Symptoms of PTSD After a Sexual Assault

Young woman sitting alone and depressed

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The term "sexual assault" refers to a range of behaviors that involve unwanted sexual contact, such as sexual molestation or rape. Sexual assault is extremely common. Large surveys of people in the United States, for example, have found that as many as one-third of women will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. Survivors of childhood sexual assault have an increased likelihood of being assaulted again in adulthood.

The experience of an attempted or completed rape can have a tremendous impact on a person's life. If you have been raped, it is important to pay attention to any subsequent changes in your thoughts or behavior, as they can greatly interfere with your ability to effectively function in different areas of your life.

Psychological Changes

As might be expected, a person who has been raped will generally experience high levels of distress immediately afterward. For example, rape may bring about strong feelings of shame, guilt, anxiety, fear, anger, and sadness. There is a stigma associated with rape which may further increase feelings of shame. These feelings may subside over time for some people; however, others will continue to experience some form of psychological distress for months or years.

In addition, a rape survivor may develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For example, nightmares or intrusive thoughts and memories may occur. They might feel as though they are always in danger or need to always be on guard, and may distrust other people.

PTSD is not the only mental health disorder that may develop after a rape. It has also been found that rape survivors are at high risk for developing substance use disorders, major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and eating disorders. The risk for these disorders may be greater for people who have experienced a sexual assault at a younger age.

Physical Health Problems

A rape can bring on a number of chronic physical conditions. For example, women who have been raped have been found to be more likely to experience chronic pelvic pain, arthritis, digestive problems, chronic pain, non-epileptic seizures, and more intense premenstrual symptoms. This is not surprising given that traumatic events in general (as well as the development of PTSD) are connected with the development of a number of physical health problems. It is also possible for a person to contract a sexually transmitted disease during an attempted or completed rape, leading to other physical health problems.

Not surprisingly, rape can also lead to reproductive health problems. A rape survivor may experience low sexual desire and reduced sexual behavior. If sexual activities are engaged in, they may not derive much satisfaction or pleasure from those activities and may experience pain, fear, or anxiety. Shame and guilt stemming from the rape can also interfere with the desire for and satisfaction from sex. Survivors of childhood sexual assault are likely to have more severe sexual problems. Penetration during the sexual assault will also increase the risk for more sexual problems.

Unhealthy Behaviors

Rape survivors often engage in risky sexual behaviors such as not using protection or having a greater number of sexual partners. In addition, in an attempt to cope with the intense unpleasant emotions that come from being raped, many people will develop substance use problems or other unhealthy behaviors (such as self-injury). They 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.

Treating Psychological and Behavior Problems

For many rape survivors, 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 be very successful in lessening the number of negative symptoms that can develop after a rape. Two such treatments are exposure therapy and cognitive-processing therapy. You can find a therapist in your area who provides these treatments. In addition, social support and learning how to manage emotions in a healthy way can be very helpful.

Finally, there are a number of helpful resources on the web for rape survivors. Two such websites are the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

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Additional Reading
  • Koss, M.P., Heise, L., & Russo, N.F. (1994). The global health burden of rape. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 18, 509-537.

  • Sarkar, N.N., & Sarkar, R. (2005). Sexual assault on women: Its impact on her life and living in society. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 20, 407-418.

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