Begin the process of healing from sexual trauma with these steps to ensure your safety, help you process your experience and develop coping skills for long-term recovery.
The trauma of sexual assault can leave survivors with physical, emotional and psychological wounds. Each survivor has different experiences and needs, and may process and recover from trauma in their own way.
To outline some general steps toward healing, we spoke with Jessica Klein, senior lecturer in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work’s Department of Adult Mental Health and Wellness. Klein, who specializes in the clinical treatment of sexual trauma survivors, hopes to provide victims of sexual assault with effective tools for processing their trauma while empowering them to make their own decisions when it comes to reporting the assault, pursuing legal action and seeking treatment.
According to Klein, these are the six steps that every survivor should take in the aftermath of an assault:
1.Ensure your own safety
After the experience of sexual trauma, “the first and most important factor should be prioritizing your safety and well-being,” Klein said. In the immediate aftermath of an assault, most people experience shock, derealization, and a sense of being overwhelmed. After an assault, the limbic system—the part of the brain responsible for processing emotions and triggering fight or flight reactions to perceived threats—is “firing on all cylinders,” she said.
To establish a sense of safety and normalcy, Klein recommends survivors use any coping mechanisms that have helped them feel comfortable in the face of major stressors in the past. “It can mean calling your closest friend or trusted family member to come over and stay with you, or getting into bed under layers of blankets—whatever will help you feel a little bit safer in your own body,” Klein said.
2.Reach out for support
Once you feel more physically safe, it’s important to connect with a person you trust for support. After shock, sexual trauma survivors often experience depression, anxiety and dissociation. In a culture rampant with victim-blaming and doubt surrounding accounts of sexual assault—which may exacerbate trauma—it is crucial to confide in someone you fully trust. Klein recommends finding a person who will not pry into the details of the experience, but who is there to say, ‘I am sorry this happened to you. Are you feeling safe? How can I help you?’
If you prefer to express your experience and emotions anonymously, Klein encourages victims to call a crisis hotline such as the National Sexual Assault Hotline. Hotline operators are trained to offer support, hear your story, connect you with resources for treatment and provide you with information on how to report the crime.
3.Consider your medical options
Many survivors may be reluctant to pursue medical attention in the immediate wake of a sexual assault. It is ultimately up to you to decide what to do in accordance with your own physical, psychological and emotional needs.
Choosing to go to the hospital or a medical rape center after an assault can be beneficial for a number of reasons. Most critically, health care practitioners can treat bodily injury and help ensure your sexual and physical health. Additionally, they can provide you with a rape kit—a sexual assault forensic exam that can be used to collect DNA, blood samples and other evidence. If you are not ready to file a police report immediately, some centers can freeze the evidence and store it for later access.
“Making the decision to obtain a rape kit can be scary, because in a way, you’re admitting to yourself and to others what has happened,” Klein said. But once you feel confident making the decision, Klein says you should go through with the process as quickly as possible. In many places, the window for collecting bodily forensic evidence is just 72 hours (though in the state of California it is 96 hours). If possible, victims who choose to get an exam are encouraged not to shower, comb their hair, use the restroom or change their clothes before completing the rape kit.
4.Process your experience
The desire to simply avoid addressing or processing the incident is a common phenomenon among survivors. “But healing doesn’t happen through avoidance,” Klein said. “You can’t go around it, over it or under it. You have to go through it.” Learning healthy coping habits—which may be as simple as journaling, walking or meditating—can help survivors effectively process their trauma.
Though not every survivor needs therapy, many display symptoms characteristic of both acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. “Many survivors doubt their own intuition,” Klein said. “Even though they logically know they were assaulted, paralyzing anxiety can make them wonder, ‘was it my fault? Was it actually consensual?’” This sense of guilt can worsen the negative psychological effects of trauma. As such, therapy may provide an effective forum for mediating, understanding and coping with your emotions.
Klein recommends seeking out a clinician who is specifically trained to address sexual trauma. Memory is dynamic and changing, and each time you remember an event, your brain forms new associations, thereby modifying the memory. As such, therapy can provide a safe space to remember your trauma, and over time, can decrease the negative psychological effects associated with this exercise.
5. Consider your legal options
Some survivors are adamant that they want to file a police report or prosecute the assailant. For many others, the decision is not so cut and dry; they may be reluctant to report the assault immediately and may be confused as to what they should do next.
There are many reasons survivors may not want to report their assault to the authorities or pursue legal action. A major consideration for most victims is the fact that their assaulter was someone they know and with whom they may share mutual friends, family or acquaintances. In fact, a staggering 70 percent of sexual assaults are committed by a person the victim knows. As such, survivors are often plagued with anxiety, shame and fear of what others will think.
The prospect of reliving their trauma by filing a report, speaking with law enforcement officials and possibly testifying against the perpetrator in court can also dissuade victims from coming forward. Klein points to the fact that those who have had negative experiences with police in the past may distrust law enforcement, which can also deter reporting.
If you are struggling with how best to support a loved one who has been assaulted, Klein recommends reinforcing to the survivor that they have options—even when they feel trapped and completely powerless. “Assault is someone taking away your power. Returning that power to the victim often means encouraging them to proceed however feels most empowering to them. This might mean filing a report, telling their story or seeking justice by their own volition,” Klein said.
6. Reconnect to yourself and your life
“Until you process your trauma and learn how to actively cope, it can be difficult to feel like yourself again,” Klein said.
Consider the activities and social outings you may have avoided in the aftermath of your trauma. Stay attuned to your emotions and evaluate if you are ready to go back to that exercise class or join your friends at a party. “A little internal nudge can be good, but never push yourself too far to be social when you aren’t yet ready. Take everything day by day,” she said.
At this stage, Klein recommends group therapy, which can reduce fear, alleviate depression and have other positive psychological, emotional and social benefits. Having the support of a community that understands what you have been through can be a crucial factor in your long-term recovery.
If you or anyone you know has been the victim of sexual abuse or a sexual assault, please visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) for more information.