After a Sexual Assault, You Can Recover

iVillage expert and psychiatrist Gail Saltz, M.D. talks about the trauma of rape and how to recover

Even as a journalist on assignment in a dangerous place, no one imagines being sexually assaulted. But sadly, 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, according to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). Those numbers could be much higher -- a large number of victims never even report what happened to them out of fear and shame.

Sexual assault can be defined as any type of sexual contact without the explicit consent of the recipient, including forced sexual intercourse, sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape. How traumatized the victim is varies greatly from person to person. OVW 11.9999 Normal 0 false false false MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 The psychological aftereffects have a lot to do with the victim’s perception of their trauma, for example, believing they might be killed may increase the likelihood of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Also affecting the psychological consequences of an assault is how the victim responds to that trauma and what kind of support and tools they use to cope with life afterwards.

Sexual assault victims may experience an acute stress reaction in the attack’s immediate aftermath. This may include anxiety, depression, trouble sleeping, loss of concentration, fear of certain situations or places and intrusive thoughts about the attack. A percentage of those women will go on to develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is characterized by persistent nightmares, trouble sleeping, anxiety, depression, being easily startled, fear of places and/or situations, and sometimes even thoughts of suicide. A particular trait of sexual assault victims is the shame and guilt they feel, often blaming themselves for not avoiding the attack in the first place. Shame can drive them to become withdrawn and isolated, avoiding social contact, which can actually be beneficial to the recovery process.

The immediate plan of action after a sexual attack is to seek medical attention -- you will be treated for any physical trauma and probably tested for STDs. The plan for dealing with the emotional fallout, however, isn’t always so clear. Some women benefit from talking to others about their experience. This could be to friends, supportive family members or a professional. Joining a support group with other women who have been through a similar experience can be helpful, too. But a woman recovering from a sexual assault should not be forced to talk about her experience if she doesn’t want to. Journaling can be a effective form of expression -- it allows you to get your thoughts out in private.

Getting back into the world is important. When you are sad or nervous your tendency may be to withdraw, but being with others supports you, can distract you from the pain and encourage you to reengage with the things you enjoy doing. For a woman like Lara Logan, for whom career is important, getting back to work may be advantageous. Holding onto your identity, getting the support of colleagues and seeing that the trauma has not robbed you of being you is another valuable part of recovery. Naturally, there will be difficult feelings to contend with, but you’ll work through them along the way. Give yourself permission to take it slow, even taking a step backwards at times, so you don’t become overwhelmed by negative feelings.

The less alone you feel in your experience, the better. Lara Logan’s decision to come forward about her trauma was brave. Her courage could help other victims of sexual assault feel less ashamed, less alone and even spur them to the fine support they need.

A sexual assault may change you in some ways forever, but it is possible to recover and recapture a wonderful and full life.

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