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Healing from an Assault

Sexual assault can be extremely traumatic and life-changing. Responses/feelings of survivors of an assault or attempted assault will vary from individual to individual. It's important to remember that your responses/feelings and emotions are valid and normal.

There many ways to work through the healing process. Acknowledge, rather than judge, your own emotional reactions and how they affect your life and your relationships with other people. It is important to try to identify people and spaces where you can begin to feel safe talking about your responses.

There are no specific patterns of behavior or healing for survivors, but here are some of the common responses individuals may have: 

1. Feeling a loss of control over your own life

The perpetrator stepped into your life and took control. You did not have a choice and did what you needed to do to survive. You may feel unsure and lack your normal self-confidence. Decisions that were made routinely before now may feel monumental. You may feel that the perpetrator has taken away all your control and your normal life.

Helpful ideas:

  • Try to spend time with your friends, family, and people you trust.
  • Learning to trust others takes time and support. Not trusting others is a temporary coping mechanism. You will be able to trust when you have had time to heal and feel less vulnerable.
  • Trust what you're feeling and talk to trusted support people. It's okay to experience different feelings.

2. Anxiety, shaking, nightmares

These can begin shortly after the attack and may continue for a long period of time. Nightmares are common and can often replay the assault. You may feel that you are losing it and that you should be over it by now. These responses, scary as they are, are common reactions to trauma and can be the way your emotions act out the fear you experienced.

Helpful ideas:

  • It is important to talk about the nightmares and fears with a trusted person(s) including and how they affect your life.
  • Keeping a journal and writing about your feelings, fears, and dreams can be a useful tool.

3. Sexual concerns

You may experience a variety of sexual concerns after an assault. You may want no physical or sexual contact. You may need intimacy, like nurturing, holding, etc. You may experience some confusion about separating sex from sexual violence, particularly sexual acts with your significant other that may provoke flashbacks of the attack. You may experience confusion about the way you used to feel about sex versus how you do now.

Helpful ideas:

  • Healing takes time. Retreating sexually is a normal coping mechanism.
  • It is okay to ask your significant other to be patient, gentle, and to understand your discomfort with sexual contact.
  • You have a right to refuse to be sexual until you feel ready.
  • Remember that rape is not sex. Intimate, consensual sex bears no resemblance to sexual violence.

4. Guilt, shame, self-blame

Many survivors feel guilty and ashamed about the assault. You may question that you somehow may have provoked or asked for it, or that you should have known what was going to happen, or that you shouldn't have trusted the assailant, or that you should have somehow prevented the assault. Some of these are the result of society's myths about rape and sexuality. You may know what society believes and worry about what others may think of you. Sometimes blaming yourself helps you feel less helpless. Victim-blaming is prevalent for many reasons; one reason is that if someone can pinpoint what they think "brought on" the attack, they believe that all they need to do is avoid those behaviors to keep safe. Realistically, the only person who can prevent a rape is the rapist.

Helpful ideas:

  • No one deserves to be sexually assaulted. Tell yourself that many times a day. It is not your fault.
  • Being assaulted does not make you a bad person. You did not choose to be sexually assaulted.
  • Educating yourself about the facts surrounding sexual assault may be helpful in dispelling shame and self-blame.
  • Remind yourself that you have done the best you could to survive the incident, and you are in the process of healing. 

5. Anger

Anger is an appropriate, healthy response to sexual violence. It usually means you are healing and have begun to look at the assailant's responsibility for the assault. People vary greatly in how readily they feel and express anger. It may be especially difficult to express anger if you have been taught that being angry is not okay. Anger is a perfectly healthy and appropriate response. But, when turned inward, can be unhealthy. Sadness, pain, and depression are examples of feelings that are best addressed with trained counselors.

Helpful ideas:

  • Anger can be worked out physically without harming yourself or others. Go for a walk, run, shoot baskets, bike, hit pillows, journal, etc.
  • Talk about your feelings with a trusted friend, relative, and/or counselor.

Adapted from: https://www.mnsu.edu/varp/assault/healing.html