There is no one way to react to a sexual assault. No matter your response, you did what was best for you in the moment. The following are some of the emotional and physical responses victim/survivors have after being assaulted.
Shock, disbelief, numbness, denial
- Trying to make sense of what happened or find a rational explanation
- Feeling numb is often the body’s automatic response to a traumatic experience. It is one way the body tries to protect itself from the impact of trauma.
- Numbness is caused by the release of certain hormones in the body to stop the individual from going into complete panic
- Sexual assault is not a “normal” life experience. No one ever expects that they will experience assault. Disbelief is normal and understandable.
- Victim/survivors may tell themselves the assault was all in their head, no big deal, or completely imagined.
- Similar to feeling numb, dissociation is feeling completely outside one’s body.
- Some survivors describe the sensation as though they are watching themselves from the outside
- Dissociation is very common for trauma survivors and is also the body in self-protection mode
- Our society regularly blames victim/survivors for what has happened to them. Messages such as “why were you doing ____?” or “why would you be alone with that person?” promote the idea that survivors could have avoided their victimization.
- In general, we do not talk about sex. We do not talk about healthy sex or sexual assault. We have no scripts or guides for how to have these discussions so feelings of embarrassment and shame can result.
- Most victim/survivors know their perpetrator. It is often easier to blame oneself than to believe that someone you know and trusted is capable of sexual assault.
Anger, frustration, out of control
- Sexual assault is about power and control. Perpetrators take control away from the people they assault. It is common for victim/survivors to continue to feel this loss of control over their body and their life
- It is common for victim/survivors to feel that they are no longer in control of their body. Some victim/survivors will engage in activities that either enhance a mind/body connection (conscious breathing, yoga, meditation, therapy), or further divide the two (alcohol/drug use, frequent relationships, self-harm, disordered eating). Both reactions are normal and understandable.
- It is common for victim/survivors to have flashbacks (or literally re-live) parts or all of the assault
- Flashbacks can be triggered by a number of things – sounds, smells, words, colors or images, certain people, gestures, bodily sensations, etc. This is normal and common after experiencing trauma
- It is common to be preoccupied with thoughts about the assault or feel powerless to stop thinking about it
Anxious, on-edge, jumpy
- Many victim/survivors experience “hyper-arousal” or feeling constantly on-edge as though something could happen at any moment
- Difficulty calming down, racing heartbeat, difficulty sleeping, inability to sit still
- Although almost 1 out of 4 women will experience sexual assault, it remains a very isolating experience.
- Feeling that no one understands, no one can help, you will never feel better
- Some victim/survivors feel that they just want the pain to end, and may consider suicide. If you are thinking about suicide please reach out to someone. You are not alone. It will not always feel like this.
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
- It is common for victim/survivors to feel nauseous, experience gastrointestinal problems, continued colds or flu, muscle aches, headaches
- Loss of interest in physical intimacy – whether touching other people, or being touched
- Changes in appetite, sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating.