Understanding PTSD After Sexual Assault

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A person who has been sexually assaulted will generally experience high levels of distress immediately afterward. The trauma of being assaulted can lead to fear, anger, guilt, anxiety, and sadness. The stigma associated with sexual assault may cause embarrassment or shame for some people.

In addition, survivors of sexual assault have an increased likelihood of developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as nightmares and intrusive thoughts. They might feel as though they are always in danger or need to always be on guard, and may distrust other people.

This article discusses how sexual assault can lead to an increased risk of PTSD. It also covers the symptoms that people might experience and what they can do to get help.

What Is Sexual Assault?

The term "sexual assault" refers to a range of behaviors that involve unwanted, coercive, or forceful sexual contact or conduct. Sexual assault can include rape, attempted rape, and any form of unwanted sexual touching.

Sexual assault occurs with alarming frequency in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will experience sexual violence that includes unwanted physical contact at some point in their lives. Additionally, survivors of childhood sexual assault have an increased likelihood of being assaulted again in adulthood.

What Is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that causes a variety of troubling symptoms in the aftermath of a traumatic event like sexual assault.

PTSD is fairly common among people who have experienced sexual assault. One study showed that roughly 70% of survivors of sexual assault experience significant levels of trauma, with 45% reporting symptoms of PTSD.

Symptoms of PTSD may include re-experiencing the traumatic event, avoiding reminders of the trauma, startling easily, and having negative thoughts and beliefs.

PTSD is not a sign of weakness; it is a mental health condition that can be diagnosed and treated. If you are experiencing symptoms of PTSD, it is important to see a healthcare provider.

Symptoms of PTSD After Sexual Assault

Survivors of sexual assault can experience severe and chronic symptoms of PTSD, such as:

  • Body aches
  • Fatigue
  • Flashbacks
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Nightmares

Survivors' experience of PTSD might include:

  • Avoidance, such as avoiding thoughts or feelings of the traumatic event (emotional avoidance); staying away from reminders of the trauma such as people, places, objects, or situations; and resisting conversations about what happened.
  • Intrusive symptoms, such as repeated, unwanted memories of the event, recurrent nightmares, and flashbacks.
  • Increased arousal, such as trouble falling or staying asleep, being easily startled or fearful, trouble concentrating, and hypervigilance to surroundings, and potential threats to safety.
  • Changes in thoughts and feelings, such as ongoing, distorted beliefs about oneself or others; recurrent feelings of fear, horror, anger, guilt, shame, or hopelessness; loss of interest in once enjoyable activities; feeling detached from others or struggling to maintain close relationships; and difficulty experiencing positive feelings like joy or satisfaction.


Common symptoms of PTSD after a sexual assault include intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, hypervigilance, and avoidance. Other symptoms such as insomnia, nightmares, fatigue, and headaches may also occur.

Other Effects of Sexual Assault

Sexual assault can take a toll on physical, sexual, and behavioral health for months or even years after the event took place.

Physical Health

A sexual assault can bring on a number of chronic physical conditions, which are also common among people with PTSD. For example, women who have been raped have been found to be more likely to experience:

  • Arthritis
  • Chronic pelvic pain
  • Digestive problems
  • Intense premenstrual symptoms
  • Non-epileptic seizures

Additionally, people who are survivors of rape or attempted rape are at an increased risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI), which can lead to additional physical and emotional health problems.

Sexual Health

Enjoying sexual contact can be difficult after experiencing sexual trauma. Someone who has survived a sexual assault may experience low sexual desire and reduced sexual behavior.

Some survivors experience pain, fear, or anxiety with sexual contact. Shame and guilt stemming from the trauma can also interfere with desire for and satisfaction from sex.

Survivors of childhood sexual assault are likely to have more severe sexual problems. Penetration during sexual assault will also increase the risk for future sexual problems.

Behavioral Health

There is no single behavioral reaction to sexual assault. Some survivors avoid sex after experiencing assault, while others engage in risky sexual behaviors such as not using protection or having a greater number of sexual partners.

Survivors may also turn to unhealthy behaviors like substance use and self-harm in an effort to cope with the intense unpleasant emotions that come from being assaulted.

