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Unveiling the Unseen Wounds of Trauma: Exploring the Physical, Psychological, and Emotional Impact of Sexual Violence

For survivors of sexual violence, the experience does not necessarily end when the event does…but instead leaves a lasting impact on the individual. The consequences can be both mental and physical, and the complexities that lie beneath are vast. Survivors will likely have display similar types of symptoms, but each person will have their own, unique experience. For this reason, we need to be aware of the many things to look out for in ourselves and loved ones. Let’s look at how sexual violence can impact an individual on a physical, psychological, and emotional level.


Physical:


The physical impact of sexual violence may be the most overlooked of all the symptoms. In the immediate aftermath of sexual violence, dealing with physical concerns typically takes precedence. Ensuring that the survivor is physically safe from the perpetrator is first priority. Once their immediate proximity is safe, one should also check for any injuries that indicate the need for medical attention (i.e. wounds, tears, cuts, bruises, etc.). In cases of rape, a survivor may need to speak to a doctor about concerns of pregnancy, STIs, or HIV. What about some of the longer lasting impacts on the body? Survivors may notice changes in eating and sleeping habits. For example, lack of appetite and insomnia. We may also see an individual engaging in self-harm as a coping mechanism. Self-harm often occurs in response to emotional or psychological distress, but regardless, it impacts physical health. As you can see, there is a connection between all three domains. The physical toll of sexual violence underscores the urgent need for comprehensive support and resources to address the myriad ways it impacts survivors' well-being.



Psychological


When we’re thinking about the psychological implications of sexual violence, there is far more at play than just PTSD. However, understanding what PTSD looks like is essential in these cases. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can occur when an individual has exposure to (either directly or indirectly) actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence. PTSD symptoms can fall into 4 categories:


Intrusive Symptoms:

·         Distressing Memories

·         Nightmares

·         Flashbacks


Avoidance Symptoms:

·         Avoidance of thoughts, feelings, and memories

·         Avoidance of external reminders (i.e. triggers like particular people, places, situations)


Negative Alteration of Mood and Cognition:

·         Trouble remembering details of the event

·         Negative belief about self, others, and the world

·         Distorted beliefs about blame

·         Negative emotional state

·         Feelings of detachment

·         Inability to experience positive emotions  


Arousal Symptoms:

·         Increased irritability

·         Reckless or self-destructive behavior

·         Hypervigilance

·         Exaggerated startle response

·         Sleep disturbance

·         Trouble concentrating


Individuals who survived a traumatic encounter may experience any number or combination of these symptoms. It is also important to note that not all individuals who experience trauma or sexual violence go on to develop PTSD. It is quite possible to report symptoms of PTSD without meeting full criteria for a diagnosis. In addition to the psychological consequences that fall under PTSD, other common issues include:


·         Panic attacks

·         Depression

·         Anxiety

·         Eating disorders

·         Substance use

·         Phobias

·         Isolation

·         Low self esteem

·         Relationship issues

·         Setting boundaries


Emotional


Because the experience of sexual violence can completely shake up an individual’s beliefs about themselves, the world, and others; it’s not surprising that the emotional impact can be riddled with deeply negative and confusing emotions. Our core beliefs shape how we view the world, and therefore shape our emotional response. The areas most impacted by trauma are: safety, trust, power, control, esteem, and intimacy. For a survivor of sexual violence, trying to make sense of these topics, the event, why it happened, and their new worldview can be challenging. This often leads to emotions such as:


·         Guilt/Shame

·         Self-blame

·         Embarrassment

·         Fear

·         Distrust

·         Sadness

·         Vulnerability

·         Anger

·         Numb

·         Confused

·         Shock

·         Disbelief

·         Denial


Facing the aftermath of sexual violence alone can feel challenging, yet with appropriate assistance and support, you can work towards healing. For both survivors and their supporters, understanding the physical, emotional, and psychological impact of sexual violence is crucial to an informed path of recovery.  By acknowledging and comprehending these implications, we can advocate for greater awareness. It is also equally important to take tangible steps towards healing. Seeking out therapy and professional support can provide a much-needed safe space to process trauma, rebuild resilience, and set forth on a journey towards healing and empowerment.


Resources:

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).


 

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