Survivors of sexual assault may have a range of emotional, physical, and mental reactions to the trauma of being sexually assaulted, including not having any reaction at all. It is imperative to understand that each survivor will respond and react to the trauma in a different way. Regardless of how long ago the assault was committed, survivors of sexual assault may experience some of the following:
â€¢ Fear â€¢ Anger â€¢ Sadness â€¢ Rage â€¢ Guilt â€¢ Embarrassment â€¢ Depression â€¢ Helplessness â€¢ Isolation â€¢ Tension or Anxiety â€¢ Numbness â€¢ Confusion â€¢ Denial â€¢ Hyper-vigilance â€¢ Inability to concentrate â€¢ Intrusive memories of the assault â€¢ Change in eating and sleeping habits â€¢ Increased alcohol consumption or the use of substances as a coping mechanism â€¢ Avoidance of loved ones or activities that were enjoyable prior to the assault â€¢ Lack of trust â€¢ Need to regain control â€¢ Nightmares or flashbacks of the incident â€¢ Insomnia â€¢ Increase or decrease in sexual activity â€¢ Low self-esteem â€¢ Extreme paranoia â€¢ Suicidal thoughts â€¢ The need to escape or forget â€¢ Other physical symptoms such as: eating disorders, nausea, diarrhea, muscle-tension, anxiety, trouble breathing, gynecological problems, headaches, panic attacks
These are just a few of the reactions a person may have. They are not unique to sexual assault; anyone in crisis may show some of these behaviors. As a friend, you are a good judge of what emotions and behaviors are common for your friend. If your friend begins to act in an atypical manner for no apparent reason, don't be afraid to ask directly what is wrong. You may be the first person to respond to your friend's problem and, for a victim of sexual assault, this is the starting point of recovery.
There is no prescribed method of healing from sexual assault because each person's experience will vary. Healing takes time and begins with compassionate support from loved ones and friends. Here are some strategies that you may find useful in helping your friend recover from the trauma he or she has experienced.¹
1. Believe your friend. Studies have shown that the reaction of the first person to whom a survivor discloses his or her story, whether positive or negative, will affect the way in which healing occurs. Believing your friend without question or hesitation is the most important thing you can do for him/her.
2. Be there. Listen non-judgmentally. It is a natural response to analyze and question when someone tells us a story. However, active listening skills teach us to talk less and listen more. Never question a survivor's actions, details of the assault, or why your friend feels the way he or she does. If you are having difficulty understanding what your friend is saying, try to clarify by paraphrasing what you do understand. In addition, you can reflect back to the person the feelings you have heard him/her share to ensure that you are not assuming your friend's feelings reflect your own beliefs or judgments.
3. Assure your friend that it is not his or her fault and that he or she is not to blame for the assault in any way. Survivors of sexual assault often blame themselves for what has happened. It is important that we help them understand that--no matter what happened--it was not their fault.
4. Assure your friend she or he is not alone. Survivors of sexual assault often feel isolated, scared, and powerless. You can be the most helpful just by being there. Your presence can reassure the survivor and allow him or her to work out his/her feelings in a safe environment.
5. Empower your friend. Because rape and other types of sexual assault are crimes that take away an individualâ€™s power, it is important not to compound this experience by putting pressure on your loved one to do things that he or she is not yet ready to do. Remember, it is always up to the survivor to make choices that will affect the healing process. Providing your friend with resources and options will help him or her regain the control that was lost.
6. If your loved one is willing to seek medical attention or report the assault, offer to accompany him or her wherever he/she needs to go (health center, police station, etc.).
Below are helpful phrases that you can use to empower a survivor of sexual assault or encourage your friend to talk:
Actions and phrases to avoid when helping a survivor of sexual assault:
Having a friend or family member be assaulted can be a very upsetting experience. It is important that you also take care of yourself as you support your friend. Supportive services are available through University Psychological Services and the Women's Center.
¹Information on helpful and non-helpful responses adapted from the VAASA Volunteer Manual, 2nd Edition, 1998 and Avalon: A Center for Women and Children "Active Listening" handbook.