Understanding how you are responding to sexual trauma may help reduce distress and empower your healing and recovery. The following list describes common reactions to sexual trauma:
Fear and Anxiety
Fear and anxiety are common and natural responses to a dangerous situation. For many, they last long after the assault has ended. This happens when one’s view of the world and a sense of safety have changed.
Triggers and Cues
Associations with places, times of the day, certain smells, noises, or any situation that reminds victim / survivors of the traumatic event can cause anxiety.
Re-experiencing of the Trauma
Re-experiencing the trauma through unwanted thoughts, flashbacks, or nightmares is common among victim/survivors of sexual trauma. These symptoms occur because a traumatic experience is so shocking and so different from everyday experiences that victim/survivors cannot fit it into what they know about the world. In an attempt to understand what happened, and make it fit in, the mind of the victim /survivor keeps bringing the memory back.
This is a common response to sexual trauma. This includes feeling jumpy, jittery, or shaky; being easily startled; and having trouble concentrating or sleeping. Arousal reactions are caused by fight-or-flight responses activating in the body. The fight-or-flight response is a means to protect self against danger. Continuous arousal can lead to impatience and irritability particular when accompanied by sleep deprivation.
People who have been assaulted often see the world as filled with danger causing their bodies to be on constant alert. This exacerbated alertness can become uncomfortable when it is sustained during benign or safe situations.
Avoidance is a common way of managing trauma-related distress and/or pain. The most common type is avoiding situations that prompt reminders of the assault, such as the place the assault occurred. Another way to reduce emotional discomfort is to avoid painful thoughts and feelings. This can result in feelings of numbness. For some people, painful thoughts and feelings may be so intense that they are blocked out altogether, including details of the assault.
It is common for people who have been assaulted to feel angry. The anger can be directed not only at the offender but also with other people in their life. The anger can arise due to feelings of irritability or from a feeling that the world is not a fair or just place. People who are not accustomed to feeling angry may be frightened by their feelings of anger.
Guilt and Shame
Trauma often leads to feelings of guilt and shame. Many people blame themselves for things they did or did not do to survive. Some people believe that they should have fought off an assailant; others feel ashamed for doing something they were forced to do during the assault. Often victims are blamed by others for being assaulted. Experiencing guilt after an assault means that the victim of the assault is taking responsibility for what the assailant did. This can lead to feelings of helplessness and depression.
Experiencing depression after an assault can include feeling down, sad, hopeless, powerless, or despairing. People who are depressed may cry more often, may lose interest in people and activities they once enjoyed, or feel that life is no longer worth living. These thoughts can lead to self- harm or thoughts of suicide.
People who have experienced a sexual assault can become more self-negating after an assault, blaming themselves for being weak, stupid, bad, or deserving of the assault. It is also common to see the world and others more negatively and to feel unable to trust anyone.
(Foa & Rothbaum, 1998)