Experiencing so many different emotions is a part of working through what has happened to you. Right now, you may wonder when you will "get your life back." Or, perhaps you are not feeling much at all. There is no right or wrong way to react to sexual assault. Many survivors have found that patience, time and support from others has helped them recover. Your local rape crisis center has worked with many who have had similar experiences. A good counselor will understand and help you work through the emotional roller coaster that you may be on.
Those who work with assault survivors often use a response model, similar to the one below, to outline how people commonly react to traumatic events. There is, however, no "recovery calendar." Individuals pass through recovery stages in their own way, sometimes skipping back and forth between stages. This model merely offers you a framework for understanding the emotions and reactions you may have as you heal from the assault. For more information or support contact your local rape crisis center.
Working Through Common Reactions to Traumatic Events
Initial Crisis: For the first few days or weeks, the assault may seem unreal. You may feel numb or you may experience intense or heightened emotions. You might even have physical symptoms of shock such as feeling weak, nauseated, moving slowly, nightmares or inability to sleep. There is nothing wrong or unusual about these kinds of reactions.
Outward Adjustment: This is a time when pressure to "get on with your life" might come from within or from others in your life. Many survivors appear, on the outside, to have forgotten about the rape or be satisfactorily "dealing with it" as they deal with practical matters such as returning to school, work or other normal routines. Sometimes well-intentioned family members, friends or significant others encourage this. You may find yourself trying to block the experience out of your memory. This can be an important and self protective coping mechanism for the short term.
Secondary Crisis: For many people, something happens in their life (a trigger) which may make their previous coping mechanisms ineffective, causing them to face the assault. Acknowledging the assault may be quite painful. What formerly seemed unreal or was denied, may become very real to you. Survivors of sexual assault describe feeling depressed and/or having flashbacks or obsessive thoughts about the assault. You may replay the assault or parts of the assault in your mind many times. You may also experience intense anger. Again, it is important to remember that these responses are completely normal.
Integration: You are changed by the assault, but have integrated the experience as one among many life experiences. You may feel as though you have survived the assault and have dealt with the thoughts and emotions of the trauma. You may still spend time thinking about and talking about the assault, but may find that when triggers and flashbacks occurs, the feelings surrounding the experience do not last long and may become less intense over time.
Healing is possible; however it will take work. You may need the support of the loved ones or the help of caring professionals. Remember that others have gone through this and you are not alone.
MDVPTB is grateful to the Michigan Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence (MCADSV) for allowing us to excerpt this information from their publication, "A Handbook For Survivors Of Sexual Assault."