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Understanding PTSD in Sexual Assault Survivors

Today's Medicine

Published: June 26, 2020

 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that some people develop after witnessing or living through a terrifying experience. We often associate PTSD with combat veterans, and there’s been a decades-long movement to raise awareness and provide support for at-risk men and women returning from active duty. 

But anyone at any age can develop PTSD – not just combat veterans. Those who live through natural disasters, survive school shootings, grow up in violent neighborhoods or suffer abuse are also at risk. And there’s one group of people that seems to develop PTSD more than others – sexual assault survivors.  

 

What does PTSD look like? 

According to RAINN, 94% of women who are raped experience PTSD symptoms in the two weeks following the attack, and 30% of women experience symptoms nine months later. For many, those symptoms won’t lessen over time. PTSD is more common among survivors who feel that their lives are in danger during the assault. Their “fight or flight” response kicks in, but when overpowered, they can’t do either. They may dissociate their minds from their body until the assault is over. There are strong links between disassociation and PTSD. 

PTSD symptoms may include:

  • Agitation, irritability or hypervigilance
  • Flashbacks/reliving the traumatic event
  • Fear, severe anxiety or mistrust
  • Loss of interest/pleasure in activities
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Insomnia or nightmares
  • Emotional detachment 
  • Unwanted thoughts
  • Social isolation or loneliness

The long-term effects of PTSD are mental, emotional and physical:

  • Chronic pain and worsening physical health problems
  • Risk of developing autoimmune diseases
  • Depression, anxiety, social withdrawal or suicidal thoughts and behaviors
  • Loss of occupational or academic functioning
  • Difficulties with interpersonal relationships
  • Substance abuse, addiction or eating disorders


Healing is possible

Although some people will have lasting PTSD symptoms, most people who have PTSD will slowly get better. Treatments include different types of trauma-focused therapy and medication. Examples of therapy include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy, also known as talk therapy
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or when a therapist has you focus on back-and-forth movements or sounds while you recall the traumatic memory until the way you experience that memory is changed

In addition to getting professional help, you can engage in self-care and coping techniques to lessen your symptoms:

  • Focus on slowing your breathing when you feel frightened. Your breathing may become irregular when you’re scared, which could lead to panic.
  • Carry an object that reminds you of the present. Some people find it helpful to touch or look at something when they’re having a flashback.
  • Tell yourself you’re safe. Write down key phrases ahead of time that you can look at.
  • Comfort yourself. Curl up in a blanket, listen to soothing music, or cuddle a pet.
  • Keep a journal. Writing down what happens when you have a flashback could help identify patterns in what triggers those experiences. You might also learn to notice early signs that they’re beginning to happen.
  • Try grounding techniques. Grounding techniques can help you stay connected to the present. For example, describe your surroundings out loud. 

 

How to help a loved one

As a friend or family member, you may not always know that someone you love was sexually assaulted, so looking out for PTSD may be difficult. But there are certain clear signs that something might be troubling your friend, daughter, cousin or coworker. You may notice that they’re having nightmares or appear distracted or absent. They may seem sad, scared or angry, and have trouble relating to you. Maybe you’ve noticed that they’re numb to the things they use to enjoy, or they might be always “on guard” that something bad is going to happen. 

If you know or suspect your loved one has PTSD, you can help by:

  • Planning enjoyable activities with friends and family. Make sure to go at their pace and comfort level. 
  • Offering to go to the doctor with them. This is especially helpful if your loved one is having difficulty focusing and remembering details.
  • Making a crisis plan together. You can learn to recognize their triggers and take steps to help them cope.
  • Checking in with them often. Together you can figure out which support strategies are working and find new ones if they aren’t. 

 

Seek professional help

If you’ve been sexually assaulted and suspect you’re suffering symptoms of PTSD, reach out to a mental health professional. If you’re hesitant or unsure how, your primary care provider can help you. While it’s a difficult conversation, you should tell your provider about your assault whether you’re experiencing PTSD or not. Talk to people you love and trust. Those who are in your life every day can support you and help you avoid triggers. Most importantly, know that you’re not alone – one in 11 people is diagnosed with PTSD at some point in their lives. Help is available to you. 

 

More resources

Charlene Hills

About the Author:

Charlene Hills, LCSW, LIMHP, has been a counselor with the Methodist Hospital Community Counseling Program for more than a decade. In high school, she was always the one her friends turned to for advice, so becoming a counselor was a natural step. Today she works with middle schoolers, an age group she enjoys helping because of all the changes they’re going through.  

“I liked the idea of working with preteens and adolescents and being able to have a positive impact in their lives,” she said. “They’re in the stage of moving away from young childhood and are beginning to try to figure out who they are, figuring out peer relationships, wanting to be more independent and taking on more responsibility.”  

Hills received her bachelor’s in psychology at Doane University and her Master of Social Work from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. In addition to working with middle schoolers, she provides counseling for adults at Hanscom Park United Methodist Church. 

See More Articles by Charlene Hills