When a person is the victim of sexual assault there rarely are any outwardly signs or symptoms that they have been assaulted as there are in other types of assaults. You likely won’t see any bruises, bleeding or even broken bones. The injuries sustained are much deeper and harder to see and easier to hide from others. If injuries were able to be seen they would look something like shame, guilt, depression and fear.
Healing from sexual assault isn’t easy. Often victims hear “time heals all wounds” or similar adages, however, in the case of sexual assault this rarely proves true and only adds to the shame, guilt, depression and fear. In fact statistically sexual assault survivors are three times more likely to develop depression, four times more likely to think about suicide and 13 times more likely to attempt it. They are also 13 times more likely to have problems with alcohol and 26 times more likely to have problems with drugs. These statistics are daunting and eye opening. How often are survivors told to just get over it, or do friends and family get annoyed when weeks later the survivor is still struggling?
When looked deeper there is a biological reason survivors don’t just “get over it”. When someone survives a trauma there are physiological changes that occur in the brain. Stress hormones are released that directly affect memory; not just of the event either, they affect all short term memories! In an effort to protect the person the brain also makes generalizations about the trauma so that it’s not just the perpetrator wearing a red shirt that is dangerous but maybe now it’s anyone wearing a red shirt. The survivor is likely living in a constant fight (angry), flight (always looking for ways out) or freeze.
This all sounds very bleak and could almost make one think that there is no hope for survivors, but there is! It comes in many forms; the first and most important is being believed and supported by loved ones. The survivor will doubt themselves constantly, but having loved ones believe them and support them will help them begin to trust themselves again. The second is in the form of therapy. There are many therapists skilled in treating trauma, however, just going to a therapist isn’t always enough. Unlike seeing a doctor one must feel a connection with their therapist. A lot of the healing that comes in therapy is born out of a relationship of trust and connection between the therapist and client.
There are many different approaches to treating trauma in therapy; two evidenced based approaches are trauma focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) and eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR). With a “simple” trauma EMDR can (though not always) work in as little as six sessions. For more information about EMDR and to even find those practicing EMDR the website www.emdria.org has great information.
When it comes down to it survivors can’t and won’t “just get over it”. They need support and encouragement from loved ones, knowledge that they aren’t alone and many times assistance from a therapist skilled in treating trauma that they can feel a connection with.
By: Cassie Potts, MA, LPC