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Recovering from a Sexual Assault

It's important for you to know that any of the feelings after being sexually assaulted are normal and temporary reactions to a traumatic event. Fear and confusion will lessen with time, but the trauma may disrupt your life for a while. Reactions might be triggered by people, places, or things connected to the assault, or they might seem to come from “out of the blue.”

Talking about the assault can help you feel better, but it may be really hard to do. In fact, it’s common to want to avoid conversations and situations that may remind you of the assault. You may have a sense of wanting to “get on with life” and “let the past be the past.” This is a normal part of the recovery process and may last for weeks or months.

Eventually you will need to deal with fears and feelings in order to heal and regain a sense of control over your life. Talking with someone who can listen in an understanding and affirming ways – whether it’s a friend, member of your place of worship or community, family member, hotline-staff member, or counselor – is a key part of the healing process.

Recovering from a sexual assault is a gradual process that is different for everyone. Victims/survivors may have different needs and coping strategies, so there is not a set timeline for healing. There are many decisions to be made and many feelings to be expressed. Not all of the decisions or feelings will need to be handled at once, but rather as recovery progresses. This is a brief outline of the recovery process that many, but not necessarily all, victims/survivors go through.

See Survivor Rights 

Common Feelings After Being Assaulted

Sexual assault is a traumatic event, and we all handle traumatic events in different ways. Though each person and situation is unique, the following list summarizes the possible range of reactions to sexual assault. This list may help you know what's normal to expect.

  • Emotional shock: I feel so numb. Why am I so calm? Why can’t I cry?
  • Disbelief or denial: Did it really happen? Why me? Maybe I imagined it. It wasn’t really a sexual assault.
  • Embarrassment: What will people think? I can’t tell my family or friends.
  • Shame: I feel so dirty, like there is something wrong with me. I want to wash my hands or shower all the time. I feel like I have brought shame to my family.
  • Guilt: I feel as if it’s my fault, or I did something to make this happen. If only I had done something different.
  • Depression: How am I going to get through this semester? I’m so tired. I feel so helpless.
  • Suicidal thoughts: Maybe I'd be better off dead.
  • Powerlessness: Will I ever feel in control again?
  • Disorientation: I don’t even know what day it is, or what class I’m supposed to be in. I can’t remember my appointments. I keep forgetting things.
  • Triggers and flashbacks: I’m still re-living it. I keep seeing that face all the time.
  • Fear: I’m scared of everything. What if I’m pregnant? Could I get a sexually transmitted infection (STI), or even HIV? How can I ever feel safe again? Do people realize there’s anything wrong? I can’t sleep because I know I'll have nightmares. I’m afraid I'm going crazy. I’m afraid to go outside. I'm afraid to be alone.
  • Anxiety: I’m having panic attacks. I can’t breathe! I just can’t stop shaking. I can’t sit still in class anymore. I feel overwhelmed.
  • Anger: I want to kill the person who attacked me!
  • Isolation: It may be difficult, at first, to feel comfortable with intimacy, including trusting people, exploring new relationships and enjoying sexual activity, if you choose to be sexually active. Understand that this may take time. Resist being pressured to be sexually active before you are ready.
  • Physical stress: My stomach (or head or back) aches all the time. I feel jittery and don’t feel like eating.

Adapted from University of Texas Counseling and Health Center

You may go from feeling emotionally drained, confused, and out of control to trying to forget what happened. You may begin distancing yourself from the sexual assault and outwardly appear “recovered,” but friends and family members’ support is still needed.

Many victims/survivors seek assistance from trained professionals who can help to put their lives back together and recover from stress related to the assault.

Remember, you are not to blame, even if…

  • The perpetrator was an acquaintance, date, friend, or spouse.
  • You have been sexually intimate with the perpetrator or with others before.
  • You were drinking or using drugs.
  • You froze and did not or could not say “no,” or were unable to fight back physically.
  • You were wearing clothes that others could perceive as seductive.

Regardless of the circumstances, sexual assault is not your fault.

Ways to Take Care of Yourself

  • Get support from friends, family, and community members. Try to identify people you trust who will validate your feelings and affirm your strengths.
  • Talk about the assault and express feelings. Choose when, where, and with whom to talk about the assault, and only disclose information that feels safe for you to reveal.
  • Use stress-reduction techniques. Exercise by jogging, doing aerobics, walking and practice relaxation techniques such as doing yoga, listening to music and meditating.
  • Maintain a balanced diet and a normal sleep cycle as much as possible and avoid overusing stimulants like caffeine, sugar, nicotine, or alcohol or other drugs.
  • Discover your playful and creative self. Playing and creativity are important for healing from hurt.
  • Take “time outs.” Give yourself permission to take quiet moments to reflect, relax and rejuvenate, especially during times you feel stressed or unsafe.
  • Try reading. Reading can be a relaxing and healing activity.
  • Consider writing or journaling as a way of expressing your thoughts and feelings.
  • Consider counseling. Our UW-Green Bay Wellness Center and the Local Sexual Assault Center are available for counseling and support services.

Adapted from UHS Website @UW- Madison 7/14

Survivor Rights

Survivors have the right:

  1. To receive information as to their rights and options.
  2. To seek criminal charges and/or file a University disciplinary complaint.
  3. To request protection from harm or threat of harm arising out of cooperation with law enforcement and prosecution efforts and to be provided information on the level of protection available.
  4. To be informed of financial assistance and other support services available to survivors including information on how to apply for the assistance and services.
  5. To be informed of the outcome of any campus discipline.
  6. To have the assistance of University personnel in obtaining and securing evidence, preventing contact with the assailant and finding alternative academic and living situations.
Caitlin Henriksen, Sexual Assault Response Coordinator

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If you need help, please get in touch with Caitlin Henriksen, our Sexual Assault Response Coordinator.

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