Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS) describes the feelings, thoughts, reactions or symptoms that frequently occur after a sexual assault. Every survivor is unique and will experience RTS in their own way depending on previous experience with trauma, resources, life experiences, and personality. Rape Trauma Syndrome is a type of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In fact, many mental health professionals use the term “PTSD” to describe “RTS”.
Survivors often feel like they are “going crazy.” Healing takes time and sometimes the process is scary and overwhelming. With support you can heal. The hurt you feel in the aftermath of an assault will not last forever. Remember, Rape Trauma Syndrome and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are essentially normal reactions to an abnormal level of stress.
Rape Trauma Syndrome has three phases that last different lengths of time for each person. You might experience them in order, or you might find that you go back and forth. They are called phases because they do not last forever.
1 - Crisis Phase
- The crisis phase usually occurs right after the assault or when the survivor remembers or begins to think about the assault for the first time. The survivor’s life is disrupted and they are left feeling overwhelmed, disoriented, and unable to cope.
- Unfortunately, this is also when survivors are expected to report the crime, especially if evidence is more effectively gathered for physical evidence. Making such complicated decisions right now is often impossible. Most survivors are unable to process the assault, much less make decisions about disclosing and reporting.
- Survivors may experience a wide range of emotions, including fear, anger, hurt, shock, sadness, self-blame, relief, and shame.
- A survivor who is expressing their feelings may cry, laugh, shake or yell. A survivor who is controlling their emotions may feel numb or seem too quiet, or even “robotic”. This does not mean the assault did not affect them.
- Daily tasks become difficult to manage. Bathing, grooming, eating, and sleeping are often disrupted. Some survivors eat, sleep or bathe a lot more than usual while some are unable to do any or all of these activities.
- Concentration and decision making are difficult or impossible. Survivors may have no energy or, on the other hand, may feel driven to stay very busy.
- The assault is often relived in nightmares, flashbacks, by replaying it or in unwanted thoughts that feel out of control. Sometimes the nightmares, flashbacks or thoughts can be so real that it feels like the rape is happening again.
- Survivors experience “hypervigilance,” which means being super alert or feeling jumpy and anxious. Hypervigilance is not paranoia. It is natural to be fearful because you should have been safe and you were not. You may feel afraid even in situations where you felt safe before.
- You may worry that you will never feel safe again.
2 - Adjustment Phase
- To others it could look as if the survivor has adjusted. Survivors in this phase feel a need to “get back to normal” and go on with life.
- Grooming, eating, and other daily tasks might return to normal. However, trouble sleeping is still very common.
- The intensity of emotions seems to fade. Nightmares and flashbacks probably still happen, but less frequently and require stronger triggers.
- You might decide to talk about the assault at this time, to ask for counseling, to tell someone about it or to ask for accommodations such as time-off, class schedule change, or a change in living arrangements. Conversely, you might also decide to repress, or try to forget about the assault. Either is an attempt to regain control over your life.
- Survivors often try to avoid reminders of the assault. Unlike during the crisis phase, when everything was a reminder, avoidance might be possible if you are able to stay away from people, places or situations that bring up strong feelings.
- Deep feelings may surface after the initial crisis has passed and you fully realize what has happened. Sadness and hopelessness that look like depression are common. You might cry often, lose interest in activities or programs or even feel like hurting or killing yourself. If you are thinking about harming yourself, it is really important to talk to someone.
- Maybe you feel like you can function, but you are not really better. Many survivors describe this as “just existing” or feeling “like a robot.”
- Anger often comes up during adjustment. You may feel angry with yourself, the perpetrator or your living situation. Some survivors feel angry with everything. Anger can be scary, especially if it is hard to find any healthy way to express it. Anger can also be the feeling that gives you the energy to heal.
- Many survivors feel bad about themselves; they have lower self-esteem than before the assault. You may blame yourself, or feel guilty or feel so ashamed that you begin to believe that you deserved to be assaulted.
- After the initial crisis, it is normal to begin to question your sexual orientation, your feelings about sexuality or your desire to be sexual again. Sex is a strong reminder of the assault and can be a difficult trigger.
- If you are in a situation where you are being assaulted regularly, you may not fully get to the outward adjustment stage until you are away from the abusive situation. You may feel like you are living somewhere between the first and second phases.
- Many survivors report that they feel like they were one person before the assault and are another person after the assault. Integration is when you accept the sexual assault as part of your life experience and bring together the best aspects of those two halves of yourself in a way that works for you.
- Finding positive ways to cope with what happened to you can help when strong feelings surface. Difficult feelings are normal and practicing grounding techniques or self-care can help alleviate those feelings. Everything you have done and gone through since the rape is part of the journey to integration.
- Some survivors report that they like themselves and their lives better now than before the assault. That does not mean they are glad they were raped. It means that they take joy in their own healing process. They were able to take something terrible and make good come out of it.
- The healing process after a sexual assault may take months or years.
3 - Reactivation of Crisis
The second or third phases may be temporarily interrupted by a reactivation of crisis. The feelings of the crisis phase seem to come back and can be triggered by sights, smells, sounds, situations or memories.
- Triggers are like buttons to the trauma. At first, it may feel like everything is a trigger. As time goes on, triggers will have to be much stronger to reactivate a crisis.
- A reactivation of crisis is an important part of the healing process. Every time you work back through the phases you will gain skills and strengths that improve your life and health.
- A reactivation of crisis does not mean you are back at square one of the healing process. All the good work you have done remains within you.
- If you have experienced other traumatic events, such as childhood abuse, you may find that you go into crisis about that as well as the recent sexual assault.
- Another important time to reach out for support is when a crisis is reactivated. healing is possible.
it won’t always hurt as much as it does right now.