Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is commonly associated with the aftermath that soldiers may experience after returning home from war. While this is entirely true, soldiers are not the only ones who experience this debilitating illness. PTSD can also affect those who have experienced sexual assault, and it’s important to recognize this truth in a similarly important manner.
RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) defines PTSD as “an anxiety disorder that can result from a traumatic event…it can apply to survivors of any type of trauma, including sexual violence.” While it is impossible to blanket trauma survivors under all of the exact same symptoms, RAINN lists three primary symptoms that someone with this disorder experiences:
- Re-experiencing: feeling like you are reliving the event through flashbacks, dreams, or intrusive thoughts
- Avoidance: intentionally or subconsciously changing your behavior to avoid scenarios associated with the event, or losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Hyper-arousal: feeling “on edge” all of the time, having difficulty sleeping, being easily startled, or prone to sudden outbursts.
While anyone can be a victim of sexual assault, a study that specifically focused on women who had been assaulted claimed that nearly all (94 out of 100) women went through these three major symptoms within the first two weeks after the assault, and nine months later 30 of the 100 were still experiencing PTSD symptoms.
While it is normal to experience a flooding of emotions after a traumatic experience, the key difference with people who have PTSD is that those feelings of distress, fear, helplessness, guilt, shame, or anger don’t go away even a month after the incident occurs. PTSD is a disorder that can often interrupt the conduct of day-to-day life. It can often occur with depression, substance abuse, or the onset of other anxiety disorders, and it can often negatively affect close relationships with family and friends.
When understanding PTSD, it is also important to understand what a “trigger” is as well. Often times for people with PTSD, memories can commonly be triggered by sights, sounds, smells, or feelings that person may experience. Such triggers can bring back those traumatic memories, often causing both physical and emotional reactions.
Fortunately, PTSD has been treated in various ways with much success. Treatment will not make a person forget their memories, but it can introduce helpful coping mechanisms to use when faced with the feelings that the memories bring up. Psychotherapy, medicine, support groups, and self-care are all treatments used in varying combinations to help manage the symptoms in day-to-day life. (For more details on these treatments, please visit Mental Health America’s site on PTSD.) It is important to remain in support of the person in need and to also encourage them to seek guidance from professionals who are trained to help.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673, or chat online at online.rainn.org.
And if you or someone you know is depressed or having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.