Can You Get PTSD From Sexual Assault? It's More Common Than You Think

I have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from a childhood sexual assault, and I feel the emotional repercussions of it every day.

To be honest, I hardly even remember the event itself. Bits and pieces of it, the before and after, the general feeling — those I recall viscerally.

I've heard that can happen with traumatic events. You block them out to emotionally numb yourself from the pain. It's a coping mechanism.

The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress states that PTSD is a "normal human reaction to an abnormal situation":

Traumatic experiences bring to the fore survival skills which are valuable and useful at the time of the trauma, but which usually become less valuable, less useful and less effective with time. Sometimes survivors become stuck in problem behaviors when their pain is not acknowledged, heard, respected, or understood.

This makes sense. When I told people about my assault, nothing happened, which I'm sure many women can relate to. I didn't feel heard, so instead, I buried secrets, rage, and shame like a volcano which was bound to explode one day.

Though my survival mechanisms might have been beneficial during a traumatic event (Who am I sugar coating for? Let's get real: when I, as a child, was molested by an adult man), they are probably not beneficial coping mechanisms for me, a 31-year-old woman attempting to have normal functioning life and relationships, to have.

While we often often associate PTSD with veterans of war, it's important to recognize that it can develop from a myriad of traumatic events, particularly sexual assault.

We think of rape and sexual assault as just violent, acute sexual trauma that only affects a person in the moment, but according to The National Women's Study, almost one-third of all rape victims develop PTSD.

We need to reframe the conversation and take into consideration the long-term — and often lifelong — emotional repercussions of these crimes.

So in honor of PTSD Awareness Day, to better understand survivors, to help us practice empathy, and to educate ourselves, I asked Golie Zarabi, MFT, about the correlation between PTSD and sexual assault.

What are some common symptoms of PTSD that might manifest in a sexual assault victim?

According to Zarabi, PTSD relates to the "symptoms that an individual develops after experiencing a traumatic event."

She states some of these might include "anxiety, suicidal ideation, repeated obsessive thoughts of the assault, hypervigilance, and nightmares."

Zarabi also explains that nightmares can be particularly difficult to deal with, as they can make it "difficult for [a victim] to sleep" and can potentially make them "anxious about going to bed for fear of more nightmares."

In my case, I also treated myself pretty poorly, too — sh*tty eating habits, drinking too much, and dating bad guys — because it felt familiar.

How else might PTSD from sexual assault subtly affect other relationships?

For me, the PTSD resulting from my sexual assault has been a lifelong struggle with avoidance, detachment, inability to connect, rage, and addiction. Even writing this makes me want to throw up.

Vulnerability and trust still cause me severe discomfort. I don't want to get to know you, and I certainly don't want you to get to know me. It's a place my body and mind just can't go.

According to Zarabi, that kind of avoidance plays a big part in PTSD.

"Most individuals report trying to avoid the thoughts, feelings, and situations that would remind them of the assault. Individuals who have been diagnosed with PTSD after sexual assault often report having flashbacks of the assault. Many women report avoiding all intimacy, dating, or sexual contact to not trigger flashbacks," she says.

She continues,

Hypervigilance, constantly feeling on guard or on high alert, makes it increasingly difficult for someone with PTSD to feel safe, and secure in their environment ... [It] can impact an individual daily with anxiety when the brain is on constant alert, continuously scanning for danger. As you would imagine, this makes it difficult for a person to be able to relax, feel calm or safe.

After a sexual assault, it is common that many forms of contact most people would desire, such as emotional vulnerability, intimacy, or more obviously, sex, can be perceived as a threat, according to Zarabi.

I used to have outbursts of anger from rage so deep, it felt ancient. Then, I'd shift just as easily into zombie-like numbness. Being "seen" (or understood and having a connection with another person) would cause me such sheer terror, that emotionally and physically, I was constantly looking for an escape route from my relationships.

"In the case of PTSD after sexual assault, it can become increasingly difficult for the individual to feel safe being touched, or in any state of intimacy without fear of danger, physical pain or a potential threat," she says.

So what most people perceive as an enriching part of their everyday life, a person with PTSD as a result of sexual assault might perceive as a trigger.

Sexual assault is much more common than you think. According to RAINN, one out of every six women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her life. And unfortunately, many survivors might get PTSD as a result of dealing with the trauma — a human response to an inhumane act.

But understanding these signs and symptoms can help individuals understand what they themselves or someone else might be dealing with.

If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual assault, you can call the sexual assault hotline, which is free, confidential, and available 24/7, at 1-800-656-HOPE or visit RAINN for more options.