Victims of sexual assault go through several typical stages of reaction and coping. Reactions to sexual assault and rape may be somewhat different from those of other types of trauma. In particular, reactions affecting sexual and intimate relationships may be apparent. It is important to remember that the trauma survivor’s reactions are in fact normal reactions to a difficult and abnormal situation.
The process of healing from sexual assault is often long and makes significant demands on both the survivor and their friends and family. Survivors of rape are often helped in their healing process by mental health professionals.
There are 4 common stages in survivors’ experiences following sexual assault, but these stages are not necessarily chronological. Survivors may experience multiple “stages” at once, and may find themselves continually returning to one or more of them.
- The threat and rape stage
This stage begins the moment someone feels that there is a threat to their body, and ends when the rape is over. Before the rape there is a conflict between real fear and the idea that “it won’t happen to me.” When the victim realizes that they about to be raped, the first reaction is usually a very real fear of death, which often overcomes the fear of the sexual assault itself. This fear may cause the person to freeze, which makes it difficult for them to cry for help or attempt to escape.
During the rape there are usually five main reactions:
- Disassociation from bodily sensations – experiencing the event as though it were happening to someone else.
- Denial: “This isn’t happening to me.”
- Focusing on the details of the rape – in order to remember details for a future police report.
- Release of tension and an attempt to scare off the rapist by crying or screaming.
- Rationalization: Attempting to understand why this is happening.
2. The post-traumatic reaction stage
In the days and weeks following the attack, the survivor may feel confused, anxious, nervous and helpless, and may have difficulty believing that the event actually happened. In addition they may feel physical pain, eating and sleep disorders, nightmares and flashbacks centered on the event. Some survivors isolate themselves, closing themselves off from the world and their friends and family. Others externalize their emotions, and express them in crying outbursts and discussion of the event. The main issue at this stage is the survivor’s attempt to regain control of their life.
3. The processing stage
This takes place in the months and often years after the event. In this stage physical problems may appear as well as emotions of anger and depression. Many survivors blame themselves for not resisting the rapist enough, while others feel distanced from their families or partners. Many survivors experience flashbacks of the event, along with a strong desire to suppress them. These flashbacks sometimes occur during sexual intercourse and may increase tension in intimate relationships.
4. The re-organization stage
The experience becomes part of the survivor’s concept of themselves and part of their personal history. The traumatic event has been processed and no longer causes uncontrollable emotional outbursts. This situation can often be a growth opportunity, for example, some survivors at this stage have turned to help others who have experienced similar types of trauma.