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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

Healing from Assault

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Sexual assault can be extremely traumatic and life-changing. Responses of survivors of an assault or attempted assault will vary from individual to individual. Some are very calm, and others are visibly distraught. It's important to remember that your responses are not crazy; they are normal reactions to a crazy situation.

There are a variety of ways to help the healing process. Acknowledge, rather than judge, your own emotional reactions and how they affect your life and your relationships with other people. It is important to try to identify people and spaces where you can begin to feel safe talking about your responses. Committee Against Domestic Abuse (CADA) provides 24-hour crisis interverntion, legal advocacy, individual and group therapy, and healing and support. Counseling services are also important resources. MSU Counseling Center provides free counseling to students. 

Common Responses

Survivors in the healing process do not follow specific patterns of behavior or healing, but here are some common responses that survivors may feel:

1. Loss of control over your own life

The assailant stepped into your life and took control. You did not have a choice and did what you needed to do to survive. You may feel unsure and temporarily lack your normal self-confidence. Decisions that were made routinely before now may feel monumental. You may feel that the assailant has taken away all your control and your normal life, leaving you feeling used, dirty, or bad.

Helpful ideas:

  • Try to spend time with your friends, family, and people you trust.

  • Learning to trust others takes time and support. Not trusting others is a temporary coping mechanism. You will be able to trust when you have had time to heal and are feeling less vulnerable.

  • It's okay to experience different feelings. Trust what you're feeling and talk to trusted support people.

2. Anxiety, shaking, nightmares

These can begin shortly after the attack and may continue for a long period of time. Nightmares can replay the assault, or they can replay feelings of being chased or other nightmares. You may feel that you are losing it and that you should be over it by now.

Helpful ideas:

  • These responses, scary as they are, are normal reactions to trauma and can be the way your emotions act out the fear you experienced.

  • It is important to talk about the nightmares & fears and how they affect your life.
  • Keeping a journal and writing about feelings, fears, & dreams can be a useful tool.

3. Sexual concerns

You may experience a variety of sexual concerns after an assault. You may want no physical or sexual contact. You may need intimacy, like nurturing, holding, etc. You may experience some confusion about separating sex from sexual violence, particularly sexual acts with your significant other that may provoke flashbacks of the attack. You may experience confusion about the way you used to feel about sex and how you do now.

Helpful ideas:

  • Healing takes time. Retreating sexually is a normal coping mechanism.

  • It is okay to ask your significant other to be patient and gentle, to nurture you, and to understand your discomfort with sexual contact.

  • You have a right to refuse to be sexual until you feel ready.

  • Rape is not sex. Intimate, consensual sex bears no resemblance to sexual violence. 

4. Guilt, shame, self-blame

Many survivors feel guilty and ashamed about the assault. You may question that you somehow may have provoked or asked for it, or that you should have known what was going to happen, or that you shouldn't have trusted the assailant, or that you should have somehow prevented the assault. Some of these are the result of society's myths about rape and sexuality. You may know what society believes and worry about what others may think of you. Sometimes blaming yourself helps you feel less helpless. Victim-blaming is prevalent for many reasons; one reason is that if someone can pinpoint what they think "brought on" the attack, they believe that all they need to do is avoid those behaviors to keep safe. Realistically, the only person who can prevent a rape is the rapist.

Helpful ideas:

  • No one deserves to be sexually assaulted. Tell yourself that many times a day. It is not your fault.

  • Being assaulted does not make you a bad person. You did not choose to be sexually assaulted.

  • Educating yourself about the facts surrounding sexual assault may be helpful in dispelling shame and self-blame.

  • You have done the best you could to survive the incident, and you are in the process of healing. 

5. Anger

Anger is an appropriate, healthy response to sexual violence. It usually means you are healing and have begun to look at the assailant's responsibility for the assault. People vary greatly in how readily they feel and express anger. It may especially be difficult to express anger if you have been taught that being angry is not okay. Anger needs to be vented, but in appropriate ways. You may also turn your anger inward, which would be recognized as sadness, pain, or depression.

Helpful ideas:

  • Anger can be worked out physically without harming yourself or others. Go for a walk, run, shoot baskets, bike, hit pillows, journal, etc.

  • Anger needs to be directed at the assailant, not yourself.

Should I Tell My Family?

How, when, and if you tell your parents, relatives, or loved ones about the assault are decisions you will have to make. Talking with a counselor or advocate can help you work through these decisions. Every survivor’s situation is different.

Not all survivors will tell their family members about a sexual assault. However, when you spend time with your family, they may notice you are acting differently or realize something is troubling you. You may want to think about what you will say if family members ask you if anything is wrong. It can be helpful to talk through how you might respond.

Your family can provide support, assistance, and encouragement. Because they are your family, they may also try to protect you or make decisions for you. The reasons for doing this are varied, but it may feel suffocating, stifling, and controlling. It’s important for them to understand you need to make decisions for yourself. Your family will also be dealing with their own emotional responses to the sexual assault, which may limit their ability to assist you. You may end up worrying about how they are handling the assault rather than taking care of your own needs. This may be especially true if your family expresses their anger by saying things like, “I’m going to find that guy and kill him!” These kinds of statements may not only make you upset but also lead you to believe that because you were assaulted you’ve caused problems for your family. Remember: The assault was not your fault.

Some families may not deal in a positive manner with the assault. They may not talk about it, not want you to talk about it, and try to keep it a secret from others. They may also request that you not tell anyone that you were assaulted, which may make you feel ashamed or guilty. Remember: the assault was not your fault.

Try to talk as openly as possible with your family about how you feel. Some survivors have found it helpful to speak with only one family member and have that one tell others in the family what happened. If you are having a difficult time with your parents, consult the resources available at your school. There are places and people who can assist you.

Many get through each day by taking it minute by minute. Surrounding yourself with safe people who believe and support you can be very helpful.

Information adapted from: The Advocacy Center at Syracuse University