The trauma of sexual assault does not end when the abuse ends. Even after their bodies heal, many survivors live with emotional wounds that impact their self-image, their physical health, and their relationships. Navigating even the most mundane aspects of life can prove challenging for survivors of sexual violence. In order to go on, survivors employ coping strategies in an attempt to minimize the influence of the traumatic event. The driving force of these strategies is self-preservation. While some coping mechanisms compromise survivors’ well-being, other behaviors move them along the path of healing.
A person who experiences or witnesses a life-threatening or severely distressing event may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This condition is characterized by symptoms such as flashbacks, avoidance of perceived triggers, detachment, hopelessness, hypervigilance, and emotional dysregulation. In her article for Psychology Today, Elyssa Barbash notes that PTSD symptoms are experienced by 94% of female rape victims.
Many of the coping strategies employed by survivors of sexual violence may give the impression that the victims are not coping at all. But these behaviors serve as useful short-term strategies for surviving the abuse and its immediate aftermath. For example, The Massachusetts Association Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence (janedoe.org) explains that dissociation – a way of mentally and emotionally disconnecting from present stimuli – “creates a barrier between the victim and overwhelming events.” If left unaddressed, however, these behaviors tend to intensify and prolong the effects of the trauma, taking over survivors’ lives and creating chronic levels of distress. Coping strategies that ultimately endanger, rather than protect survivors include self-harm, alcohol and substance abuse, and disordered eating.
For many survivors, acknowledging their experiences of sexual trauma is the first step toward healing. And it is often the most difficult and terrifying part of their post-abuse journey. When survivors engage with memories of their sexual assault, they may feel they are once again losing control – but this time, they perceive that their own thoughts and emotions threaten their autonomy. Sharing their emotions with a trusted friend, family member and/or therapist can help survivors work through their feelings while (re)connecting them to safe and supportive relationships. Sexual assault survivor Lea Fetterman writes about her helpful coping strategies on themighty.com. These include: emptying the mind of thoughts through writing and talking with close friends; exercising/engaging in physical outlets (she favors hitting squash with a baseball bat); allowing feelings to be felt; consistently telling herself that the abuse was not her fault; laughing; reporting the assault the authorities.
Each survivor’s healing journey is unique. The path is not always linear, and the obstacles may appear insurmountable. But healing is possible. If you would like to learn how the civil justice system can help you on your journey, please contact one of our experienced attorneys for a free consultation.
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