PTSD After Sexual Assault

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The term "sexual assault" refers to a range of behaviors that involve unwanted, coercive, or even 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.

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 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.

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, with one study showing 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 doctor.

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

Their experience 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 yourself 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

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 have experienced a sexual assault at a younger age.

Other Effects of Sexual Assault

Sexual assault can take a toll on your 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 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 future sexual problems.

Behavioral Health

There is no single behavioral reaction to sexual assault. For example, while some survivors avoid sex after experiencing assault, 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.

Treatment Options for Sexual Assault Survivors

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

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

  • Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) helps people confront unpleasant memories and thoughts associated with the sexual assault. During CPT, your therapist will also guide you 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, you can learn that anxiety and fear will lessen on their own.

You can find a therapist in your area who provides these treatments.

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.

Self-Help

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, including:

  • 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. 

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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9 Sources
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
  • 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.