Sexual assault can come in many different forms. But the emotional toll it takes on your life is often the same.
Fortunately, it’s possible to move forward in a healthy way after being assaulted. Learning and practicing healthy coping strategies can help you get through it, so you can be able to move on and live your best life in the future.
What Is Sexual Assault?
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) describes sexual assault as any sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the victim.
Some forms of sexual assault include:
- Attempted rape
- Fondling or unwanted sexual touching
- Forcing a victim to perform sexual acts, such as oral sex
- Rape—penetration of the victim’s body
Force doesn’t always refer to “physical force.” Some perpetrators use psychological force, such as coercion or manipulation, to force victims into non-consensual sex. They may use threats or intimidation tactics as well.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men experience sexual violence that includes physical contact at some point in their lives.
Many of these individuals don’t ever seek treatment, however. Some of them feel as though their assault was “too minor” to matter or that it happened “too long ago.” Others are too embarrassed or ashamed to tell anyone. And some individuals don’t think they need help or even know how to get it if they do.
Psychological Impact of Sexual Assault
The psychological impact of sexual assault varies greatly from person to person. A child victim may not realize they were assaulted for years. An adult victim may try to convince themselves that a date rape was consensual.
An individual who was assaulted by a stranger may experience a lot of fear. Someone who was attacked by someone they know may experience ongoing trust issues.
Whatever you are feeling is OK. And there’s no timeline for when you should feel better. Everyone’s experience is unique.
Feelings of shame, confusion, and guilt are common, however. A survivor may feel bad for not stopping the assault. They may worry about what others will think, or they may possibly blame themselves (even though it’s never the victim’s fault).
Most survivors report experiencing flashbacks where they keep replaying the assault in their minds over and over again.
Survivors of sexual assault may also be at increased risk of mental health issues, such as:
- Substance use disorders
- Eating disorders
Individuals who have been assaulted multiple times may be at an even higher risk for mental health issues.
And negative reactions from friends, family members, or professionals may increase the risk of mental health issues even more so. Not being believed (or being blamed) creates greater psychological trauma.
Professional Help for Sexual Assault
Whether the assault happened yesterday, or it occurred decades ago, a mental health professional can assist you in coping with sexual assault.
Therapy is a confidential, non-judgmental place to work through challenges. A therapist may help you deal with your feelings, identify new coping skills, and manage your stress.
You can discuss specific issues, like how to deal with flashbacks or how to improve your sleep. You might also explore whether you decide to share the fact that you were assaulted with friends or family members.
There are different types of treatment for sexual assault. Examples of common therapies include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy: Therapists may assist clients with recognizing and replacing the thoughts and behaviors that contribute to their distress.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR is an interactive therapy used to address trauma and reduce distress. It may involve tapping or moving the eyes from side to side while talking about a distressing event.
- Supportive therapy: Therapists may help clients make sense of their emotions and assist them in identifying the skills they can use to manage their symptoms.
If you have a specific mental health issue, like anxiety or depression, medication may be an option to reduce your symptoms. You can discuss this with your doctor and your therapist to determine if it’s right for you.
Group therapy may be another option. Your therapist may refer you to a group for a specific issue like learning skills to deal with trauma. Group therapy isn’t for everyone, however, so you’d want to discuss this with your treatment provider.
A support group may also be an option. Support groups provide opportunities to connect with other survivors of sexual assault.
Sexual Assault Coping Strategies
A mental health professional can help you discover lifestyle changes and coping strategies that are best for you.
- Skills to calm your body. Whether you enjoy yoga, or you want to try progressive muscle relaxation, there are many coping strategies that can calm your body’s physiological responses (like a rapid heartbeat).
- Strategies to face your fears. Many survivors of sexual assault go to great lengths to avoid being reminded of what happened. A therapist can help you discover coping strategies that will help you be able to face it. This can be a key component in moving forward.
- Skills to manage your thoughts. Intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and catastrophic predictions are just a few ways a sexual assault may affect your daily thinking. A therapist may help you discover coping skills to stop these thoughts or to address them so that they don’t take a toll on your psychological well-being.
A therapist will work with you on identifying the strategies that can help you manage your symptoms.
They can also help you avoid the unhealthy coping strategies that you may be tempted to turn to, such as alcohol and drugs.
