactions to trauma.
Cognitive (Problems With Thinking or Concentration)
- Poor concentration
- Shortened attention span
- Memory loss
- Unwanted memories
- Difficulty making decisions
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Feeling lost
- Fear of harm to self and/or others
- Feeling nothing
- Feeling abandoned
- Uncertainty of feelings
- Volatile feelings
- Gastro-intestinal problems (diarrhea, constipation, change in hunger/appetite)
- Rapid heart rate
- Grinding of teeth
- Poor sleep
- Arguments with friends and/or loved ones
- Withdrawal from others and/or normal activities
- Excessive silence
- Increased or decreased sleep
- Increased or decreased eating
- Change in sexual desire or functioning
- Increase in substance use (smoking, drugs, alcohol)
It’s helpful to know that all of these symptoms are normal responses to an abnormal event. However, if you feel like any of these are a problem for you or are disrupting your life, it is important for you to see a mental health provider that can help you with these problems.
What can I do to help myself?
First and foremost, it is important to keep yourself safe. If you are currently involved in an unsafe relationship or feel unsafe in your home, then it is very important to get to an environment where you feel safe. If you are currently in an abusive relationship, it can be helpful to contact the police or Carruth Center (304.293.4431) or Rape and Domestic Violence Information Center (304.292.5100). You can also call the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-HOPE).
Now while physical safety is important, emotional safety is also very important. If you are currently engaging in self-harm behaviors like cutting, restricting or purging food, or abusing drugs or alcohol, it is important for you to see a mental health professional before you try to work on your sexual trauma. Working on trauma issues can be difficult and if you already feel out of control or are hurting yourself, it is important to work on these issues before working on the trauma.
So what can you do to help yourself feel better?
- First, acknowledge that what you are feeling is OK and validate yourself for getting through a tough experience. Often people who have been through a traumatic event beat themselves up by thinking that they should have known better or replay how they could have done things differently. After the fact, it is a lot easier to see what you could have done, but that insight is not there as the event is happening. Repeat this to yourself: Its not my fault. Its not my fault.
Exercise #1: You can try writing a letter to yourself discussing how the sexual trauma changed you as a person. What you learned, lost and grieved for.
It is important to be around others during a difficult time and even if you feel like isolating or hiding under your covers, get out and be around friends and loved ones. Engage in activities you like, even if you’re not in the mood at that time. For instance, if you loved to walk but now feel too tired, take a friend and go for a walk around the block or at the park. Getting moving and back to things you used to enjoy will help boost your mood.
Exercise #2: Make a list of activities you used to like to do and try to do a couple a week—whether you feel like it or not. Forcing yourself to get out, be social and active will help you to feel better. Need some ideas: try going out to coffee with friends, painting, playing soccer, reading or going to a movie. Keep track of your activities in your planner or smart phone.
Exercise #3: Make a list of 10 things you fear, from least feared to most feared. Start with the least feared and work your way up.
Fear: I fear being in crowded places.
Practice relaxation. For, example you can take a warm bath, practice slow breathing or do an imagery exercise. It is important that you relax regularly so that it is easy for you to do it when you really need it, such as when you are stressed out. It can also be helpful to start in a relaxing place such as in your bed or lying down on the couch. Then as you practice over weeks or months, you can move the relaxation to less soothing places such as outside, with the TV on or in public until you can feel just as relaxed standing up at the grocery store as you do lying down.
Imagery Exercise: Imagery involves vividly picturing a scene in your mind while relaxing your body and breathing slowly and deeply. You can choose a place you have been to before, one you’ve never been to or a place that doesn’t even exist. The only rule is that you must choose a place with only positive memories. Think about everything you can about that place: What does it feel like there? What do you see? What do you smell? What can you hear? Can you taste anything? For example: You can imagine you are at a deserted beach. You are alone lying in the sand. Imagine how the warm sand feels. The smell of the ocean air. The sound of the waves washing ashore. The breeze and warm sun on your face. Try to put yourself in that scene.
Exercise #4: Practice different kinds of relaxation and see which ones you like. Use the ones you like and practice them daily.
Again it is important that you get the help you need. It is difficult to go through such a traumatic event, and you shouldn’t have to do it alone. Talk to your friends, family, religious leaders or go to a mental health provider. There are effective treatments for trauma and a well-trained professional can help you get back to yourself again.
Carruth Center for for Psychological and Psychiatric Services: 304.293.4431