Some survivors may go to great lengths to avoid situations that feel potentially dangerous and may shy away from television shows, newspaper articles, or conversations that discuss sexual assault.

These feelings may subside over time for some people. Others, however, will continue to experience some form of psychological distress for months or years.

Other Conditions Linked to Sexual Assault and PTSD

PTSD is commonly associated with other mental health conditions and is not the only mental health disorder that may develop after a sexual assault. Survivors may also develop conditions including:

The risk for these related conditions may be greater for people who experienced a sexual assault at a younger age.

Treatments for PTSD After Sexual Assault

For many who survive sexual assault, these symptoms will subside over time. However, for some, these symptoms may linger and even get worse. Fortunately, there are treatments available that have been found to help.


Psychotherapy has been proven effective in treating symptoms of PTSD following sexual assault. While there are a variety of psychotherapy techniques, some options with growing evidence of their effectiveness are cognitive processing therapy, prolonged-exposure therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy.

  • Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) helps people confront unpleasant memories and thoughts associated with the sexual assault. During CPT, a therapist will also guide them to correct any maladaptive, unrealistic, or problematic thoughts driving your PTSD symptoms.
  • Prolonged-exposure therapy targets any learned behaviors that people engage in or avoid in response to situations or thoughts and memories associated with the sexual assault. The hope is that by confronting feared emotions, thoughts, and situations, they can learn that anxiety and fear will lessen on their own.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy can also be helpful for treating trauma related to sexual assault. This type of therapy uses rhythmic bilateral eye stimulation to help reduce the emotional effects of traumatic memories. While individual responses can vary, research has found that it can be effective for the treatment of PTSD.

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Support Groups

Joining an online or in-person support group provides the opportunity to connect with other survivors of sexual assault and get advice on overcoming the challenges associated with that trauma.

Support groups provide an excellent opportunity to develop supportive, trusting, and healthy relationships with other people with a shared experience. Your primary care physician or mental health professional is often the best place to start when searching for a local support group. 

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center also offers advice and information for survivors, their friends and family, and advocates and educators.


In addition to talking to a therapist and/or joining a support group, there are some lifestyle changes and coping techniques you can do on your own to calm your body and mind and manage your symptoms.

  • Spend time with supportive loved ones. Go for a walk, grab some morning coffee, or talk on the phone.
  • Practice relaxation strategies. Find time for prayer, meditation, yoga, or progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Go for a morning walk. Taking time to enjoy the outdoors, get some fresh air, and move your body can help regulate your mood and emotions.
  • Keep a journal. A journal can offer a consistent place to write and process your feelings and experiences. 


Getting treatment for PTSD after a sexual assault is important for long-term recovery. In addition to therapy, support groups and self-help strategies can be helpful for coping with PTSD symptoms.

How to Help a Loved One

If your partner or another loved one is experiencing symptoms of PTSD after a sexual assault, there are things you can do to help.

  • Listen: Let your loved one feel like they can confide in you, but don't pressure them to talk about their trauma. When they do decide to talk, focus on listening, being supportive, and validating what they are feeling.
  • Avoid blame: Don't focus on the events themselves or ask "why" questions that imply blame. People who have experienced sexual assault often struggle with not being believed or with being shamed and blamed for their assault. 
  • Don't pressure: Even if you feel like your loved one should take a certain action, whether it is talking to authorities or seeking treatment, focus on being supportive and respectful of how they want to handle the situation.
  • Offer to help: If your loved one does want to talk to a healthcare provider or seek help from a mental help professional, look for ways that you can help. For example, you might offer to help them find a healthcare professional or go with them to their therapy appointments.

Having supportive relationships is important for people who have experienced trauma. Research has found that poor social relationships can impair PTSD recovery.

A Word From Verywell

Recovering from sexual assault and PTSD is not something you should try to do alone. There are trained professionals out there to help and support you as you learn to manage the physical, mental, and behavioral effects of surviving sexual assault.

Remember, what happened is not your fault, and you did nothing to cause this to happen. Make sure to seek out and accept help so you can heal and move on with your life.

If you are a survivor of sexual assault, you can contact the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to receive confidential support from a trained staff member at a local RAINN affiliate.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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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.
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Additional Reading

By Matthew Tull, PhD
Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder.