Sexual trauma has profound and lasting effects on an individual's mental health. The experience can shatter one's sense of safety, trust, and self-worth, leaving a deep emotional and psychological impact.
In this blog, we will explore the various ways in which sexual trauma can affect mental wellbeing, shedding light on the challenges survivors face and emphasizing the importance of seeking support and healing.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD):
One of the most common mental health consequences of sexual trauma is the development of PTSD. Flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, and intrusive thoughts about the traumatic event are typical symptoms. Survivors may also experience heightened anxiety, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. Understanding that these reactions are normal responses to an abnormal event can help survivors notice that they are not alone and begin to seek appropriate treatment and support.
Depression and Mood Disorders:
Sexual trauma can often lead to depression and other mood disorders. Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, guilt, and shame are common. Survivors may also struggle with low self-esteem, lose interest in previously enjoyed activities, and have difficulty experiencing pleasure, even in activities that used to be frequently enjoyed. This can include socialising with friends, exercise and other hobbies.
Anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and panic disorder can develop as a result of sexual violence or abuse. The constant fear of potential threats, hypervigilance, and a sense of being on edge are common manifestations. Panic attacks and social anxiety may also develop, sometimes further developing a sense of self-isolation.
Dissociation is a common coping mechanism that survivors may develop to disconnect from the overwhelming emotions associated with the trauma. This can manifest as feeling detached from oneself or the surrounding environment, experiencing gaps in memory, or having an altered sense of reality.
Recognizing and addressing dissociative symptoms is crucial in the healing process. Seeking professional help can be the first step in identifying and working on dissociation.
Intimacy and Sexual Issues:
Sexual and interpersonal trauma can profoundly impact an individual's relationship with intimacy and sexuality. Survivors may experience difficulties with trust, establishing healthy boundaries, and forming intimate connections. Visit our blog on rebuilding intimacy after interpersonal-trauma.
Sexual dysfunction, such as decreased libido or pain during sexual activity, can also occur.
Substance Abuse and Destructive-Avoidant Behaviours:
In an attempt to cope with the overwhelming emotions and memories associated with the trauma, survivors may turn to substance abuse or engage in self-destructive activities and behaviours. This is commonly found as a method of avoidance, to stop thinking about or remembering the trauma. These behaviours can begin as a form of temporary relief but can exacerbate mental health issues in the long run.
Trust and Relationship Issues:
Sexual and interpersonal trauma can erode trust in oneself and others. Survivors may struggle with forming and maintaining healthy relationships, fearing vulnerability and potential betrayal.
Rebuilding trust takes time and support, and therapy can be instrumental in helping survivors navigate relationship challenges and develop healthy communication and boundaries.
The Path to Recovery:
Recovering from sexual trauma is a profound and courageous journey. It takes time, patience, and support to heal the wounds and reclaim your sense of self. While every individual's path to recovery is unique, there are common threads that can guide you towards healing and resilience.
Acknowledge Your Feelings:
The first step towards healing is acknowledging and validating your emotions. Sexual trauma can cause survivors to experience a wide range of emotions, including fear, anger, shame, and sadness. It is crucial to understand that your feelings are valid and that it is normal to experience a mix of emotions. Give yourself permission to feel and express these emotions in a safe and supportive environment.
Seek Professional Help:
Recovery from sexual trauma often requires professional assistance. Therapists specialising in trauma can provide a safe and trusted space for you to explore your experiences, identify and process emotions, physical symptoms and behavioural reactions, and develop coping strategies.
They can guide you through evidence-based therapies such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), or Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Remember, seeking help is a sign of strength, and it is okay to ask for support.
Build a Supportive Network:
Connect with supportive individuals who understand and validate your experiences. This may include friends, family members, support groups, or online communities. Sharing your story with people who genuinely care can help alleviate the burden and foster a sense of belonging. Surround yourself with compassionate individuals who empower your healing journey.
Self-Care and Self-Compassion:
Prioritising self-care is an essential aspect of your recovery and post-traumatic growth and it can be helpful to remember that everybody’s type of self-care is unique. Some ways to engage in activities that bring you joy, relaxation, and a sense of empowerment may include exercise, cooking, catching up with friends,, meditation, journaling, engaging in creative outlets, or spending time in nature.
It is possible to cultivate self-compassion by treating yourself with kindness, patience, and understanding. Practicing self-care regularly works to nourish your mind, body, and soul.
Reclaiming your personal boundaries is vital after experiencing sexual trauma. Part of reclaiming these boundaries is to practice firmly communicating your limits and needs. An example of this is to decline taking on extra work if this will impact your scheduled time off. It also helps to surround yourself with people who respect your boundaries and support your healing process. Setting healthy boundaries is a powerful step towards regaining control over your life and rebuilding trust.
Challenge Negative Self-Beliefs:
Trauma often leaves survivors with distorted self-perceptions and negative beliefs about themselves. Counteract these beliefs by consciously challenging and reframing them.
Replace self-blame and shame with self-compassion and self-acceptance. Engage in positive affirmations, reminding yourself that you are not defined by your trauma and that healing is possible.
Engage in Meaningful Activities:
Finding meaning and purpose can be transformative in the recovery process. Engage in activities that align with your values and bring a sense of fulfilment.
Pursue hobbies, volunteer work, or creative outlets that empower your healing journey. These activities can help you reconnect with yourself and discover your resilience and strength.
Recovering from sexual trauma is a deeply personal and multifaceted process. Remember, healing takes time, and every step you take towards self-care and recovery is a triumph. Surround yourself with support, embrace self-compassion, and believe in your capacity to heal. You are not alone on this journey, and with time, patience, and resilience, you can rebuild your life and find a sense of peace and empowerment.