Content warning: This page contains information about relationship and sexual violence.
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Remember, you are not to blame, even if:
- The person who hurt you was an acquaintance, date, friend or partner.
- You have been sexually intimate with that person or with others before.
- You were drinking or using drugs.
- You froze and did not or could not say “no,” or were unable to fight back physically.
The aftermath of sexual assault and/or relationship violence: Am I supposed to feel this way?
Regardless of your gender identity or sexual orientation, sexual assault and relationship violence are both trauma. The traumas of sexual assault and/or relationship violence involve losing control of your own body and possibly fearing death or injury. There are certain ways that human beings react to trauma that are the same for all gender identities. Rape trauma syndrome is a term that mental health professionals use to describe the common reactions that occur after sexual assault and/or relationship violence. “Rape trauma syndrome” is not an illness or abnormal reaction—it is a normal reaction to an abnormal, traumatic event.
Common Reactions to Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence
Though each person and situation is unique, a range of reactions are shared by many people who have experienced sexual assault and/or relationship violence; it is normal to expect some or all of these emotions. The following is a list of common responses that the trauma of sexual assault and/or relationship violence can provoke in people of all gender identities though it is important to remember that reactions are individual and may not be captured by this list.
- Emotional Shock: I feel numb. How can I be so calm? Why can’t I cry?
- Disbelief and/or Denial: Did it really happen? Why me? Maybe I just imagined it. It wasn’t really rape.
- Embarrassment: What will people think? I can’t tell my family or friends.
- Shame: I feel completely filthy, like there’s something wrong with me. I can’t get clean.
- Guilt: I feel as if it’s my fault, or I should’ve been able to stop it. If only I had…
- Depression: How am I going to get through the semester? I’m so tired! I feel so hopeless. Maybe I’d be better off dead.
- Powerlessness: Will I ever feel in control again?
- Disorientation: I don’t even know what day it is, or what class I’m supposed to be in. I keep forgetting things.
- Flashbacks: I’m still re-living the assault! I keep seeing that face and feeling like it’s happening all over again.
- Fear: I’m scared of everything. What if I have herpes or AIDS? I can’t sleep because I’ll have nightmares. I’m afraid to go out. I’m afraid to be alone.
- Anxiety: I’m having panic attacks. I can’t breathe! I can’t stop shaking. I feel overwhelmed.
- Anger: I feel like killing the person who attacked me!
- Physical Stress: My stomach (or head or back) aches all the time. I feel jittery and don’t feel like eating.
It is important for you to know your reactions are normal and temporary responses to an abnormal event. The fear and confusion will lessen with time, but the trauma may disrupt your life for awhile. Some reactions may be triggered by people, places or things connected to the assault while other reactions may seem to come from out of the blue. Remember that no matter how much difficulty you’re having healing from the assault, all of your feelings and experiences are valid.
Talking about the assault will likely help you feel better, but may also be very difficult. In fact, it is common to want to avoid conversations and situations that may remind you of the assault. You may have a sense of wanting to get on with life and let the past be the past. This is a normal part of the recovery process and may last for weeks or months.
Talking about your feelings can help in the healing process and help you regain a sense of control over your life. Talking with someone who can listen and understand—whether it’s a friend, family member, hotline counselor or therapist—is a key part of this process.
It’s important to understand you may not be able to function at 100% capacity for a while following a major trauma like sexual assault or relationship violence. You may have problems concentrating or remembering things, and may feel tired or edgy. You may also take longer to recover from everyday stresses, like when you go back to work or school too early after having the flu. Don’t be too hard on yourself—you need time to recover emotionally and that may detract from your energy for awhile.
Ways To Take Care of Yourself
- Get support from friends and family: try to identify people you trust to validate your feelings. Spend time with people who know your strengths and positive qualities. Try not to isolate yourself.
- Talk about the assault and express feelings: you can choose when, where, and with whom. You can also decide how much or how little to talk about.
- Use stress reduction techniques: exercise like walking, jogging, biking, swimming, weight-lifting; relaxation techniques like yoga, massage, music, prayer and/or meditation.
- Maintain a balanced diet and sleep cycle
- Avoid overusing caffeine, sugar, nicotine, alcohol or other drugs.
- Take “time outs”: Give yourself permission to take quiet moments to reflect, relax and rejuvenate—especially during times you feel stressed or unsafe.
- Try reading: Reading can be a relaxing, healing activity. Try to find short periods of uninterrupted leisure reading time.
- Consider writing or journaling: This can help you find a way to express thoughts and feelings.
- Release some of the hurt and anger in a healthy way: Write a letter about how you feel about what happened to you. Be as specific as you can. You also can draw pictures about the anger or hurt you feel as a way of releasing the emotional pain.
- Get counseling. The Washington University RSVP Center counseling staff and Student Health Services are here for you. Mental health services are part of your health benefits.
Used by permission from the UT Counseling and Mental Health Center, The University of Texas at Austin