Recovery and Reactions to Sexual Assault

Steps Towards Recovery

Feelings, Common Reactions and Options for Support

Each survivor of sexual assault responds uniquely and differently. The process of recovery will vary upon the individual, with reactions lasting for days, months or years after the assault took place. The reaction and response to the trauma may be immediate or delayed for an unknown period of time. Listed below are some common patterns of those who have experienced sexual assault. Please remember that any response, either listed or not listed below, is normal in the way that the body and mind respond to this kind of traumatic event. One may experience all, some or none of the following:

  • Physical responses such as a change in eating habits, fatigue, headaches, substance abuse, immune system responses, nightmares, muscular tension and soreness.
  • Emotional responses such as anger, anxiety, guilt, shame, disgust, helplessness, hopelessness, fear, mood swings, self-blame, depressions, obsessions and/ or compulsions.
  • Common thoughts such as being confused, wondering what others will now think of them, wondering if they are now dirty or bad, having flashbacks, questioning if they deserved the assault, wondering if they will be blamed, difficulty concentrating and/ or wondering if they will be able to date anyone else again.
  • Social aspects that could change as a result of the sexual assault could be a drastic of slight change in lifestyle, difficulty completing tasks, difficulty engaging in romantic relationships, losing trust in self or others, withdrawal from friends, family and activities previously enjoyed.

Self-care for Survivors

After a sexual assault, one way for survivors to regain control and feel comfortable again is to engage in self-care. Self-care is important when trying to find a way for one to cope with a sexual assault. It includes both physical and emotional self-care. Physical self-care may include: getting adequate sleep, eating a nutritious and balanced diet, engaging in exercise and establishing a daily routine. These acts can help your body during the recovery process after an assault. Emotional self-care may include: journaling thoughts and/or feelings, spending time with those who make you feel safe and with whom provide you with support, engaging in yoga or meditation and/ or engaging in something that was enjoyed before the assault.

Individuals outside of your immediate circle may also offer support after an assault. The Student Life Office offers professional and free personal counseling to survivors of sexual assault, as well as other related concerns. To schedule an appointment to speak with a counselor, call (231) 995-1118. The local Women’s Resource Center offers counseling and advocacy to any individual, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. The Women’s Resource Center also offers various peer support groups to aid in the recovery process. Engaging in a support group is an option that can help one develop a support system with those who have shared a similar experience. They can serve as a valuable outlet to share personal experiences and self-reflection. To find out more about your local Women’s Resource Center, visit the Women's Resource Center website or call (231) 941-1210.

Healing is possible. Please remember that you are not alone and there are many survivors of what you have experienced. The recovery process is different for everyone. Outside support from those around you, including trained professionals, family and friends may be needed.

How to Respond to a Survivor of Sexual Assault

You may have a friend or loved one who has just experienced sexual assault and you are now wondering what you can say or do to be helpful. It can feel very overwhelming when someone that you care about tells you that they have been assaulted. Choosing your words carefully can make all the difference in responding to someone who has just gone through something so traumatic. Below are some steps in how you can provide words of support to your loved one.

Respond using helpful and non-judgmental statements such as:

  • “I believe you, and this does not change how I feel about you.”
  • “I’m sorry that this happened to you… it is not in any way your fault.”
  • “With what you have just told me, are you okay?”
  • “You are not alone.”
  • “Can I help you seek out a trained counseling or medical professional?”

Continue to offer support, even after the initial conversation. Ways that one can provide continued support can be shown by:

  • Being knowledgeable and familiar with local community resources to recommend to your survivor.
  • Keep in mind that the recovery process is different for each individual and unpredictable.
  • Continue to use non-critical and negative statements when communicating with a survivor.
  • Listen and be present when having a conversation; checking-in even weeks after the assault helps to remind them that what they’re going through is real and that you still care.
  • Promote activities that are helpful for their overall well-being such as getting adequate sleep, exercising and eating a balanced diet.

Being there and supporting a survivor of sexual assault can take a toll on one’s own emotional and physical health. Remember to take care of yourself, too.

The Anatomy of Trauma

After someone is sexually assaulted they may not fully remember the experience. It may be remembered in bits and pieces and may be remembered in flashbacks. This is not because the assault did not occur, the inability to remember something that is traumatic is due to how the brain processes trauma. After an assault the stress-hormone response is disturbed, the nervous system is greatly effected in its ability to process information and incorporate memories into present thought. At times, it may be difficult to decipher between the past and the present. Also, those who have experienced trauma may find it difficult to respond to incoming information. They may feel that they are disconnected with their emotions and responding appropriately. For some, an assault may leave one feeling that they are no longer in control of their thoughts, feelings and reactions. It may feel like the brain functioning is extremely chaotic. This may feel very overwhelming and uncontrollable; be mindful when interacting with someone that this has happened to. The brain has the ability to heal and that process looks different for everyone.

Myths about Sexual Assault

  • Myth: Sexual assault is caused by one’s uncontrollable sexual urges.
    Fact: Sexual Assault is not about sex, it is about the perpetrator’s need for power and control.
  • Myth: Sexual assault is committed by those who cannot control themselves due to a mental illness or disability.
    Fact: Statistics show that very few sexual assaults are planned and/or committed by those who are mentally incapacitated. Sexual assaults can be committed by anyone regardless of a relationship that may or may not exist.
  • Myth: One’s choice of clothing, use of alcohol or other substances, choice of speech or gender can be indirectly the reason why they were sexually assaulted.
    Fact: No one asked or has caused themselves to be sexually assaulted. It is always the perpetrator’s responsibility for committing the crime. Individuals of any gender, sexual orientation, age, occupation and socioeconomic status can be the victim of a sexual assault.
  • Myth: Sexual misconduct is usually the result of an individual drinking too much alcohol or using multiple substances.
    Fact: Alcohol is the most common drug that perpetrators use in carrying out a sexual assault. Drinking alcohol or engaging in any substance use is never a reason for someone to be sexually assaulted. It is never the cause for an assault, it is a tool that is used by the assailant.
  • Myth: Assaults generally occur from complete strangers.
    Fact: Perpetrators are typically acquaintances or known by the victim. Although it is possible, the number of individuals that are assaulted by strangers is statistically very low.