5 things to help how you feel after a sexual assault
If you are struggling after a sexual assault with who this new “you” is, feeling worried you’re now damaged or dirty, or that you’ll never feel better, you are NOT alone! Here are some tips to help you feel better about who you (still) are and to get you going on the path towards healing.
1. Understand your trauma symptoms. It is normal after experiencing a sexual assault to…
- think about it a lot
- not think about it ever and feel terrified if you do think about it for even a second
- have scary or stressful dreams
- be easily startled by sudden changes in the environment or people
- feel unsafe
- feel physically and emotionally disconnected from others
- struggle with intimacy
- engage in lots of sex with lots of people in a way that doesn’t quite feel right to you
- try really hard to pretend like it never happened or to doubt yourself about it
This list could go on and on. Take time to notice what has changed about you since the assault. Label your experiences in “buckets”. For example, you may have an Anxiety Bucket which incorporates all of the times you feel panicky, easily startled, and worried about your future. You may have a Nightmare Bucket which holds all the weird or scary themes in your dreams since the assault. You might have a Mistrust Bucket which has the “paranoid” thoughts you have about people sometimes or fears about intimacy with others.
Things we don’t understand tend to scare us. Being able to start labeling your symptoms is the first step in being able to understand what’s happening to you.
And that understanding can help you normalize it too. Rather than “I am so weird/broken/messed up for having this feeling,” you may be able to say:
“It makes sense I feel anxious right now because this smell/sound/mood reminds me of what happened.”
2. Reflect on things true about you before the assault and things true about you now.
Notice what has changed and what hasn’t.
It’s normal to feel a dramatic shift in your identity after an assault (and it’s also normal not to – many things like the context of the assault and your previous experiences influences this).
Some of my clients find it soothing to reflect on aspects of themselves that have remained steady even after a rape or assault. Take time to reflect on: the things you like to do, the people you like, your favorite foods, parts of your personality, your goals in life, etc. Some of these may have changed and some not.
It’s easy to mistake symptoms of trauma (like always being alert to danger, never feeling safe, being cautious around people, avoiding big crowds, panic attacks, nightmares) as being the “new” you. But it doesn’t actually have to be. These are symptoms which go away after healing through treatments like EMDR, Progressive Counting, or Sensorimotor Psychotherapy processing, not your new identity.
Spend some time reflecting on how you’ve changed, how you haven’t, and also what might be possible after healing from this.
3. Remember, feeling shame is a normal response to trauma.
Most people will try to tell you the assault isn’t your fault. Of course, it isn’t! But you both know that and don’t know that. Parts of you might believe you are innocent and parts of you might argue you were somewhat to blame (“it wouldn’t have happened if I would not have been drinking”).
It’s a waste of breath trying to argue with the parts of you that feel at fault. This is a normal part of trauma and also a common tactic by perpetrators to project their own guilt on to you. Typically the shame will last until you process the assault in trauma therapy. Until then, while uncomfortable, it’s ok to feel shame.
4. Do things which make you feel powerful.
Experiencing a sexual assault can lead you to feeling helpless, out of control, or powerless. Do things that help you feel the opposite: in control, helpful, & empowered. What you do has to really resonate with you but here are some ideas others have shared they have found helpful:
- Take a self-defense, boxing, or other physically engaging class
- Try yoga, meditation, or mindfulness exercises
- Spend time with people who make you feel good about yourself
- Reflect on how you help & support others (this is especially helpful if you struggle with feeling like a “burden” to others)
5. Research strategies for healing.
The biggest hurdle for many people is realizing it is possible to heal after a trauma like sexual assault. You might even believe it’s possible for others to heal but secretly feel like you are permanently damaged. It’s ok to feel this way and is actually a symptom of the trauma. Try to combat this thought with researching ways of healing.
Look at information on EMDR, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Progressive Counting, Brainspotting, etc. There are many good treatments out there. Look at therapists in your area who practice a technique you’re interested in. Even if you aren’t sure you want to “go all in”, reach out to someone who you think might be a good fit and see if you can schedule a consultation. This will give you a chance to ask questions and perhaps help you feel more comfortable starting therapy when you feel ready.
Sexual assault is a traumatizing experience for many. It can make you feel lost, broken, isolated, or worse. And it’s also possible after healing to look back on the assault as a bad thing that happened to you but it’s over now (and truly over). I hope one or two of these strategies can help get you started in that healing journey.