Sexual assault is one of the most common causes of trauma and PTSD among women. While PTSD is often associated with combat veterans, in reality, around 50% of PTSD cases in the US are developed in the aftermath of sexual or physical violence.
All survivors of sexual violence react differently, some with depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, or some who feel okay. For those who experience trauma symptoms, there are four main symptom clusters that are common for anyone with PTSD:
- Intrusion symptoms: feeling like you are reliving the event through flashbacks, dreams, or intusive thoughts.
- Avoidance symptoms: intentially or subconsciously changing your behavior to avoid scenarios associated with the event
- Hyperarousal symptoms: feeling “on edge” all of the time, having difficulty sleeping, being easily startled, or prone to sudden outbursts
- Negative changes in mood and cognition: feeling overly negative about the world or yourself, and having memory problems, including not remembering aspects of the traumatic event
Sexual Assault & PTSD in Women
In the US, 1 out of 6 women experience an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. This number is expected to be even higher, as many of these cases go unreported. Not everyone develops PTSD after an assault, but these survivors often experience higher rates of mental health challenges. The odds of developing PTSD after an assault are high. Up to 94% experience symptoms within the first two weeks, and 30% struggle with these PTSD symptoms long term.
Myths about Sexual Assault
There are many myths which harm survivors of sexual assault. For example, myths that the individual lied about being assaulted or that it is uncommon for men to be assaulted can cause victims to feel like they are being blamed. The feelings of shame, guilt, and avoidance which they may have already felt in the aftermath of their assault can become worse when experiencing victim blaming.
How to help someone
The best way to help someone who has experienced a sexual assault is to listen to them, believe their story, and offer them support. Sometimes, offering support means providing resources, such as how to reach the National Sexual Assault Hotline, helping them to seek medical attention, or reporting a crime to the police. Often, however, just listening is the best way to help a survivor. Make sure to continue to be there for these friends, as there is no timetable on sexual violence and anyone can become re-traumatized years after experiencing an event.
How to Seek Help
The best way to get help in dealing with your trauma is to find people and a therapist you can trust. Online groups and communities of adult survivors, rape crisis centers, and local organizations can be helpful as well in bringing you closer to others who know how to deliver the help that you need.
The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN) organizes the National Sexual Assault Hotline, which can refer you to a local rape crisis center and provide you with immediate help and support.
Call 1-800-656-HOPE or go to RAINN’s online chat service to access this care.