A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

The mental health impact of sexual assault: 3 things to know

woman talking to a provider about mental health after sexual assault

The mental health impact of a sexual assault may be severe. There are many resources available to help aid recovery.

When a person is sexually assaulted, the mental health impact of that trauma may be immediate, long lasting and severe.

The lasting impact of trauma

“When someone experiences any kind of trauma, it overwhelms their body and brain’s ability to process what’s happening,” said Lisa Dorn, a licensed professional counselor at Marshfield Clinic Health System. “And what you see is there can be structural and functional changes in the brain and nervous system. That trauma and the associated feelings get stuck in the body.”

Dorn said that if sexual assault survivors do not have a way to process their trauma, they may begin to feel a variety of emotions like shame, guilt and self blame. Developing post-traumatic stress disorder is also possible. Oftentimes victims of sexual assault may not feel safe in their own body.

“We see victims withdraw from other people. When you don’t feel safe in your body, you don’t feel safe anywhere and that can impact your entire life,” Dorn said. “And especially if the victim knows the perpetrator and has to continue seeing them. That can keep them in a state of fight or flight.”

The recovery process

Having a strong support system is important in recovering from sexual assault. A person’s genetics and pre-existing mental health also play into how they process and respond to being victimized. Sexual assault advocates also can play a key role in helping a victim through their recovery.

“Advocates do a lot of education. They talk to you about all your options. They can go with you to the police department to report the assault or accompany you to court hearings if you have them,” Dorn said. “Advocates can be very, very helpful.”

A novel therapeutic approach

Dorn said for some victims, having therapy where they are able to talk about their experience and be believed is enough to healthily process the trauma. For others, a treatment called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy can be a powerful tool.

Quoting from the EMDR International Association:

“When distress from a disturbing event remains, the upsetting images, thoughts and emotions may create an overwhelming feeling of being back in that moment, or of being ‘frozen in time.’ EMDR therapy helps the brain process these memories and allows normal healing to resume. The experience is still remembered, but the fight, flight or freeze response from the original event is resolved.”

EMDR is offered at Marshfield Clinic Health System.

Victims of sexual assault also can call The National Sexual Assault Hotline. This hotline routes the caller to their nearest sexual assault service provider. That number is 1-800-656-4673.

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