Understanding common reactions to sexual violence

books about recoveryIt is important for you to know that any of the feelings after experiencing sexual violence are normal and temporary reactions to a traumatic event. Every individual experiences trauma and healing in a unique way, but there are some common reactions to sexual violence. This list is in no way comprehensive, but presents a sampling of common physical, emotional, cognitive, and social symptoms of sexual violence: 

  • Difficulty concentrating or completing tasks
  • Dissociation (feeling disconnected from reality)
  • Changes in eating, sleeping, and hygiene patterns
  • Gastrointestinal issues, headaches, nausea
  • Increased substance use/abuse or eating disorders
  • Depression, numbness, fatigue, decreased affect
  • Isolation, withdrawal from people and activities
  • Mood swings, loss of control, unpredictability
  • Anxiety, anger, fear, nervousness, distraction
  • Panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares
  • Hypersensitivity to light, noise, touch, or people
  • Shame, self-blame, guilt, sense of humiliation

Getting back on track

Immediate feelings of fear or confusion may lessen with time, but the trauma may disrupt your life for a while. Reactions might be triggered by people, places, or things connected to the incident, or they might seem to come from “out of the blue.”

Talking about the experience of sexual violence can help you feel better, but it may be really hard to do. In fact, it’s common to want to avoid conversations and situations that may remind you of the incident. You may have a sense of wanting to “get on with life” and “let the past be the past.” This is a normal part of the recovery process and may last for weeks or months. Eventually you will need to deal with fears and feelings in order to heal and regain a sense of control over your life. Talking with someone who can listen in an understanding and affirming ways — whether it’s a friend, member of your place of worship or community, family member, hotline-staff member, counselor, or individual at the College — is a key part of the healing process.

Recovering from sexual violence is a gradual process that is different for everyone. Victims/survivors may have different needs and coping strategies, so there is not a set timeline for healing. There are many decisions to be made and many feelings to be expressed. Not all of the decisions or feelings will need to be handled at once, but rather as recovery progresses. This is a brief outline of the recovery process that many, but not necessarily all, victims/survivors go through.

  • I just want to forget what happened. You may go from feeling emotionally drained, confused, and out of control to trying to forget what happened. You may begin distancing yourself from the sexual violence and outwardly appear “recovered,” but friends and family members’ support is still needed.
  • I’m so angry and depressed. I can’t seem to get control of my emotions. Regardless of how hard you may try to keep the experience of sexual violence from impacting your life, no matter how much you may deny its importance, the experience has had a profound influence. You may experience anger, depression, guilt, self-blame, shame, anxiety, and feel that everything is falling apart. Dissociation (feeling detached from reality) and recurring nightmares and flashbacks are common during this time. You may experience changes in sleeping or eating patterns, or feel anger that is directed at the perpetrator, loved ones, or yourself.
  • I’m uncomfortable in relationships. It may be difficult, at first, to feel comfortable with intimacy, including trusting people, exploring new relationships, and enjoying sexual activity, if you choose to be sexually active. Understand that this may take time. Resist being pressured to be sexually active before you are ready. Many victims/survivors seek assistance from trained professionals who can help to put their lives back together and recover from stress related to the violence.
  • Life goes on and I can handle it. You have resolved a lot of the anger and depression. The sexual violence may have changed your life, but it now plays a smaller role. You feel more in control.

Ways to take care of yourself

  • Get support from friends, family, and community members. Try to identify people you trust who will validate your feelings and affirm your strengths.
  • Talk about the experience and express your feelings. Choose when, where, and with whom to talk about your experience with sexual violence, and only disclose information that feels safe for you to reveal.
  • Use stress-reduction techniques. Exercise by jogging, doing aerobics, or walking and practice relaxation techniques such as yoga, listening to music, praying, or meditating.
  • Maintain a balanced diet and a normal sleep cycle as much as possible and avoid overusing stimulants like caffeine, sugar, nicotine, or alcohol or other drugs.
  • Discover your joyful and creative self. Finding opportunities to allow yourself to practice joy and creativity are important for healing from hurt.
  • Take “time outs.” Give yourself permission to take quiet moments to reflect, relax, and rejuvenate, especially during times you feel stressed or unsafe.
  • Try reading, journaling, or writing. These can be relaxing and healing activities, as well as productive ways of expressing your thoughts and feelings.