Nearly one in four girls will be sexually assaulted before she turns 18 (a). One in five adult women will be raped in her lifetime (b). This means that if you aren’t a survivor of sexual assault yourself, chances are, you know at least several women who are. This article is an effort to give voice to the experience of recovery, for the sake of sharing women’s wisdom, and educating those who wish to support survivors.
Everyone’s reaction to trauma is different. A similar experience might leave one woman with severe PTSD, and another barely experiencing any impact at all. The way each person responds depends on many factors, including past experiences, biochemistry, personality, and genetic predisposition. Never, ever should any woman be pressured to “get over it,” or to have a different or more mild reaction to her experience, or be compared to other survivors in a way that diminishes her process.
For many women, the process of recovering trust in others, self-love, and a sense of feeling at home in her body, can take time. It can be a difficult process of touching the deepest pain. Even after regaining a sense of normalcy and ability to live in a balanced way, the same fear, grief, anger, or numbness might arise over and over. Healing happens as, over time, these feelings begin to lose their power.
The majority of survivors do not have access to professional care; many women must move on without it. However, receiving heart-felt, skillful care from professionals and loved ones, and knowing how to care for oneself well, is a precious gift and often fundamental to the recovery process. Having a skilled and deeply trusted helper to turn to can help survivors re-discover how to trust others, how to be intimate with safe boundaries, how to process strong and painful feelings, and how to feel relaxed and safe again.
Integrating traumatic experiences is difficult and complex. Counseling and skilled care can help one process and release the experience, to literally break free of the trauma’s impact on a somatic, body-based level.
The multi-layered impact of trauma
A sexual assault sends a loud message that “you are not safe in your body.” It’s a staggering violation. It’s usually a profound betrayal too, as most perpetrators are known to the women assaulted, and many are family members. Feelings of panic, rage, grief, and helplessness are common.
Because the experience is so overwhelming, it’s a very reasonable reaction for a survivor to shut down physical and emotional feelings, or to shut down aspects of herself. This is why many trauma survivors feel numb or blank following an assault, and why some feel cut off from parts of themselves long after the event. Because of this dissociation, many women do not remember the event at all, or have memories resurface years or decades after the event. This is also why some women turn to coping mechanisms, like addictions, to help protect themselves from the overwhelming feelings. While essentially self-protective and sane actions, many coping mechanisms further complicate recovery.
Likewise, recovery is complicated by the fact that traumas interact with one another. It’s nearly impossible to heal the wounds left by recent traumatic experiences, without eventually touching wounds from past traumatic experiences.
These events leave long-lasting marks on us, coloring our personalities, our relationships, and the basic ways we go about living life. A trauma impacts all parts of the survivor’s being: her nervous system, her body, her mind, her emotions, her relationships, her identity, her ability to take care of herself.
When your emotions are erratic, your thoughts are unfamiliar, and your body is afraid, how do you move forward? It’s profoundly difficult to piece together yourself and your life, when nothing feels like it used to. This in itself is a deep loss.
How do we heal from the trauma of sexual assault?
Recovery is a process of releasing the event’s imprint in the nervous system, re-learning how to feel at ease in the body, reconnecting with emotions, and reclaiming a sense of calm and safety. This often needs to happen very slowly, and a professional counselor or therapy group can be tremendously supportive.
This means re-learning how to feel at home with the simplicity of breathing, with taking one step after another down a hiking trail, with the joy of connecting with another person.
Difficult feelings might return again and again, even after much time has passed. One day, a survivor might feel happy and engaged with her day-to-day life. And the next, she might experience panic and flashbacks, because something in the outside world triggered the memory of her trauma, or for no discernible reason at all. Or, the lingering effects might not be so obvious. Each woman in recovery learns how to recognize her particular triggers, and how to engage with her particular reactions to them.
Then, the work of healing continues. Although the impact of the event might not disappear completely, things get easier with time.
Being in a trusted community, breathing, doing activities that engage the body, and being mindful of what’s arising in heart and mind, are everyday practices that can help survivors on the path of recovery.
To learn more about sexual assault and how counseling can help, contact us.
Article by Myriam Maida, MA
Myriam Maida is a psychotherapist, painter and writer living in Boulder, CO. She’s a student of creativity, healing, living fully, and promoting peace in this time of global transition. She holds a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Counseling Psychology from Naropa University.
(a) Finkelhor, D., Hotaling, G., Lewis, I. A., & Smith, C. (1990). Sexual abuse in a national survey of adult men and women: Prevalence, characteristics and risk factors. Child Abuse & Neglect 14, 19-28. doi:10.1016/0145-2134(90)90077-7
(b) Black, M. C., Basile, K. C., Breiding, M. J., Smith, S .G., Walters, M. L., Merrick, M. T., … Stevens, M. R. (2011). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 summary report. Retrieved from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control: http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/NISVS_Report2010-a.pdf