The recovery journey following sexual assault

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Healing after a sexual assault takes time.

Many survivors of sexual assault struggle with identifying themselves as survivors, and may find it hard to recognize typical reactions to the trauma they experienced.

Knowing when to reach out for support beyond family and friends isn’t always obvious. If you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms, professional support may help with your healing.

Emotional

Everyday frustrations can get amplified in the aftermath of trauma. You may feel anxious or hyper aware of your surroundings, like you’re waiting for the next bad thing to happen. 

Some survivors feel sad, while others feel numb. You may become angry or easily overwhelmed. 

Many survivors also struggle with feelings of guilt and shame. You may play the “blame game” or get caught up in the “shoulds” or the “if onlys.”  

Behavioral

One of the classic signs of trauma is the desire to avoid. A lot of sexual assault survivors have the impulse to avoid anything – people, places, things – that might remind them of what happened in some way. It tends to make your world really small. 

You may also struggle with the notion that, in order to be strong, you have to do it by yourself, and that’s actually what delays healing – isolation. It’s understandable to have a hard time with trust when someone has robbed you of your ability to choose what’s next. The impulse to isolate makes sense, but it’s probably the worst thing to do.

Some survivors may struggle with the desire to self-medicate to cope. You may find yourself drinking more often or using other substances to try to reach that numb place where you don’t have to feel or think about what happened.

You may become angry and lash out in ways that have nothing to do with what happened to you. 

Cognitive

A lot of people struggle with the thought that they’re damaged or broken. You could experience changes in how you see yourself and how you see the world around you – your beliefs and world view can become altered. It may be hard to make decisions or difficult to concentrate as thoughts race through your mind.

Physical

It’s not always obvious that your irritability, loss of appetite or difficulty sleeping is the result of a trauma. Other physical symptoms to watch for may include headaches, rapid heartbeat, nausea, muscle tension, vivid dreams and changes to your libido.

Seeking professional support

No two survivors are exactly alike in terms of how they’re going to process the trauma of a sexual assault. A trauma recovery professional can help you know what to expect and utilize evidence-based approaches such as cognitive processing therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing to place you on a path to healing. 

Arianna Galligher is the associate director of the STAR Trauma Recovery Center at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.