Post Traumatic Stress Disorder:
This disorder is often associated with people who have been in combat or war. What many people don’t know is that PTSD can result from several different types of trauma: physical abuse, emotional abuse, natural disasters, sexual abuse, a car accident, or a sudden death of a close friend or family member. While these are just a few of the different scenarios that can result in PTSD, I would like to focus on sexual abuse.
Unfortunately for many children and adults that experience sexual abuse, they forgo receiving counseling or some form of therapy. For instance, if someone was raped whether it was by an acquaintance or stranger, that person’s body could go into ‘shock mode’ and basically become numb to what happened. Someone could easily say, “I’m fine,” and try to block what happened. Sadly, recovering from such a violation takes more than the just the act of saying one is okay.
Many therapists use the term ‘sleeper effects’ when describing what sexual abuse survivors experience years down the road after the assault/s. Suicidal ideation, outbursts of anger, anxiety, depression, a tendency to be controlling of others, low self-esteem, a sense of a foreshortened future (like dying young), an inability to be loving and affectionate towards others, or perhaps feeling disengaged from one’s own life. These are just a few symptoms that can arise later on in a person’s life resulting from sexual abuse, especially if treatment is not sought immediately after the abuse. These sleeper effects can also be classified as PTSD.
PTSD can result in two different major symptoms that can cause someone to stop living their life in a fulfilling way. Triggers are a main component of PTSD. Triggers can result in someone reliving the abuse, often causing anxiety or rage. PTSD symptoms are often triggered or cued by something in our internal (anything that happens within your body, such as thoughts or feelings) or external (anything that happens outside your body, such as a stressful situation) environment. It could be a smell or a sound or what someone says to you.
When the anxiety hits a person, she or he may not understand why they are feeling that way. If anxiety seems to be a part of daily life, it can result in her feeling paralyzed to live life without fear. Understanding what what a person’s triggers are can help that person manage them so they aren’t brought back into that place of fear or anxiety every time something reminds their brain of the abuse. Here is a great article on a person’s self-discovery on learning how to deal with her triggers: http://healmyptsd.com/2011/09/ptsd-triggers.html
Hypervigilance is another main component of PTSD, resulting a person to have exaggerated intensity of behaviors to a situation. This symptom can result in exhaustion and increased anxiety because it causes someone to constantly scan his or her surroundings, checking for threats. Hypervigilance will put someone’s brain on constant ‘alert’ mode, even when there are no threats present. Managing hypervigilance can help someone sleep better and also help one to get through the day without constantly worrying about what is out there that can cause harm.
Over time, sexual abuse has received more and more recognition as a horrific crime to someone’s body and also their emotional well-being. Thankfully more people are coming forward with their stories, resulting in others to not feel shame for what happened to them.
It used to be that talking about sexual abuse was a crime in of itself. The stigmatization that came from sexual abuse rested in the fact that people should just get over it, the abuse was his or her fault, or sexual abuse cannot be that bad since sex is often seen as pleasurable.
With the breaking down of stereotypes regarding sexual assault, people are able to seek the help they need without worrying what others will think. For those who are now just addressing the pains and hurts of the abuse that may have happened years or decades ago, reopening the wounds may seem scary and daunting.
And it is. Reliving the past may seem counterproductive to healing but it is necessary, especially if someone has been holding it in for years. There is a freedom to allowing yourself to feel the pain and no longer have it torment or control you. There is a sense of relief of no longer shaming yourself for what happened and instead placing the blame on your abuser.
While therapy may seem useless or downright frightening, having someone help you work through the symptoms that are often brought on by sexual abuse will empower you to live your life without fear, guilt, shame, or anger. Therapy can give you tools to learn how to react to situations that may remind of you the abuse and how to navigate your life around the things you want to do; not around the things you may be afraid that will happen to you.
As a survivor of sexual abuse, I am constantly learning new things about myself through therapy to help me live my life in a fulfilling way. Learning more about my triggers and how to better manage anxiety has empowered me to have better relationships with people and to not fear the world around me. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I promise you it’s worth it.
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