What is incest?

Incest refers to sexual acts between relatives. Sexual acts may be committed by a parent, step-parent, uncle, aunt, grandparent, or sibling. Often, those who commit incest do not use force. Instead, the person convinces the child that love, acceptance, and good family relationships are related to having sex. Often, incest continues over several years rather than being something that only happens one time.

Sexual contact between an adult and a child is never OK for any reason. Even if the incest happens when you are legally an adult, it is emotionally harmful.

What problems can incest cause?

As an adult survivor of incest, you may feel:

  • Ashamed. You may feel dirty or guilty when you have sexual feelings because you feel that you caused the incest when you were a child. You may use alcohol, food, drugs, or overwork to numb your emotional pain and to manage shame and guilt. You may hate your body and not take good care of yourself.
  • Self-hate. You may believe that incest was your fault. You may be convinced that there is something different or wrong about you.
  • Powerless. You may also have trouble saying no to unwanted sexual contact, even though you are always thinking about protecting yourself.
  • Suicidal, or like you want to hurt yourself or others. You may have a lot of anger about having been abused as a child. You may hit or hurt your spouse or children when you are upset. You may fear that you will sexually abuse your own children.
  • Isolated. You may keep incest a secret, particularly if incest was a secret in your family when you were a child.
  • Unable to make even simple decisions or choices. You may have learned to go numb and detach from what was happening during the childhood abuse. As an adult you may still “space out” when you feel stressed or anxious. This makes it hard to think, plan, or do everyday activities.
  • Fearful and always on guard. You may startle easily, have trouble sleeping, and feel tense when you are around other people.
  • Unable to ask others for help or to depend on anyone else. You may have trouble relating to others. When you were a child, your trust was betrayed by an someone in your family. When you grow up, you may suspect that others are using you, will leave you, or will hurt you.
  • Out of touch with your own body. At times, you may not even know when you are hungry or tired. You may not eat well or get enough sleep.

How is it treated?

You should seek professional help when:

  • You have never discussed or revealed the incest to anyone because you are ashamed.
  • You have strong feelings of anger, self-hate, shame, depression, or anxiety.
  • You are having a lot of trouble dealing with work, family, and other relationships.

Several kinds of therapy may help.

  • Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is a way to help you identify and change views you have of yourself, the world, and the future. CBT can make you aware of unhealthy ways of thinking. It can also help you learn new ways to think and act.
  • Group therapy is a way to treat emotional and psychological problems. It takes place in a group of 6 to 10 people, under the guidance of a therapist.
  • Support groups can help you understand that you are not alone. Groups also provide a safe place to share feelings. Talking with other survivors of incest can be very helpful.

The goals in individual or group therapy involve:

  • Understanding any anger you may have because your parents were not who you wanted them to be (wanting parents who protected you, for instance)
  • Learning how to manage your anger in healthy ways
  • Learning how to take better care of yourself
  • Becoming aware of your own power as an adult and your ability to change

There are several resources you can use to find the right mental health professional. Ask questions and get referrals from people who you know and trust, such as:

  • Your family healthcare provider
  • Your clergyman, school teachers, or school counselors
  • Friends or family members who have been in therapy
  • Your employee assistance program (EAP) at work
  • Community mental health or human service agencies

How can I take care of myself?

  • Get support. Talk with family and friends. Consider joining a support group in your area.
  • Learn to manage stress. Ask for help at home and work when the load is too great to handle. Find ways to relax, for example take up a hobby, listen to music, watch movies, or take walks. Try deep breathing exercises when you feel stressed.
  • Take care of your physical health. Try to get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Eat a healthy diet. Limit caffeine. If you smoke, quit. Avoid alcohol and drugs. Exercise according to your healthcare provider’s instructions.
  • Check your medicines. To help prevent problems, tell your healthcare provider and pharmacist about all of the medicines, natural remedies, vitamins, and other supplements that you take. Take all medicines as directed by your provider or therapist. It is very important to take your medicine even when you are feeling and thinking well. Without the medicine, your symptoms may not improve or may get worse. Talk to your provider if you have problems taking your medicine or if the medicines don’t seem to be working.
  • Contact your healthcare provider or therapist if you have any questions or your symptoms seem to be getting worse.

Get emergency care if you or a loved one has serious thoughts of suicide or self-harm, violence, or harming others. Also seek immediate help if you have chest pain or trouble breathing.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-06-11
Last reviewed: 2014-06-10
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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