Coping with Sexual Assault

What is sexual assault?

Sexual assault is any sexual act done against your will or without your consent. It is often not violent. It may involve a stranger or someone you know, as in date rape or domestic violence. All forms of sexual assault are crimes. It is a crime even if you were drinking, taking drugs, or unconscious.

What are normal reactions?

Sexual assault is traumatic, even if you were raped by someone you know.

Physical reactions may include:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Headaches, backaches, or stomach problems such as heartburn, diarrhea, or constipation
  • Jumpiness or being startled by noises or if someone touches you
  • Eating, drinking, or smoking more than usual

Emotional and mental reactions may include:

  • Having nightmares
  • Having sudden mood swings
  • Having trouble concentrating or staying focused
  • Having flashbacks
  • Being on guard all the time and feeling very suspicious
  • Feeling numb or ignoring your feelings
  • Feeling helpless
  • Feeling ashamed or that you are to blame and trying to isolate yourself
  • Feeling afraid or anxious about everything
  • Being depressed
  • Being in shock or feeling disoriented

What are some ways to cope?

  • Call RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline. It’s free and confidential. You can also contact your local rape crisis center. Ask the local crisis center for a victim’s advocate who will walk you through the process to report a sexual assault to the police.
  • Find a support group. Online support groups can help if you are not ready to talk in person.
  • Seek treatment from a trained therapist specializing in Rape Trauma as soon as possible.
  • Accept that it was not your fault.
  • Talk to sympathetic family and friends.
  • Cry when you need to.
  • Take a hot bath, get a massage, or listen to music.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Avoid overusing caffeine, alcohol, drugs, nicotine, and sugar.
  • Get 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night.
  • Keep a regular schedule for going to sleep and getting up.
  • Learn relaxation techniques such as guided imagery; progressive deep muscle relaxation, mindfulness meditation, or yoga.
  • Exercise regularly. For example, take a brisk walk, jog, or take an aerobics class.
  • Learn which activities make you feel better and do them often.
  • Keep a journal where you can write about your experience.

How is it treated?

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a way to help you identify and change thoughts that cause distress. Replacing negative thoughts with more positive ones can help you feel more in control.

EMDR is a technique that uses eye movement to activate the brain while you remember the stressful event and your feelings about the experience. The therapy is designed to release “trapped” emotional experiences. Dealing with these experiences may help you to have more peaceful, calm feelings.

Some people have symptoms of depression, anxiety, or trouble sleeping for a long time. Medicine may be prescribed to help.

How long with the effects last?

It may take weeks, months, and in some cases, many years to feel like yourself again after sexual assault. Sometimes friends and family may push you to “get over it” before you’re ready. Appreciate that they are trying to help, but let them know that it takes time, and that’s normal.

How can I help a loved one who has been assaulted?

There are many ways that you can help a friend or family member who has been sexually assaulted:

  • Be there and listen. Don’t judge or blame. It’s important to help your loved one feel safe. They may not be able to talk about what happened right away.
  • Encourage your loved one to get professional counseling.
  • If your loved one is willing to get medical care or report the assault, offer to go along to the hospital or police station.
  • Be patient. Remember, it will take your loved one some time to deal with the crime. Don’t pressure your loved one to do things that he or she is not ready to do yet.
  • Get emergency care if your loved one has serious thoughts of suicide or self harm.

It is upsetting when a loved one has been sexually assaulted. You can call a hotline to get support for yourself even if your loved one isn’t ready to talk to anyone but you. You can also get ideas about ways to help your loved one through the recovery process.

For more information, contact:

  • Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network
    800-656- 4673
  • National Center for Victims of Crime
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-06-02
Last reviewed: 2014-05-30
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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