Helpful information for friends and family supporting rape/sexual assault survivors
Psychological reactions are the survivor’s way of dealing with the incident and trying to integrate the incident into their psyche and/or worldview. These reactions can affect the survivor’s day-to-day activities as well as relationships with friends, family and partners.
Some of the more common psychological reactions include: suicide ideation, flashbacks, nightmares, difficulty with problem-solving, somatic reactions, depression, psychological disorders, substance abuse and lack of self–esteem. Survivors’ reactions to rape or sexual assault are unique. There is no right or wrong way to behave, think or feel during or after the incident.
Emotional reactions to rape or sexual assault are diverse and differ in terms of duration and intensity The most common reactions are:
- Fear of being alone, leaving home or returning to the site of the incident
- Feelings of degradation and powerlessness
- Mood swings
- Decreased self-esteem/self-worth
- Emotional numbness
Listed below are some of the most common reactions to rape and sexual assault:
Frozen Fright: During a sexual assault, some people “freeze” or “tense up” and are unable to move. This is a physiological response that our bodies use to survive a life threatening situation and is completely normal.
Dissociation: This occurs during a traumatic event. The mind tries to separate from the trauma occurring on the body. During an assault, the survivor may try to dissociate by focusing on details of something not related to the incident, e.g. reciting a poem in their head or focusing on the environment around them. After an assault, many people report feeling that they are in a dream-like state.
Memory Loss: Sometimes survivors are unable to recall specific details about the incident or are unable to recall the details of the incident in a chronological order. This is because our brains function differently under trauma, and often this can be misconstrued by some to mean the survivor is not telling the truth.
Denial: Survivors may have a hard time believing that the assault occurred. Sometimes people report that the assault “felt like a dream,” or that it could not have really been rape.
Shock: Survivors often appear to be calm and collected and are able continue with their day-to-day lives as if nothing has happened. Sometimes outsiders misinterpret this behaviour to mean that the survivor made up the sexual assault. It is important to remember that this often is not the case, and a survivor’s ability to “go on with life” could really mean that they are in a state of shock and disbelief.
Guilt/Self-blame: Survivors may blame themselves for the assault. They may blame it on their own behaviours before or during the attack. They may also minimize the assault as not a “real” rape, because they feel responsible.
Withdrawal: A survivor may isolate from others as well as stop engaging in activities they once enjoyed.
Change in sexual activity: A survivor may abstain from sexual activity altogether or seek out sexual encounters as a way to try to “forget” the assault. Survivors may also have problems with intimacy with their partners in the future as a result of the assault.
Destructive behaviours: Some survivors may use drugs or alcohol to cope with the assault. Others may engage in self-harm (i.e. cutting) or develop eating disorders
Remember: Survivors’ reactions and coping mechanisms to rape or sexual assault are unique. There is no right or wrong way to behave, think or feel during or after the incident
Like other traumas, survivors of rape or sexual trauma usually adjust or learn to cope with their experience in phases.
These patterns of adjustment vary greatly from person to person, but there are three main themes/stages that have been observed throughout the adjustment process. These stages are:
- Shock: This usually takes place directly after the incident and can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few weeks. During this phase, survivors may suffer from guilt, fear, shame, embarrassment, hypervigilance and some observable reactions ranging from hysteria to numbness. The survivor’s self-perception may be challenged and survivors may become doubtful of their memory of the incident.
- Denial: Denial is a defence mechanism linked to disassociation which occurs in the face of trauma. In this stage, the survivor attempts to “forget the whole thing” or just brush it off and move on with their life as if nothing happened. They may also feel like it was a dream and did not really happen
- Integration: This stage is characterized by the realization of the survivor that the incident has affected their life more than they had previously believed. Symptoms of PTSD become evident in this stage, such as recurring nightmares, flashbacks, uneasiness about the environment and difficulties in personal relationships. Prolonged effects of the incident may in fact force the survivor to re-evaluate the incident and its impact on their life in a healthy way.
Source: Gerrit van Wyk, Brett Pentland–Smith, Kelly Hunt, Megan Barber,traumaClinic Emergency Counselling Network, Cape Town