"I will not be a victim forever. I will always remember; but ultimately, I'll move on... soothed by the fact that my soul is strong and my spirit is unbreakable." - Anonymous
If you have been a victim of sexual violence and/or abuse either recently or in the past, you have probably been left with many confusing thoughts or feelings about what happened. These thoughts and emotions are a typical reaction to a physically and/or psychologically traumatic event. As we are all unique individuals, so we all heal and recover in our own unique way.
It is important to know that uncomfortable, painful thoughts and feelings that you may have experienced or are experiencing are a part of the healing process. One of the kindest and most helpful things you can do for yourself is to find a supportive person, or people, with whom you can just be yourself.
Survivors progress through stages of healing in different ways, which makes recovery unique for each individual. However, there are some common reactions to trauma, and to sexual assault in particular. Right after an assault, feelings may include: confusion, anger, fear, guilt, shame, embarrassment, depression, loss of control, numbness or shock. You may have a hard time concentrating. Your thoughts may race. You may find yourself reviewing and re-living what occurred, or asking unending questions such as "why me?" Not being able to sleep, nightmares, eating problems and flashbacks of the assault are also common.
Physical symptoms can include soreness, muscle tension, headaches, stomach problems, tiredness, and gynecological problems. It may seem like your whole life has been disrupted and is focused on the assault, especially if you are interacting with law enforcement during the first stages of the investigation. Although these are typical reactions to trauma, they can be very upsetting. Be gentle and patient with yourself and do whatever you need to at this time to reclaim your life and feel safer.
After a few days or weeks, you may feel as though you need to appear as if everything is fine. You may not want to talk about what happened and want to "just forget" it happened. This can serve a useful purpose for a while. It can be a way to cope, allowing you to function in your life. Unfortunately, the reality is that we do not usually, really, "forget". The discomfort may appear to be gone, but can come back in unusual ways.
Some people have a hard time stopping thoughts about the assault. Feeling overwhelmed or not feeling anything at all are common following a traumatic event. Again, focusing on self-care will promote healing.
Other problems may appear that seem to be unrelated to the assault, such as alcohol/drug problems, relationship problems, or depression. If you are experiencing depression, you may notice that you have unusual thoughts, feelings and/or behaviours, or that you may not be acting 'like yourself'. Some of these experiences may include:
All of these reactions can be responses to trauma. It can be helpful to recognize that you are reacting to an abnormal and serious event (an assault). Notice when you are not acting 'like yourself' and then try to remind yourself that it may be related to what happened. Remember, you can seek out support and resources, which can assist you to take positive and helpful action. You do not have to deal with the pain alone.
It can take weeks, months and even years to recover from what happened; there is no "right" timeline. Eventually, as you move through the process of healing, the assault will change from being the central focus in your life to being something painful that happened in the past.
There may be times when thoughts and feelings related to the assault return. These can be "triggered" by such events as seeing a TV show about sexual assault, seeing a person who reminds you of the perpetrator, or being near the assault location. You may have thought you were "over it" only to be faced with the challenges of re-expereiencing some of the effects of the trauma.
Remember to be kind and gentle with yourself. Think about how you would like your best friend to be there for you at this time and then try to become your own best friend to be there for you at this time and then try to become your own best friend. Seek out helping and caring resources. Healing may be difficult, but possible. Remember, recovery from sexual assault or violence is a process that is different for every person, and there are no hard and fast time-lines or schedules for recovery.
It is common to simply want to forget the assault and push it behind you. At times you may need to do this in order to get through your daily life. However, trying to "push it all away" and acting like "nothing happened" is a lot to expect. You have been through an experience that can shatter basic beliefs, including what you have learned about trust, safety, and our ability to control our own world.
It may be helpful to know you do not have to face it all at once. You can take a middle road, allowing yourself to deal with the thoughts and feelings about what happened in small pieces, at a pace you control.
A counselor who has special training and experience working with sexual trauma can be very helpful. Many of these services are available at no cost or a low cost to survivors. You do not have to do this alone. Talking with a supportive person, or persons, may help you to understand and cope with the feelings and thoughts you may be having. Some survivors find it helpful to share with others who have been through a similar experience. There may be a support group in your area. Click here to find support near you.
Fear that the perpetrator may return, fear for your personal safety, and fear of being alone or of being with strangers. Fears can come and go but will typically lesson with time.
Depression is more than "sadness" or a "down" mood. Signs of depression can include sadness and despair, changes in sleep habits (either too much or not enough), changes in eating, inability to concentrate, having less energy, and not wanting to be around people. Sometimes suicidal feelings go with depression. If these should occur, please seek help. Depression during the weeks and months following sexual trauma can come and go. An experienced counselor can help you deal with depression.
Anxiety is a very common reaction to trauma. Increased heart rate (often experienced as sensations of the heart "pounding"), difficulty breathing, extreme alertness, racing thoughts, jumpiness, shakiness and panic are all symptoms of anxiety. The symptoms of anxiety are extremely uncomfortable and may even cause you to feel as if you are "going crazy." If you are experiencing these reactions, you are not going crazy; you are experiencing an extreme stress reaction to a very stressful event.
Things to Include in your Emergency Kit:
Practices such as deep relaxation, acupuncture, meditation and yoga are proven methods for reducing anxiety. Some communities have trauma-sensitive yoga classes designed to help survivors of sexual violence release tension and stress, feel grounded and calm, and connect with others in a confidential setting.
Flashbacks, Nightmares and Intrusive Memories
A possible reaction to trauma is to experience intense memories or to "re-live" what happened. This reaction is related to how our bodies and minds process traumatic events. If you are re-living the traumatic memories, the 5 Senses Activity may be a helpful way to come back to the present time.
Look around the room and find:
1. Five things you see.
2. Four things you can touch.
3. Three things you can hear.
4. Two things you can smell.
5. One thing you can taste.
Many methods for coping with anxiety are also effective for dealing with flashbacks and intrusive memories. A counselor trained in trauma can be especially helpful.