When you’ve been sexually assaulted, it feels as though your world has been turned upside down. Everything you know and believe has been shattered. The person who violated your body and mind now occupies a space inside your head that you can never get rid of. You try to push the memories away, but they keep creeping back up no matter how hard you try to forget. This is PTSD. This is what sexual trauma does to a person.
The Reality of PTSD as a Sexual Assault Survivor
It’s been said that PTSD is like living in a war zone. I’ve experienced this first hand, and it’s an accurate description. The whole thing feels like a perpetual living nightmare, especially in the first months or even years after the assault! Your mind is constantly on high alert, looking for any (and every) sign of danger. You’re jumpy and easily startled. You have trouble sleeping and concentrating. You might adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms to numb the pain.
When it comes to sexual assault, PTSD can be triggered by anything that reminds you of the attack. It could be a person, a place, a sound, or even a smell. News reports and social media posts about male violence or victim-blaming often trigger a depressive or dissociative episode, too. These triggers can send you into a panic attack or make you dissociate (feel disconnected from your body and reality).
If this is where you find yourself, you probably feel like you will never be the same again, but it’s important to remember that you are not alone. PTSD is a common reaction to sexual trauma. With time, patience, and professional help, you can start to heal the wounds of your past. However you feel right now, you are not weak or damaged because you were sexually assaulted. You are strong and brave for surviving something that was out of your control!
So How Do You Start to Heal the Trauma?
The first step is to acknowledge what happened and that it wasn’t your fault. It can be hard to do, but acceptance is an essential part of the healing process.
Then, you need to start talking about what happened. This can be difficult because it means reliving the experience, but it’s a necessary step in order to begin to heal the wounds. It’s important to understand that PTSD is not something you can simply ‘get over.’ It’s a real, debilitating mental illness that requires treatment, so you should seek professional help from a therapist specializing in PTSD and sexual trauma. They can help you work through your memories, start to process the pain, and rebuild your life. Learn some coping tools like radical acceptance and self-care. You might also benefit from medication to help with anxiety and depression.
Remember: you will get through this. Your story is not over. You are not defined by what happened to you. You are so much more than that. PTSD does not have to control your life. While you may never forget what happened, you can learn to live with it and even thrive despite it and step forward with your head held high!
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (467) or visit their website at rainn.org for more resources and support.