Some people who experience sexual violence develop a disorder or syndrome after the sexual assault. One example of this type of syndrome is rape trauma syndrome (RTS). RTS is related to post-traumatic stress disorder but is specifically used to label disruptions in the normal emotional, physical, cognitive, and interpersonal behaviors of an individual after a sexual assault.
Not all individuals who have experienced sexual assault or violence will have RTS; however, it is very common.
Everyone’s experience is different, and not all people will display all of the following symptoms. This said, there are a few extremely common symptoms that survivors of rape display. The way that each individual shows symptoms can also differ, but they can also be sorted into the following categories.
Typically, individuals who have experienced sexual violence distance themselves from their peers, families, and even society as a whole. This can be due to a number of factors — for example, feeling numb, tired, or emotionally drained. This can result in the individual feeling like they are unable to cope with social interactions — even small ones like saying hello to a friend in class or picking up the phone and calling your parents or siblings.
The level of withdrawal can definitely depend on the person, and individuals who may be naturally introverted may not appear quite as different as someone who is very extroverted. Conversely, even a very extroverted person may not appear that different from how they usually are if they are in a situation where they are seemingly constantly around people (even if they are not interacting with them).
People who have gone through a traumatic event like sexual violence will typically try to avoid things that remind them of that memory. This is a completely natural response. We, as people, do not want to subject ourselves to more pain than we need to. Because of this, people will tend to try to avoid feelings or situations that remind them of the pain they experienced during the event of sexual violence.
This may not present itself in the same way for everyone. Some people may avoid talking about certain topics — such as their sexual relationships. Some people may avoid going to certain areas or seeing certain groups of people.
Our brains have an incredibly unhelpful habit of helping us relive some of our worst memories. This is not because we are intentionally trying to make ourselves feel bad but because, typically, the bad memories are the ones that make the biggest impressions on us. Now, when that bad memory is of a traumatic experience, it is no surprise that it is constantly in the back of our minds or seemingly haunting us in our dreams at night.
The unfortunate truth is that many people who have experienced sexual violence find themselves constantly confronted by this memory. Whether they have recurring nightmares or flashbacks or simply cannot stop recalling the event, it can really affect their ability to relax and focus on other things in their lives.
Common psychological symptoms of RTS are trouble concentrating, hypervigilance, sleeping disorders, and a heightened startle response. People who have experienced sexual assault may display one or more of these common symptoms, or they may display symptoms not mentioned here.
Realistically, the exact symptoms will differ from person to person, but anything that seems out of the ordinary — such as an onset of insomnia or new-found fear of being touched — can be a sign of RTS.
The Healing Process
The exact process for healing from sexual assault will be different for each person who is struggling with this type of trauma. This said, there are some common stages that individuals healing from this type of violence tend to follow. We will dive into these stages below (starting with the event of sexual violence).
The Sexual Assault Event
Before someone experiences an act of sexual violence, their life typically consists of a number of different areas. They have relationships, school, work, chores, hobbies, sports, family, and more.
When someone experiences sexual violence, a lot of these things can fade into the background. As we mentioned earlier, our minds have a way of continually bringing up memories that we do not want to relive. This can negatively affect our ability to pursue the hobbies and relationships that we did before the event — especially if we do not allow ourselves to heal from the trauma.
After the sexual assault, the first stage that many people experience is disorientation or denial. This is a natural response to trauma. When things are too much for us to handle in a moment, people have a tendency to experience emotional numbing in order to distance themselves from what they have experienced.
The next stage is the adjustment phase. This is where the survivor has finished dealing with the immediate aftermath of the sexual assault. They have not resolved the issue at this point; they have simply made steps to adjust their life so that they can function “normally.”
This step often gets misinterpreted as “healing,” but usually, it is categorized by the repression of the memory so that the survivor can conduct their daily lives without being constantly interrupted. To an outside eye, this may look like the end of the issue, but there are still a number of things that need to be processed before the survivor can actually move on and heal from experience.
The next stage is typically reliving the experience and working through it. Now, everyone will do this in a way that works best for them — for some, this may mean talking to a therapist or trusted friend, and for others, this may mean going through art therapy or another alternative to a talk-focused approach. This is the stage where the survivor no longer denies the effects that the sexual violence had on their lives.
This stage is generally the most painful for the survivor because it requires them to think about what happened and process it. Because of this, it can easily result in feelings of anxiety, depression, and overwhelm.
Resolution is the final stage of the healing process. This is when the survivor is able to truly heal from their trauma. The resolution stage is where the survivor is able to integrate the sexual violence into their lives and move forward from it.
By doing this, they are able to not deny the reality that they have experienced sexual assault, but the event is no longer constantly at the forefront of their minds. They are able to get back to the areas of their life that they may have missed out on because of the trauma.
How to Start Your Healing Journey
If you have experienced sexual violence and you want to heal from it, you may be wondering how you can start. Realistically, even thinking that you want to heal can be that first push that you need to go through the tough stages that we talked about above. But, if you are unsure of the best way for you to process and heal from your trauma, you may find speaking with a therapist is an excellent option.
A therapist can help you to process your memories and feelings in a safe space. If you are struggling with sexual trauma, please do not hesitate to reach out to us today at Love Heal Grow to talk to one of our therapists.