Healing from sexual trauma is possible, whether you’re recovering from sexual abuse or sexual assualt or violence. Here’s how.
Sexual trauma can happen to anyone. People of all ages, genders, and races worldwide are affected.
In the United States, someone is sexually assaulted every 68 seconds.
According to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the following people are more at risk for sexual violence:
- women (especially young women)
- transgender and gender nonconforming students
- Native Americans
- people between the ages of 12–34
Sexual violence and assault and sexual abuse have slightly different definitions.
Sexual trauma can be used as a comprehensive term to describe any residual trauma around sexuality and sexual experiences, including sexual violence, sexual abuse, and sexual assault.
But according to Cay L. Crow, a licensed professional counselor and a certified sex therapist in San Antonio, the semantics don’t matter as much to the survivor compared to the sexual trauma they’ve endured.
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No matter what happened to you or when, a key element is that it felt like a violation to you, says Carrie Mead, a licensed professional counselor and a psychotherapist in Maryland.
According to research from 2017 and studies from the past few decades, the long-term mental health effects of sexual trauma may include:
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- suicidal ideation or attempted suicide
- severe distress
- substance use disorder
- increased risk of unplanned pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
No matter your age, biological sex or gender, or where you’re at in your healing journey, it’s possible to recover from sexual trauma.
“The process is not easy, of course,” says Mead. “But progress each day leads you toward transformation and healing.”
Here are steps you can take to start healing from childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault or violence as an adult.
It may be challenging, but sharing your story can help begin the healing process.
If or when you’re comfortable, Shari Botwin, a licensed clinical social worker and trauma specialist in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, recommends telling someone what happened to you as a way to “own” your experience.
“Recovery from this type of trauma is about facing it and knowing that you’re not defined by what happened to you,” Botwin says.
According to Mead, the hope for healing comes when survivors tell their stories and are believed.
“I ask people to listen, validate, and believe someone when they come forward with a story of sexual abuse or trauma,” Mead says. “This is an impactful moment, for good or bad, for the survivor.”
Mead recommends finding the things that make you feel powerful and in control.
Empowerment may look different to each person, so try to focus on what’s best for you. If you need a little guidance, Mead says empowering behaviors can include:
- mountain biking
- singing in front of a crowd
- cutting off your hair
- attending a silent weekend retreat
You can also repeat empowering affirmations. Botwin recommends saying things to yourself like, “Not all people will abuse or take advantage of me.”
“Remind yourself 50 times a day if necessary that what happened to you was not your fault and that it’s possible to live fully after surviving any type of sexual abuse,” Botwin says.
Identifying the people in your life who support you may be another helpful step toward healing.
Mead recommends making a list of whom you can trust and rely on whenever you feel scared, ashamed, guilty, angry, or afraid. Then lean on them.
She says you might also seek safety and comfort from a support group for survivors of sexual abuse.
“While friends, family, and therapists can be vitally important during this time, a support group brings together people with a shared experience, and that can be validating and empowering.”
“Trauma lives in the body, not in the mind, so it’s important to go into the body to release and integrate the trauma,” Crow says.
Crow, who has worked extensively with clients who’ve experienced sexual trauma, says that integration is possible no matter when the sexual abuse or assault happened.
“Without integrating the experience, it can potentially become a roadblock to trust and intimacy,” she adds.
Crow says that eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and somatic therapy are two common examples of body-focused trauma work.
The emotional freedom technique (EFT) is also a relatively easy-to-use skill that may also be helpful, according to Mead.
“EFT tapping sends a calming signal to the fight or flight center of the brain so that you can actually calm your autonomic nervous system and restore calm to your mind and body,” Mead explains.
Movement may also help you reclaim your body. Consider trying:
- gentle yoga
- martial arts class
- a jog or walk
A trauma-informed therapist can offer you coping tips and skills to help you through your healing journey.
Mead says that going through everything alone may hinder your healing process. “If someone offers to take care of you, let them do it,” she recommends.
This includes seeking therapy.
Crow recommends finding a therapist well trained in the trauma modality that appeals to you.
Here are some resources for survivors of sexual abuse:
- RAINN’s website or mobile app
- Women Against Rape (WAR)
- Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673)
Local community resources are available, too.
“Almost every major city has a rape crisis center and hotline,” Crow says.
“Many counties have specific resources like support groups, shelters, and seminars aimed at helping survivors of sexual abuse and sexual trauma,” Mead adds.
You might also read books about healing from trauma, like:
- “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel Van der Kolk, MD
- “The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse” by Wendy Maltz
- “Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma” by Stacie Haines
In addition, Crow recommends “Boyhood Shadows,” a documentary about men recovering from sexual abuse.
Whether you experienced sexual abuse as a child or assault or violence as an adult, you can learn how to heal from sexual trauma at any time.
Some ways to heal include:
- empowering yourself
- seeking therapy
- leaning into helpful resources
- building a strong support network
What works for one survivor might not work for someone else. But with time, love, support, and kindness to yourself along the way, it’s possible to heal from sexual trauma.