Defense Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms protect a person from emotional pain. You many use a defense mechanism and not be aware of it. Survivors often know they are doing something differently but are not sure why and may feel ashamed. When people are in impossible situations, with no way out, what they do to survive does not always look good or even make sense. At some point you will not need the defense mechanism anymore and you will use healthier ways to cope. You don't need to be hard on yourself.

Denial or pretending nothing happened

Being raped can be so shocking that a survivor may not be able to find somewhere in their brain to put the experience. Some survivors call the rape something else or find a way to say it was not that bad, and some literally put the fact that they were assaulted out of their heads. You may be able to pretend you were never assaulted but still have the strong feelings of the crisis phase of Rape Trauma Syndrome, which can be very confusing. Be patient and gentle with yourself. Do not force yourself to remember or to talk about what happened if you are not ready.

Suicidal thoughts/plans/actions

If you are in a situation where you feel afraid and isolated and you see no way out, thinking about suicide may seem reasonable. Many survivors say that their feelings are so strong and hard to express that they cannot imagine any other way to show how they are feeling. Even if you are not ready to talk about the sexual assault, please consider talking to someone you trust about your thoughts of killing yourself. Please seek help if you are having any suicidal ideation and call 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.


Sometimes, survivors cut, burn, hit, or starve themselves. Self-harm can provide a release of tension. The physical pain can be a momentary relief from the emotional pain. The act of hurting yourself can also make you feel, for a moment, like you are back in control of your body. However, the self-harm very quickly makes most survivors feel more out of control and becomes a new problem. Please consider talking to someone if you are hurting yourself. You deserve not to be hurt anymore.


Risky behavior

For some survivors, creating danger is another way of harming themselves or taking their own lives. For some survivors, this relieves some of the feelings of helplessness because of the rush of a dangerous situation. Becoming more sexually active than before or deciding never to be sexual again.

Some survivors feel like they will never be able to feel good about being sexual again, and some survivors start having much more sex than before the assault. Most people understand the first reaction and are confused by the second. For some survivors, it feels like saying “no” did not work, so it is hopeless or dangerous to try. For other survivors, going after sexual activity feels like the best way to reclaim some power and control again. Some survivors may try to have a positive sexual experience in order to erase the rape.

Alcohol and/or drug use

Many survivors use alcohol and other drugs to numb their feelings or to get through the day. Many survivors find that getting drunk or high helps them survive in the short term, but the alcohol or drug use quickly becomes a problem that makes things worse and makes the survivor feel even less in control. Support for recovering from addictions may be available in your community. You can get the support of a group, whether you are ready to talk about the rape or not. Remember that the 12 Steps used in Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous were not written about healing from sexual assault, although they can be helpful for a sexual assault survivor who has an addiction.

Dissociating or spacing out

Most survivors dissociate to some extent in response to stress, danger, or very strong feelings. Spacing out can be the only way to “escape,” especially if you have survived multiple assaults. Mentally escaping can become a problem when it begins to happen often or is out of your control.

If you find yourself missing chunks of time, ending up in places to which you do not remember going, or hearing that you did or said things you do not remember, you may be dissociating. Seeking mental health help is important when it feels safe to do so or if you are dissociating so much that it is
interrupting your life.

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