A Word From Verywell
Being sexually assaulted is something that is extremely traumatic. Yet it doesn’t have to ruin your life. Many survivors move forward in healthy ways and recover from this traumatic experience.
If you aren’t sure where to find help, contact RAINN, speak to your physician, or reach out to a local mental health professional. Online therapy is also an option.
Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness. It takes strength and courage to reach out. But doing so can help you heal from the trauma associated with sexual assault.
I can’t keep talking about sexual assault every day.
I say this as someone who believes in and supports the #MeToo movement 100%, who wants to be engaged and listen and learn. Who wants to have open and messy conversations about sex and power dynamics and the reckoning we need.
But right now, I don’t know what else I can say, or read, without falling over from fatigue. I want this conversation, but I am currently so, so tired.
There’s the disingenuousness of it. The shock, the horror, but the obviousness. The boredom with accounts of “mere” creepiness, of inappropriate kissing, of anything that isn’t illegal with a capital I. The dismissals of someone before you even hear what they have to say.
There are the disagreements with people you admire. Women (and men) reporting it wrong and getting defensive in order to stick up for victims and potentially doing more harm than good in the eyes of people who aren’t inclined to believe women anyway. And is that the metric we’re judging this on? There’s using a reporter’s age as a way to dismiss her, not because her arguments aren’t sound but because she isn’t doing it the way we would (and because she’s made mistakes, of course she’s made mistakes, but she won’t acknowledge those mistakes). And am I a bad feminist for disagreeing with how she worded an email? And what other person would possibly care about my opinion on that, anyway?
There’s not wanting to say anything for fear you say the wrong thing and suddenly your tweet ends up in an article meant to ridicule. There’s not saying anything and being deemed friendly to sexual abusers.
There’s the memories of men grabbing you in bars, and cornering you on streets in broad daylight, and telling you that you would “look nice in an apron” in front of all of your coworkers, and the more physical events when no one else is around. And laughing it all off, except you’re not really laughing anymore. There’s wanting your mother to understand why you cringe when she says she simply got moved to a different department at work when it happened to her at your age, and you should do that, too. Of anonymous men telling you to get a new profession if you can’t take a little hostility. Why can’t you just be tougher?
There’s living through it all as a “survivor,” except you hate that word, so as a woman who’s simply had very normal things happen to her but does not have the vocabulary for most of what she’s experienced, despite reading about it for hours on end.
Of thinking you are stronger than these young women because you would never let yourself be in That situation. Of dismissing it all as a witch hunt because men have only ever been wonderful to you and women are equal now, don’t you know? Of having the luxury to not spend days and weeks and months and years thinking about it because it could never affect you in the same way. There’s your male friends demanding you explain what all the fuss is about to them, and calling you “intellectually dishonest” when you just don’t have the energy to do so. The one who asks at drinks, so what’s up with Aziz Ansari, anyway? And you realize he’s spent absolutely no time thinking about any of this, while you’ve spent the past three days crafting an appropriate response, lest you get called intellectually dishonest. There’s the friend who reminds you, “you write about 529s,” not assault or gender politics. This isn’t your fight.
There’s the constant worrying about how much your opinion really matters in this conversation. Does #MeToo need one more voice? Specifically, does it need your voice? Is that a burden you really want to take on? Does what happened when you were 19 negate all of the privileges you’ve had in your life, is it even worth mentioning when so many women have experienced, and continue to experience, so much worse?
Is Larry Nassar worse than Matt Lauer? But no, like, if you had to choose?
And there are so many other issues that deserve your attention right now, and those are just as important, don’t you think? And will people misread the first sentence of this piece and think I don’t think we should talk about sexual harassment at all anymore?
Can some things just remain private? Don’t you want them to?
And are you enough of a victim to have the New York Times op ed page—the one for the paper that started this conversation with reports on Bill O’Reilly and Harvey Weinstein and runs that damn “he said, she said” ad but didn’t clean house of its own alleged offender—deem your story worthy of the movement?
There’s wanting to say something, but having no idea what to say.
What can we do? We can unplug for a while. We can agree to put a moratorium on conversations about assault until we’re done with the next project. We can say we really don’t want to talk about that right now. We can be kind to each other and recognize that not everyone has all of the answers. We can admit that we are so, so tired.