Anyone who survives a serious traumatic event can potentially develop symptoms of the mental health condition called post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. However, research shows that survivors of sexual assault have especially strong chances of eventually qualifying for a PTSD diagnosis. If you have the disorder, you may involuntarily relive or re-experience the source of your trauma if you’re exposed to anything that triggers memories of that trauma. Fortunately, therapies exist that can help you overcome your sexual assault-related PTSD triggers.
Post-traumatic stress disorder occurs when you develop four types of symptoms in the aftermath of a traumatic event. Broadly speaking, these symptoms are:
- Unwanted re-experiencing or reliving of a traumatic event, which may or may not be the result of exposure to specific triggers
- A compelling urge to avoid anything that could serve as a trauma trigger
- Hypersensitivity or hyperarousal of your nervous system caused by loss of control over your “fight-or-flight” response
- Negative changes in your everyday mood or ability to think clearly
PTSD symptoms can begin to appear shortly after your exposure to a traumatic event. However, doctors only diagnose these symptoms as post-traumatic stress disorder 30 days or more after such an event. In the 30 days immediately following trauma exposure, you may qualify for a diagnosis of a closely related condition called acute stress disorder (ASD), which can morph into PTSD.
PTSD and Sexual Assault
Most people who live through major trauma don’t develop PTSD. Unfortunately, survivors of sexual assault and rape have particularly high chances of experiencing symptoms of the disorder. In fact, the overwhelming majority of rape victims experience at least some PTSD symptoms within just two weeks, even though they can’t receive an official diagnosis in such a brief span of time. Almost a third of all women continue to experience their symptoms nine months after being raped. Overall, more than two-thirds of all victims of sexual assault and rape develop stress reactions that qualify as moderate or severe.
Sexual Assault and PTSD Triggers
PTSD triggers can be anything that causes a person with post-traumatic stress disorder to experience a flare-up of symptoms. The types of triggers than provoke such a reaction can vary widely from person to person. However, they commonly include such things as:
- Witnessing an event or situation that reminds you of the source of your trauma
- Seeing images that remind you of your traumatic experience
- Visiting places that remind you of your traumatic experience
- Hearing words or phrases that act as trauma reminders
In a study published in 2005 in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy, a team of British researchers explored the connection between unwanted memories in survivors of sexual assault and the severity of PTSD symptoms. These researchers found that assault survivors who are easily and frequently triggered by visual reminders of their trauma can experience a sharp increase in their symptom intensity.
Survivors of sexual assault and other forms of serious trauma are often able to recover from PTSD with the help of a form of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT. The National Institute of Mental Health notes two forms of CBT that may prove useful for battling PTSD triggers. One approach, called exposure therapy, teaches you to defuse your trauma reactions by safely, gradually exposing yourself to situations, places, images, etc., known to trigger your symptoms. The second approach, called cognitive restructuring, helps you understand triggering memories and view them in a new, health-supporting context. Other forms of psychotherapy may also help you overcome the effects of PTSD in the aftermath of a sexual assault. Resources National Institute of Mental Health: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtml U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – National Center for PTSD: Sexual Assault Against Females https://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/PTSD-overview/women/sexual-assault-females.asp Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network: Victims of Sexual Violence – Statistics https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence Behaviour Research and Therapy: Unwanted Memories of Assault – What Intrusion Characteristics Are Associated With PTSD? https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0005796704001135