How to Cope With Sexual Assault

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The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) describes sexual assault as any sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the victim. Sexual assault can come in many different forms. But the emotional toll it takes on your life is often the same.

Fortunately, it’s possible to move forward in a healthy way after being assaulted. Learning and practicing healthy coping strategies can help you get through it, so you can be able to move on and live your best life in the future.

Some forms of sexual assault include:

  • Attempted rape
  • Fondling or unwanted sexual touching
  • Forcing a victim to perform sexual acts, such as oral sex 
  • Rape—penetration of the victim’s body

Force doesn’t always refer to “physical force.” Some perpetrators use psychological force, such as coercion or manipulation, to force victims into non-consensual sex. They may use threats or intimidation tactics as well.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men experience sexual violence that includes physical contact at some point in their lives.

Many of these individuals don’t ever seek treatment, however. Some of them feel as though their assault was “too minor” to matter or that it happened “too long ago.” Others are too embarrassed or ashamed to tell anyone. And some individuals don’t think they need help or even know how to get it if they do.

Psychological Impact of Sexual Assault

The psychological impact of sexual assault varies greatly from person to person. A child victim may not realize they were assaulted for years. An adult victim may try to convince themselves that a date rape was consensual. 

An individual who was assaulted by a stranger may experience a lot of fear. Someone who was attacked by someone they know may experience ongoing trust issues.

Whatever you are feeling is OK. And there’s no timeline for when you should feel better. Everyone’s experience is unique.

Feelings of shame, confusion, and guilt are common, however. A survivor may feel bad for not stopping the assault. They may worry about what others will think, or they may possibly blame themselves (even though it’s never the victim’s fault).

Most survivors report experiencing flashbacks where they keep replaying the assault in their minds over and over again.

Survivors of sexual assault may also be at increased risk of mental health issues, such as:

  • Depression
  • PTSD
  • Substance use disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Anxiety

Individuals who have been assaulted multiple times may be at an even higher risk for mental health issues. 

And negative reactions from friends, family members, or professionals may increase the risk of mental health issues even more so. Not being believed (or being blamed) creates greater psychological trauma

Professional Help for Sexual Assault

Whether the assault happened yesterday, or it occurred decades ago, a mental health professional can assist you in coping with sexual assault.

Therapy is a confidential, non-judgmental place to work through challenges. A therapist may help you deal with your feelings, identify new coping skills, and manage your stress.

You can discuss specific issues, like how to deal with flashbacks or how to improve your sleep. You might also explore whether you decide to share the fact that you were assaulted with friends or family members.

There are different types of treatment for sexual assault. Examples of common therapies include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: Therapists may assist clients with recognizing and replacing the thoughts and behaviors that contribute to their distress.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR is an interactive therapy used to address trauma and reduce distress. It may involve tapping or moving the eyes from side to side while talking about a distressing event.
  • Supportive therapy: Therapists may help clients make sense of their emotions and assist them in identifying the skills they can use to manage their symptoms.

If you have a specific mental health issue, like anxiety or depression, medication may be an option to reduce your symptoms. You can discuss this with your doctor and your therapist to determine if it’s right for you.

Group therapy may be another option. Your therapist may refer you to a group for a specific issue like learning skills to deal with trauma. Group therapy isn’t for everyone, however, so you’d want to discuss this with your treatment provider.

A support group may also be an option. Support groups provide opportunities to connect with other survivors of sexual assault.

Sexual Assault Coping Strategies

A mental health professional can help you discover lifestyle changes and coping strategies that are best for you. 

  • Skills to calm your body. Whether you enjoy yoga, or you want to try progressive muscle relaxation, there are many coping strategies that can calm your body’s physiological responses (like a rapid heartbeat).
  • Strategies to face your fears. Many survivors of sexual assault go to great lengths to avoid being reminded of what happened. A therapist can help you discover coping strategies that will help you be able to face it. This can be a key component in moving forward.
  • Skills to manage your thoughts. Intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and catastrophic predictions are just a few ways a sexual assault may affect your daily thinking. A therapist may help you discover coping skills to stop these thoughts or to address them so that they don’t take a toll on your psychological well-being.

A therapist will work with you on identifying the strategies that can help you manage your symptoms.

They can also help you avoid the unhealthy coping strategies that you may be tempted to turn to, such as alcohol and drugs.

A Word From Verywell

Being sexually assaulted is something that is extremely traumatic. Yet it doesn’t have to ruin your life. Many survivors move forward in healthy ways and recover from this traumatic experience.

If you aren’t sure where to find help, contact RAINN, speak to your physician, or reach out to a local mental health professional. Online therapy is also an option. 

Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness. It takes strength and courage to reach out. But doing so can help you heal from the trauma associated with sexual assault.

1 Source
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. “Sexual Assault and Mental Health.” Mental Health America.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.