What is sexual assault?
Sexual assault is a broad term that describes any sexual act that is coerced or in which the victim is incapable of providing consent. Rape (including vaginal, anal, or oral penetration), drug facilitated assault, intimate partner violence, groping, and sexual torture are all forms of sexual assault, as are flashing, peeping, cat calls and sexual harassment.
How common is sexual assault?
Unfortunately, sexual assault is incredibly common. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, someone in the United States is physically assaulted every 98 seconds. About 1 in 6 women and 1 in 10 men has been a victim of rape. The majority of sexual assaults are committed on people under the age of 30.
Who perpetrates sexual assault?
There is a general belief that most sexual assaults are committed by strangers, but that is not true. In reality, more than 70% of all sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the victim already knows. About half of all perpetrators are over the age of 30. Sexual predators tend to be repeat offenders. In fact, more than half of all alleged rapists have been convicted of a least one prior rape.
What are the effects of sexual assault?
Sexual assault causes a staggering array of negative effects. Immediately after an attack, victims may have to cope with physical injuries, STDs, or pregnancy, as well as flashbacks, lingering feelings of fear, and insomnia. If these feelings persist, they can eventually lead to the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Victims of sexual assault are also at increased risk for developing depression, suicidal feelings, substance addiction, and eating disorders. Victims often have problems with trust after an assault and may have problems forming healthy relationships. They are at increased risk for self-harming behaviors.
The second injury
How a victim of sexual assault is treated right after an attack—or right after telling of an attack—has a direct impact on how quickly and how well she will heal. If victims are treated with callousness by medical personnel, law enforcement, friends or family, if they are blamed for the attack or not believed, they are much more likely to develop long-term symptoms of trauma. Historically, victims of sexual assault have been treated very poorly by other members of society, and many victims claim that this poor treatment is harder to deal with than the actual attack. This has led some to dubbed the poor treatment of victims the “second injury.”
What are remedies for the effects of sexual assault?
In order to insure the best long-term outcome for a victim, she or he must be treated with kindness and compassion directly after an assault—or anytime the victim chooses to disclose information about an assault. First and foremost, it is important to believe a victim of sexual assault. It is equally important not to imply to the victim that the attack was somehow her or his fault.
Directly after a sexual assault, helpers should ensure the victim’s physical safety and facilitate medical care if necessary. After this, it is important to give the victim control over the situation by allowing him or her to decide where to go and who to be with. Right after an assault, victims may or may not want to talk about what they’ve been through. It’s important not to press the matter. The first rules are to help the victim feel safe again and back in control.
If treated well by the people around them, many victims of sexual assault will naturally start to feel better over time. Others may need some form of group or individual psychotherapy to process what they’ve been through. Medication can also help in alleviating feelings of depression or anxiety.
With proper care and treatment, victims of sexual assault can overcome what they’ve been through and go one to lead satisfying, successful lives.
What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is a complex psychiatric condition that develops in some people after they have experienced or witnessed a severe traumatic event. PTSD can affect a person physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, and even spiritually. People who suffer from PTSD often feel great distress when their symptoms occur. For this reason, those with the disorder often make attempts to avoid anything that will trigger their symptoms, including the avoidance of certain people, places, thoughts, feelings, and memories.
What causes Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
In order to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a person must first be exposed to a severe traumatic event. Specifically, people who develop PTSD have usually experienced a situation in which they feared they would die in a violent way, such as from an assault, natural disaster, or accident. Someone who witnesses another person being hurt in such a way can also develop PTSD. (This includes first responders, medical personnel, and professionals who are repeated exposed to details of child abuse or sexual assault.) People who learn of the actual or threatened death (due to violence or accident) of their loved one are also at risk for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The difference between PTSD and psychological trauma
There is a big difference between the normal life stressors that cause normal psychological trauma and the unique stressors that cause Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In everyday life, there are many events that can make us feel traumatized. Divorce, the loss of a job, or a miscarriage are all things that can cause great distress. While these events are traumatic—and can certainly make us feel sad, anxious, angry, or depressed—they are not the types of situations that cause PTSD.
The types of stressors that can lead to PTSD are events that make a person panic and fear for survival. Terrifying events such as combat, assault, natural disasters, and horrific accidents trigger a person’s fight-or-flight instinct. This initial physiological response is a key requirement for the eventual development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (Witnesses who develop PTSD second-hand usually do so because details of the trauma trigger their own horror and fear for survival.)
How common is Post-Traumatic Success Disorder?
About 60% of men and 50% of women will experience at least one severe traumatic event in their lifetime. However, the vast majority of these people will not develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Only 7-8% of the population suffers from PTSD at some point in their lives.
Although slightly more men experience severe traumatic events, women are far more likely to develop PTSD. One explanation for this may be that people who suffer multiple traumatic events are at increased risk for developing the disorder. As females are far more likely to be sexually abused in childhood, sexually assaulted as adults, and victims of domestic violence, they have more risk factors for PTSD.
What are the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
People with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder stay in a state of mental, physical, and emotional crisis long after the actual crisis has passed:
What are remedies for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Because Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder affects people in multiple ways, it often requires multiple types of treatment. Physical symptoms such as hyperarousal, anxiety, depression, and insomnia are often best treated with medication. Eye-Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR) and neurofeedback have also been shown to be effective at relieving some physical symptoms of PTSD.
Medication alone, though, cannot address all the symptoms of PTSD. At their core, severe traumatic events cause us to question the world and our place in it. In order to resolve these existential questions, it is usually best to seek out some form of talk therapy. In the absence of individual or group psychotherapy, the support of kind, patient, empathetic loved ones can also be therapeutic.
What is dissociation?
Dissociation is a term used to describe something that we all experience many times a day. It is the act of “zoning out,” as when we daydream or get lost in thought while driving. In its simplest form, dissociation is the way we all take mental vacations.
Dissociation as a coping tool
Dissociation is also a natural way that human beings and animals cope with fear. When we become scared or shocked, as happens during an accident or assault, our minds often use dissociation to detach and escape from overwhelming feelings.
While dissociation is a natural coping mechanism, if used too frequently it can become habitual and lead to a dissociative disorder. The dissociative disorders include:
How common are Dissociative Disorders?
While normal dissociation happens to everyone many times a day, problematic dissociation is rarer. About 10% of the general population suffers from a dissociative disorder at any given time. The most common dissociative disorder is dissociative amnesia. The least common is Dissociative Identity Disorder.
What are remedies for Dissociative Disorders?
Since different dissociative disorders have different root causes and different symptoms, they are often treated differently. A dissociative fugue, for instance, is usually brought on by a current life stressor. So, the best treatment is probably psychotherapy to cope with stress, as well as medication to lessen anxiety.
Depersonalization Disorder and Dissociative Identity Disorder are both linked to long-standing habits of using dissociation to deal with stress. In order to conquer these disorders, sufferers will need to learn how to stay present during times of stress. They may also need long-term psychotherapy to process the early trauma that first caused them to dissociate, as well as medication to lessen anxiety and depression.
Dissociative amnesia can be linked to stress in the present or the past. Sometimes, it goes away on its own. Other times, it requires psychotherapy to help process the troubling memories that had previously been repressed.
With proper treatment, all of the dissociative disorders can be overcome, helping sufferers go on to lead satisfying and fulfilling lives.
Dr. Michelle Stevens is a psychologist, writer, and expert on trauma. She wrote the bestselling book, Scared Selfless: My Journey from Abuse and Madness to Surviving and Thriving (Putnam, 2017).