Sexual trauma is the term we use to describe the long-term effects of sexual violence.

Rape and sexual abuse are crimes of violence and humiliation which can be devastating. Nobody invites rape or abuse. Rape and sexual abuse are always the responsibility of the abuser. Always.

Understanding the impacts of sexual trauma

Everybody’s reaction to being subjects to sexual violence and abuse is unique; and it’s important to remember that whatever feelings you have are valid.

If you have been subjected to sexual violence as an adult and/or as a child, you may be experiencing some or all of the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Shock
  • Fear
  • Isolation
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Shame
  • Loneliness
  • Flashbacks and nightmares
  • Panic attacks
  • Self-doubt and low self-esteem
  • Guilt
  • Obsessive behaviour
  • Feelings of disconnectedness – ‘zoning out’ of the world around you
  • Substance abuse, such as drinking too much alcohol, taking drugs

This is not an exhaustive list but is an indication of the wide range of reactions different people have.

You may still be feeling the consequences of sexual trauma, no matter how long ago it was. Traumatic experiences can feel just as real today as they did when they happened. You may find that certain experiences in your life, perhaps when you are feeling trapped or powerless, are likely to stir up memories of being raped or abused

Working with one of our trained practitioners might be a good way of dealing with those memories. If you would like help with thinking about how Survive might help, or what other services might help you in North Yorkshire, please contact us. And remember, it is never too late to get help.

Coping with sexual trauma

There are some strategies you may be able to use to help you cope with difficulties in sleeping and controlling panic and/or sudden distress.

These strategies are adapted from the self-help pack produced by ‘Fire in Ice’. Survive would like to thank them, and the Merseyside Survivors, for their kind permission to use them.

Controlling panic and sudden distress

These are some techniques and suggestions that survivors have found useful in managing panic attacks and/or sudden distress:

  • Try to become aware, as early as you can, that you’re experiencing a panic attack/flashback/sudden memory/strange sensation.
  • Stop whatever it is you’re doing
  • Try not to fight against it as you may just get more tense.
  • Try to calm yourself. Breathe slowly and deeply.
  • Avoid quick decisions. Wait until you calm down.
  • Check out reality. Plant your feet firmly on the ground and hang onto something for example, the arms of a chair, anything to make sure you get the message that the abuse is not happening now.
  • Decide what to do next. You could leave the situation, change the situation, continue what you’re doing slowly, breathing deeply, reassuring yourself and trying to relax.
  • Accept what is happening.
  • Avoid driving until you’ve calmed down.

Afterwards:

  • Try to work out what happened.
  • Make sure you have someone you can talk to.
  • Expect to feel vulnerable afterwards.
  • Be kind to yourself! It is an understandable reaction to a given set of circumstances.

Prevention and self-help:

  • Avoid caffeine. It’s a stimulant and may make you feel more hyped up.
  • Avoid alcohol and non-prescribed drugs.
  • Develop a plan with your GP about how you can use prescribed medication to help.

Remember that all of this is part of recovery. Survive provides a place where people can access support, reduce isolation and begin to heal from the abuse they suffered.

Coping with sleep difficulties

Survivors of sexual violence sometimes experience problems with sleep. These problems can take many forms, including:

  • Nightmares about the abuse.
  • Waking up in a panic.
  • Not being able to get off to sleep.
  • Finding that the slightest noise or disturbance wakes you.
  • Finding that having sex triggers memories of the abuse.

Here are some general hints about sleep, rest and bedtime:

  • Make sure the place you’re going to rest in is physically comfortable. Use whatever relaxation works for you.
  • Establish some regular habits, a new ‘going to bed’ ritual, avoid emotional literature/issues just before bedtime.
  • Try to get into the habit of taking exercise during the day.
  • Avoid coffee and tea in the evening – it’s a stimulant and keeps you awake.
  • Avoid alcohol and non-prescribed drugs.

Problems with sleep can also be a symptom of depression. If you’re depressed, your doctor may prescribe you an anti-depressant to help you sleep and lift your mood.

Survivors often experience distressing nightmares. The nightmares can include:

  • Direct re-creations of the abuse.
  • Children being harmed or killed.
  • Scenes of death and violence.
  • Being chased or otherwise assaulted.
  • Being humiliated or put in a powerless position.

The emotion attached to the nightmare is often one of absolute terror. Some people suggest that you can ‘take charge’ of your nightmare. In other words, turn the tables on whoever is attacking or abusing you during the nightmare. Whilst this may be possible in some cases, it’s certainly not true for everyone. Don’t give yourself a hard time if this isn’t true for you.

If you wake up in a panic:

  • Be kind to yourself immediately afterwards.
  • Decide whether you need to be on your own right now.
  • It can be good to talk about how you are feeling.
  • If you’re on your own, is there anyone you can ring to talk it through?
  • Be gentle with yourself for the rest of the day.

Nightmares are a part of the process of recovery- an unpleasant part. It takes courage and strength to experience them and reach out for support.

Further Resources

The Survivors Trust Resources Website provides many resources for survivors and anyone who wants to learn more about the impact of sexual violence, or wants to use as a self-help toolkit as part of their recovery journey.

Topics included on this site are:

  • Relationships
  • Shame and Guilt
  • Stress
  • Sleep
  • Dissociation
  • Self-esteem
  • Intimacy
  • Wellbeing

Find out more… 

Sexual violence support services York

THE SURVIVOR - SUSAN

I enjoyed my work with my church. As a lady in my 70s, I also enjoyed the compliments received from one of the priests.

He often came to my home. Following an operation, the priest took care of me.

THE SURVIVOR - PENNY

I was a well-respected and hard-working professional yet I found it difficult to like myself.

When I arrived at Survive, I was reluctant to reflect on my past.

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