Published on: 28 Sep 2023
Trigger warning: This article discusses sexual trauma, which may be disturbing or distressing to some people.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 1 in 3 women have experienced physical or sexual violence in their life. Sexual trauma can be devastating for your psychological well-being and leave negative lasting effects. It can destroy your faith in others and make trust excruciatingly difficult. Healing from the trauma of sexual violence is a profoundly personal experience. Recovery takes time, patience, and access to the right resources — it’s an emotionally taxing journey.
Sexual trauma refers to any unwanted sexual activity or behavior. It can result from rape, molestation, sexual harassment, or assault. How this type of trauma affects us can differ from person to person and depends on factors like:
- Personal perception
- Severity of the event(s)
- Support systems
- Previous trauma
- Access to professional support
It’s common for someone who’s experienced a sex-related trauma to have extreme feelings of fear, shame, guilt, anger, and sadness. It’s even common to feel numb. Sexual assault survivors have symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and can have nightmares, flashbacks, and crippling anxiety or depression as a result of their experience.
Though it can be difficult, it is possible to heal sexual trauma. Learn what you need to know about this challenging journey here.
Steps for Healing from Sexual Trauma
Understanding how to deal with being raped, sexually harassed, and any other sexual trauma is essential to be able to move forward. There are steps you can take to navigate the process of healing sexual trauma. The following are essential for you to consider if you need help learning how to get over sexual trauma.
Step 1: Seek professional help
Working with a professional who has experience in trauma-related therapy can be an incredibly beneficial part of your healing process. They can offer you the guidance and support you need and provide proven evidence-based treatments that are tailored to your experience and needs.
“Because of the trauma experienced during sexual violence and the aftermath there are several types of therapy that can be done but the process is lengthy, types of therapy are but not limited to: cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), art therapy, sex therapy, trauma processing, substance use counseling (if necessary), and animal assisted therapy.”
Some effective forms of therapy follow.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
CBT is a type of talk therapy that helps you identify and change negative, unhelpful, and unhealthy thought and behavior patterns as you’re healing from sexual trauma.
Eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
Research has found that EMDR therapy can be an extremely effective therapeutic modality for survivors of sexual assault who are experiencing major depressive disorder (MDD) or having suicidal ideation as a result of their trauma.
Cognitive processing therapy (CPT)
Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) was developed to treat people with post-traumatic stress disorder. In some research, it has been shown effective in helping sexual trauma survivors improve. CPT helps you understand and change beliefs you have that are related to your trauma.
Somatic therapy focuses on the mind-body connection. It can help you release tension and let go of the trauma that’s been stored in your body. In studies, somatic therapy offered significant improvement in women recovering from childhood sexual abuse.
Alongside individual therapy, group therapy for survivors of sexual assault can offer additional support when learning how to heal from sexual trauma. While this can be an effective therapy and form of treatment for some people though, more research is needed to fully understand its efficacy.
Step 2: Build a support system
Healing sexual trauma requires a strong support system. While the trauma may leave you feeling like you can’t trust anyone or want to be alone, support is going to be crucial as you navigate the healing process. Surround yourself with people who understand what you went through and can offer you compassionate, reassuring support.
You might reach out to friends, family members, or support groups that are designated for survivors of sex-related trauma.
Within your support system, it’s important for you to be able to:
- Talk openly about your experience
- Create and trust a safe space
- Become an advocate for others if you feel strong enough
Step 3: Foster self care
Prioritizing self care is always an important goal, but it becomes even more critical when healing from trauma like this. Take time for yourself, do activities you enjoy, and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Self care practices can include:
“Self care can be divided into two categories: physical and emotional under the physical category activities of daily living are very important eating, sleeping, exercising or getting some sort of physical activity, And avoiding becoming overwhelmed by setting a routine. in the emotional category things like having fun, creating leisurely activities, journaling, listening to music, coloring or developing a hobby, socializing.”
Step 4: Set boundaries
As a sexual trauma survivor, it’s also important to set and enforce boundaries during this time. You should learn how to set boundaries in relationships, for when and how you communicate with others, and for your personal space. Setting boundaries will help you feel in control and safe so you can slowly begin to trust your surroundings again.
