Michelle Pebole, MA, PhD candidate, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
Lauren Wheatley, University of New South Wales, Sydney
Bushra Sabri, PhD, Assistant Professor, Johns Hopkin University
Sexual violence, including rape, sexual assault and unwanted sexual experiences, can have many adverse physical and mental health consequences for survivors. These sadly common and traumatic experiences often lead to physical and mental health issues such as nightmares, flashbacks, depression, isolation and chronic pain. Because the abuser is often a family member, intimate partner, acquaintance, or caregiver, survivors may feel completely alone in their attempts to heal.
These effects can be treated with appropriate medical and therapeutic support. However, the COVID-19 pandemic makes the challenge of combating sexual violence even more difficult. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, sexual violence has increased dramatically in the United States and around the world, leaving many survivors to deal with the aftermath of the trauma alone.
Finding a mental health care provider can help survivors improve their mental health, and doctors can help treat physical injuries. But due to barriers such as fear of not being believed, internalized blame, high cost of services and lack of transportation, survivors of sexual violence often do not report their experiences or seek health care. formal.
Many healthcare providers now offer more accessible services through telehealth, online discussion forums and self-help resources for those who don’t want to go to the hospital. Even so, navigating the healthcare system can be complicated and frightening for survivors of sexual violence.
In addition to access to medical care, there are evidence-based strategies that can improve recovery from sexual trauma. Healing from trauma takes time and won’t happen overnight, but these strategies can be helpful in healing and creating a happy, healthy lifestyle.
Limit exposure to violence and media consumption. Movies and TV can include graphic scenes that trigger bad feelings or flashbacks. Limit your news intake, read cheerful books, and watch light-hearted TV shows.
Reconnect with your body. Sexual trauma can cause the victim to feel disconnected from their body. Getting back in touch with how your body feels can be frightening. There are several strategies that can help you feel safer and more confident. These include:
- Do some physical activity. Exercise releases hormones that make you feel good. Incorporating a mindfulness element into your exercise, such as breathing, body awareness, and muscle relaxation, can help manage anxiety and reconnect with your body.
- Meditate and practice mindfulness. Take time out of your day to be more aware of the present moment and calm the body. It can help reduce feelings of anxiety, manage stress, and make you feel calmer. Here are some examples :
- Breathing 4-7-8 – inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7, then exhale for 8
- Progressive muscle relaxation – tension and relaxation of muscle groups in the body
- Meditation – meditate on your own or explore the many books, courses and apps available to guide you
- Maintain a healthy diet. Self-care means taking care of yourself and your health, which includes eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and drinking plenty of water.
- Sleep and rest well. Make sure you give yourself time to relax. If sleep is difficult, aim for rest.
Find a social connection. Sexual trauma can cause people to feel isolated and alone. Finding people to talk to and having a good support system is an important part of healing. Spending time talking with other people such as family, friends, and community can help you feel more connected to others. Connecting with others also calms the nervous system and reduces stress.
Find things you like. It’s important to take care of yourself when healing from trauma by making time each day to do something you enjoy. Even if it’s just a little time, set aside some time each day to relax and do something that makes you happy, whatever it is. Plan bigger things for the future so you have something to look forward to, like booking tickets to an event, planning a camping trip, or booking a massage.
Recovering from sexual violence can take time. Healing is not always easy. But with practice and help, survivors of sexual violence can regain their sense of power and control and live happy, joyful lives.
If you need help for yourself or a family member or friend who has experienced sexual violence, please see the resources below.
National Sexual Assault Hotline, toll-free and available 24/7: 800-656-HOPE
National Resource Center on Sexual Violence: https://www.nsvrc.org/
National Victim Assistance Organization: https://www.trynova.org/help-for-crime-victims/
SAMHSA National Hotline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
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