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 or behavior. This can include actual and attempted rape as well as unwanted sexual touching.

Sexual assault occurs with alarming frequency in the United States. As many as one-third of women will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. Additionally, survivors of childhood sexual assault have an increased likelihood of being assaulted again in adulthood.

Being sexually assaulted can have a tremendous impact on a person's life. If you have been assaulted, 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 Effects

As might be expected, a person who has been sexually assaulted will generally experience high levels of distress immediately afterward. The trauma of being assaulted can leave you feeling scared, angry, guilty, anxious, and sad. The stigma associated with sexual assault may cause some to feel embarrassed or ashamed.

In addition, survivors of sexual assault 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.

Conditions Associated with PTSD

PTSD is not the only mental health disorder that may develop after a sexual assault. PTSD can also lead to the following mental health conditions:

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

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

Physical Effects

A sexual assault 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:

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

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.

Additionally, people who are victims of sexual victims of attempted or completed rape are at an increased risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection. This could lead to additional physical and emotional health problems.

Sexual Health

Not surprisingly, enjoying sex again can be difficult after 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. Shame and guilt stemming from the rape can also interfere with their 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 more sexual problems.

Behavioral Effects

Survivors of sexual assault 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 assaulted, many people will develop substance use problems or other unhealthy behaviors (such as self-injury).

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.

Treatment Options

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 be very successful in lessening the number of negative symptoms that can develop after a sexual assault experience.

Two such treatments are prolonged-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.

There are also a number of helpful internet resources for survivors of sexual assault. 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.