Ongoing effects of sexual abuse can be traumatising and debilitating.
Some of the more common effects are described below.
Being frightened and hypervigilant (jumpy)
Feeling frightened after sexual abuse or assault makes sense because frightening experiences leave us with a residue of fear. This constant fear intensifies your nervous system. It stays on alert until you can relax and feel safe in the world again. Some people try to beat the fear by doing things that are risky, believing that this proves that they are in control rather than the fear.
Better ways to manage the fear are to:
- Allow yourself to need to feel safe for a while regardless of what that means, like not staying in the house alone.
- Learn deep, slow breathing techniques to relax your body. Do this twenty times a day, particularly after any jumpiness.
- Notice the physical manifestations of the fear rather than just feeling it. This wakes up a different part of the brain, which puts you more back in control. Think to yourself, “I notice that I feel frozen, that my lungs feel stuck and I’m only breathing half way…” Keep noticing the physical changes in your body and the fear will reduce, unless you are in a situation which is constantly triggering, in which case, best to get out of it as soon as you are able.
If you live with fear for long enough, it can have longer lasting impacts. For example, you might be diagnosed with anxiety and offered medication to help manage it. If you do feel like this, it is also important to seek help to ease the fears that underlie the anxiety.
Flashbacks and Nightmares
Flashbacks are sudden memories of an event that you experienced as terrifying. They might be visual memories, or smell (olfactory) memories or touch (tactile) memories. They might be whole sequences of an event or just a fragment. You might know what happened in your current environment to trigger the flashback, or it might seem to come out of nowhere.
It is very common to have flashbacks after sexual assault, particularly if you were really scared during the assault. When we feel like this, our brain stores memories in a different place than usual. One way to think of flashbacks is that it is your brain trying to get that memory over to the right storage place.
If you generally feel safe, flashbacks might occur over a few days, weeks or months and then they will stop. However, for some people they don’t stop, but get worse. The problem is that these memories usually bring high levels of anxiety with them, and every time your nervous system goes to that place, it can cause more harm. So, if you are having lots of flashbacks and not feeling safe enough for some processing to occur, they might get more frequent.
There are two things that you can do to help yourself with flashbacks:
- Plan your life so you spend as much time as possible feeling safe and relaxed. This might seem difficult given what’s happened to you, but even little bits of time feeling safe count. This is particularly important after a flashback. Try taking a deep breath and consciously letting out as much tension as you can.
- Focus on separating out the past from the present to whatever degree that you can during, or after, the flashback. Remind yourself that the memory and feeling belong to the past and it is not what is happening now.
Seeing a counsellor can also help. Flashbacks can continue because we can’t tolerate the feelings they bring up so we suppress them. Having someone help you with feeling safe can help you to get less stressed with flashbacks so that they take their natural course to decrease over time.
Sometimes the flashbacks come as nightmares. If this happens to you, develop a plan for how you will comfort yourself if you wake in this state. Have a light handy or call someone. You could watch a show or read a magazine to go back to sleep without going back into the nightmare. Some people find that if they take time to repeatedly think through the content of the nightmare in the day when they feel safe, and add a safe ending, this can help to change the ending of the nightmare, or turn it into just a bad dream.
Cutting and Risk-Taking
Some people cut themselves or do risky things as ways of managing emotional numbing or overwhelming feelings. Cutting and risk-taking can seem like they release tension or make you feel alive again, but like other methods, cutting and risk-taking can become habitual ways of coping, so it is best to intervene as early as possible before it becomes a trap. Seek help to develop other ways to manage your feelings.
We commonly use the word depression to describe those times when we feel sad or unhappy and don’t really want to do much. Most of us can handle those feelings if they are temporary and last for a few hours or a few days. It’s good just to be gentle with yourself for a while, to do things that usually bring comfort or a smile to your face and hang out with people that you enjoy being around. If depression lasts for a long period of time and robs you of interest in the pleasures of life, then it is important to get some help before it really gets a hold on you or becomes what it is known medically as a “major depressive episode”.
While there are some key things which can help you feel better (regular exercise, taking good care of your body in terms of sleeping and eating, spending time with friends, and watching out for negative thoughts about yourself, the world, or your future), when depression is a result of trauma, you often need to do more than these things. A common response to trauma is to “shut down” or become emotionally numb. This is a highway to depression because when you “numb” the bad feelings, most of the good feelings get numbed too.
Even though it probably feels like the last thing you want to do, you need to talk with someone. While you will need to talk a bit about what has made you shut down, a good counsellor won’t make you initally talk about the sexual abuse or assault
If the depression does not seem to be decreasing, the counsellor might refer you for an assessment for medication. Going on medication and continuing with counselling at the same time can be an effective way out of depression. Medication can help you to rejoin the world again so that you get some pleasure out of life and your friends and family. This can start an upward cycle of helping you feel better, in general, while the counselling helps you to deal with the underlying issues which led to the depression in the first place.
Wanting to Die
Some people who get depressed get hopeless and they struggle to see any way out of their feelings or the mess in their world that has resulted from the sexual abuse. This is not uncommon for survivors of sexual violence. It often seems easier to talk to people about other bad things that happen. You get support and feel better, but this doesn’t often happen with sexual violence. Self-blame and shame can stop survivors talking, and rape myths can stop others being supportive.
For those survivors who didn’t get much nurturing as children, reaching out to other people when you feel bad doesn’t make sense. It can be hard to understand how talking can make you feel better when it doesn’t change what happened. But another human being listening to you talk, caring about how bad you feel, and communicating that they care for you is enough to make most people feel better, even if it’s only a tiny bit at a time.
If you have thoughts about dying right now, call the Mental Health Crisis Service for your area:
Auckland West and North to Wellsford: 09 486 8900
Auckland Central: 0800 800 717
South Auckland to Te Kauwhata: 09 270 9090
Outside of Auckland: you can find the number for your area here.
If you are struggling with any of the above, please contact us right away.