Coordinated Community Response Column

Victims/survivors of sexual assault sometimes develop long-term after-effects from the trauma they experienced. In the early years of the sexual assault movement this condition was called “Rape Trauma Syndrome.” Today we recognize these symptoms as meeting the criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Although we commonly associate this with war veterans it applies in other situations as well.

According to the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, this diagnosis is given to someone who has been exposed to a traumatic event in which they experienced, witnessed or was confronted with an event that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others and the person’s response involved intense fear, helplessness or horror. For many people a sexual assault is this kind of traumatic event.

The traumatic event is also re-experienced in one of a number of ways:

• intrusive thoughts – the victim can’t seem to stop his/herself from thinking about the assault, or seeing images in their mind;

• recurrent dreams/nightmares about the assault or other similar situations in which they are being hurt and have no control;

• acting/feeling like the traumatic event is happening now through flashbacks, body memories, olfactory memories;

• a strong emotional reaction when exposed to things that remind the victim of the trauma – a victim who is assaulted by someone in an elevator gets intensely upset every time they see an elevator, or a picture of an elevator;

• a strong physical reaction when exposed to things that remind the victim of the trauma – increased heart rate, perspiration, body pain when seeing the elevator.

Sexual assault victims with PTSD persistently avoid things that remind them of the trauma. These are coping mechanisms to help avoid the trauma:

• avoiding thoughts, feelings or conversations about the assault – “I don’t need to talk about what happened, I’m fine”;

• isolating oneself – avoiding sex, not wanting to go out anymore;

• inability to remember an important aspect of the trauma – denial and repression of memories;

• losing interest in significant activities – the victim may have depression;

• a sense of a foreshortened future – doesn’t expect to be married, have children, have a normal life;

• difficulty falling or staying asleep;

• irritability or burst of anger;

• difficulty concentrating;

• hyper-vigilance – the victim is on guard to avoid being assaulted again;

• exaggerated startle response – a noise, certain touch, sudden movement can make the victim jump.

Not all victims have these symptoms; some may have a few, while others seem to be paralyzed from what has happened to them. If you recognize these symptoms in yourself or someone you care about, call the Door County Sexual Assault Center at 920.746.8996. We are here to listen and support and can refer you to additional resources.

This article is brought to you in part by the Door County Coordinated Community Response (CCR) to Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Teams and the Door County Elder and Adult-at-Risk Interdisciplinary Team.