You can create boundaries by:
- Making time for you to have personal space
- Asking people to call or text you before they come over
- Being willing to tell someone you’re not up for talking
- Expressing the importance of confidence when you open up to others
- Having the courage to request assistance when tasks prove challenging, rather than persisting in struggle alone.
Coping Strategies for Sexual Trauma
Part of learning how to get over sexual trauma means finding coping strategies. Coping tools can be incredibly powerful as you regain control over your emotions and thoughts. They can help you navigate your days and your relationships.
It’s normal to be triggered or have flashbacks to your trauma — the following coping skills and techniques might be helpful.
Talk to someone you trust
Find your “person” — that someone you can share your innermost feelings and be vulnerable with. This can be a family member, a peer, another trauma survivor, or even a therapist. Having someone you trust, and being able to open up to them, will be an emotional relief and outlet during the especially difficult times you might face in the coming days, weeks, and months.
Reconnect with your body through meditation, dance, or yoga
Mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga can help you reconnect with your body. These are effective tools that promote relaxation. When you engage in these activities, you learn to focus on the present, which can reduce the stress and anxiety levels associated with your trauma.
Process your feelings of shame and guilt
It’s expected that you’ll have feelings of shame and guilt, even though what you went through is in no way your fault. You are not to blame for what happened to you.
Part of processing your feelings is recognizing when you’re experiencing unhelpful emotions like shame or guilt. While these types of feelings are normal, you must learn to process them so you can let go and heal. Learn more about guilt vs. shame and how to deal with these feelings.
Getting professional mental health care can be instrumental in your journey toward healing. A therapist can offer guidance and support while helping you learn coping strategies for your needs.
“Turn off the news or social media, have a safety plan, lean on your social supports, be patient and graceful with yourself, use grounding techniques, practice mindfulness, meditation and yoga, and avoid drugs and alcohol because they only numb the pain but do not help to heal.”
To move forward, first and foremost, be kind to yourself. Work toward building resilience so you can make progress and minimize the lasting effects of sexual assault. You can move forward by:
- Embracing self-compassion: Treat yourself with kindness and understanding. Be empathetic when you’re struggling. Acknowledge your pain without judgment, and remember you are not to blame.
- Establishing a support network: Surround yourself with people who love and care about you. You’ll likely need to rely on them for emotional support.
- Cultivating positive emotions: Do things that bring you a sense and feeling of joy and happiness. Spend time with loved ones or start (or pick back up) hobbies that fulfill you.
- Keeping a healthy perspective: Remember that healing is not linear. You’re going to have ups and downs along the way. Be patient and keep perspective so you can recognize progress, but understand this will take time.
- Set realistic goals: You won’t go from experiencing trauma to being fully healed overnight. Set small, attainable goals along the way. For example, a goal might be sleeping through the night, eating 3 healthy meals one day, or sitting alone in a public place. Small steps will add up to significant growth.
Embark on a Path to Healing with Talkspace
Talkspace is an online therapy platform that offers professional support and resources for survivors of sexual trauma and their loved ones. You can connect with an experienced and qualified therapist who specializes in healing sexual trauma so you can start on your path toward healing.
Learn more about how you can get one-on-one sessions with a licensed Talkspace therapist. Your road to recovery will be long and likely filled with some challenges, but having the proper support and professional guidance can make all the difference.
- Violence against women. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/violence-against-women. Published March 9, 2021. Accessed April 21, 2023.
- Rostaminejad A, Alishapour M, Jahanfar A, Fereidouni Z, Behnammoghadam M. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing as a therapy for rape victims: A case series. Clinical Case Reports. 2022;10(3). doi:10.1002/ccr3.5620. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ccr3.5620. Accessed April 21, 2023.
- Price C. BODY-ORIENTED THERAPY IN RECOVERY FROM CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE: AN EFFICACY STUDY. Altern Ther Health Med. 2007;11(5):46-57. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1933482/. Accessed April 21, 2023.
- Heard E, Walsh D. Group therapy for survivors of adult sexual assault: A scoping review. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse. 2021;24(2):886-898. doi:10.1177/15248380211043828. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/15248380211043828. April 21, 2023.
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