Sexual violence is common and can have lasting effects on a survivor. But recovering from sexual trauma may be possible.
Sexual assault and childhood sexual abuse can happen to anyone and may result in trauma for the survivor.
The traumatic effects of unwanted sexual contact can have lasting effects regardless of when it occurred.
If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual violence, understanding the effects of physical and psychological trauma can help you or your loved one on the journey toward healing.
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Sexual violence that includes assault or abuse is prevalent. The
Sexual assault and childhood sexual abuse may result in sexual trauma, both short- and long-term effects.
“Trauma is the result of an experience, or layers of experiences, that dramatically and negatively change the way we see ourselves and the way we navigate our relationships and the world around us,” says Shauna Springer, PhD, chief psychologist for Stella, an organization dedicated to treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The risk factors for developing trauma following unwanted sexual activity can vary.
Because no two experiences of sexual violence are alike, how trauma may present can be difficult to measure and depend on an individual’s circumstances.
“Not everyone who experiences sexual abuse [or assault] will develop trauma, and others might be traumatized by a single event,” says Pauline Peck, PhD, a psychologist in California and New York.
According to Peck, common risk factors for developing trauma following sexual violence may include:
- a person’s age during the abuse or assault
- frequent abusive or violent situations
- chronic abuse or violence by more than one individual
- abuse or violence from a person you know
Nicole Washington, DO, MPH, a board certified psychiatrist and a member of the Psych Central Medical Advisory Board, says sexual trauma can show up in ways similar to other traumas, including the presence of triggers.
After a survivor has experienced trauma, specific situations may cause distress. Triggers may range from being in a certain location to being held in a specific way. Other triggers may include:
- physical touch
Other symptoms that may manifest following sexual trauma may include:
- nightmares or sleep disturbances
- intrusive thoughts
- emotional dysregulation
- suicidal ideation or attempt
- disregard for internal wants or needs
Unhealthy coping strategies
Saba Harouni Lurie, a licensed marriage and family therapist of Take Root Therapy in Los Angeles, says some people may develop harmful coping mechanisms to manage symptoms associated with their trauma.
“People who’ve experienced sexual trauma and are managing the ongoing impacts will do their best to cope as well as they can,” Lurie says. “Sometimes that might mean things that are not necessarily safe or helpful for them in the long run, but that is working for them in the short term.”
A response to a traumatic sexual situation may inform how a survivor may relate to sexual situations in the future.
Some may engage in hypersexuality — but frequent consensual sexual activity isn’t always an issue, nor is it necessarily an indication of trauma or another disorder.
However, some folks may use intimacy to self-medicate rather than fully process and work through their trauma.
And for many people, sexual activity following sexual trauma may feel scary or uncomfortable. Some individuals may choose to abstain or be particular about whom they engage in sex and how.
Humans are social beings — we desire connections with others. But sexual trauma may affect your ability to connect with others, affecting your relationships.
Future relationships may also be impacted by sexual trauma. According to Washington, detaching from others is a common response to sexual trauma.
Other ways sexual trauma could affect your relationships include:
- distance or isolation
- poor boundaries
- trust issues
- patterns of choosing unsafe partners
In addition, sexual trauma could affect relationships between parents, which may impact their children.
“It’s not uncommon to see people who were victims of sexual trauma as kids who see an increase in trauma-related symptoms when their children approach the age they were when they experienced their sexual trauma,” Washington says.
Not everyone who experiences sexual trauma will be diagnosed with PTSD.
“Many people suffer silently from symptoms of trauma for years, sometimes decades, without adequate assessment or treatment,” Springer says.
Not everyone who has PTSD is a survivor of sexual trauma. Still, research from 2013 shows that sexual trauma may lead to PTSD, with about 45% of survivors reporting symptoms.
Acknowledging any trauma may feel vulnerable and challenging, especially when it’s of a sexual nature. But there are a few ways you can cope in the aftermath to assist you on your healing journey.
Grounding activities that help with recentering are often recommended for trauma survivors.
Practices that may help you safely reconnect with your body include trauma-informed yoga and trauma-informed mindfulness.
“People who have experienced sexual or physical abuse can find it unsafe to be in their bodies,” Peck says. “Trauma-informed yoga [emphasizes] choice, curiosity, and honoring the body’s needs. Survivors can reconnect with their bodies safely and begin to create a new relationship.”
In addition, you may wish to consider cathartic activities such as:
- art-making (i.e., painting, drawing, etc.)
- bibliotherapy (reading work from others with shared experiences)
Therapy and counseling
Therapeutic techniques such as cognitive processing therapy (CPT) or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) may be offered in clinical settings.
CPT is a branch of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and research from 2019 shows that CPT may help you break free from unhelpful thought patterns about a traumatic experience.
EMDR incorporates eye movements or rhythmic tapping to help shift how a certain memory is stored in the brain, which may help you reprocess it.
Trauma therapists developed both CPT and EDMR to help survivors get to the root cause of their trauma. While it may be scary to confront your challenges, a mental health professional working with trauma survivors can help you process what you’ve experienced.
Recovering from sexual trauma is no easy feat, but help and support are available.
Whether you choose individual or group therapy or connect with others in a support group, your experience should feel like it’s being validated, regardless of the approach or technique.
“Addressing the needs of trauma survivors in safe, confidential, effective ways, using treatments that combine biological and psychological approaches, is the best way to prevent further damage and the heightened chance of additional traumas,” Springer says.