On Overcoming Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is one of the most difficult experiences an individual may ever face.  It is also incredibly common. While damage inflicted on the body may heal, sexual abuse leaves emotional scars that can be just as troubling as physical ones, and in some cases they can be even worse. Although the immediate pain and trauma subside, the truth is that there can be long-term consequences for the victims of sexual abuse. That being said, the process of healing might be centered on the body, not in the mind.

Victims of abuse often respond with a physical reaction known as the “fight or flight” response. The body learns to release adrenaline in situations that recreate the feelings of terror and pain, and as a result, this can become a pattern that the victim experiences again and again.

Possible side effects of sexual abuse

This is similar to the post-traumatic stress response that other victims of war or violence experience. Changing the body’s physical response may actually go a long way towards mending the emotional outcome.

Some of the emotional difficulties faced by sexual abuse survivors include fear and anxiety, feelings of betrayal, shame, guilt, helplessness, and powerlessness. The long-term consequences may include psychiatric disturbances such as nightmares, and other sleep disorders, flashbacks, depression, hallucinations, suicidal ideations, and addictions. In addition, victims may have difficulty in expressing healthy sexuality, developing strong and trusting relationships with partners and children, and victims may experience a degree of self-doubt that gets in the way of work, school, or leisure pursuits.

Victims may continue to suffer the pain of abuse and this can be manifested in undesirable outcomes such as alcohol or drug addiction, eating disorders, or self-harming or mutilation. Re-victimization can sometimes become a problem in that survivors often find themselves in situations similar to the original assault or repeat patterns that recreate pain and suffering. These complicated situations must be dealt with if there is going to be recovery.

Although it is difficult, and an often long and complicated process, it may be possible to overcome the experience and its negative consequences.  The first, and most important factor in overcoming sexual abuse is to identify oneself as having experienced it. This is often seen as the most critical step on the recovery from victim to victor. Many victims themselves deny or minimize what they have experienced. They may blame themselves or feel that they have misinterpreted the events. They may be afraid to name their attacker for personal or legal reasons. In order to overcome the devastating effects of betrayal and pain, it is essential to acknowledge that it has occurred and to understand the extent of the damage.

What is important to consider?

One of the most intense difficulties many survivors of sexual abuse face is being able to trust again. Since so much sexual abuse is perpetrated by predators who know their victims, this situation can be especially poignant. It is imperative, however, that in the process of overcoming abuse, the victim must find someone to trust and confide in.

It may be difficult or impossible for victims to recall their experiences in detail, or for them to be able to find the words to express what has happened to them.

An experienced and caring therapist will have techniques that encourage sharing and healing in a way that is safe for the survivor. Therapists are available through community centres and healthcare facilities and many are available free of charge. Other forms of therapy are also available and some patients find that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is helpful in dealing with symptoms although I recommend a more long term integrative approach. Another, less common approach, is to use the Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to change the way your body responds to old memories. Of course, it is essential that such therapeutic methods are delivered by experienced and professional healthcare providers.

Victims are often encouraged to find a way to forgive the abuser or abusers. This can be a controversial topic. Some argue that the crimes are unforgivable by any standard, while others maintain that until forgiveness occurs, the victim must continue to carry the burden of the abuse. In any case, forgiveness is something that many cultures and faiths value, but it should not be a prerequisite for returning oneself to a healthy and happy life. Many victims are able to reclaim what they may have lost through the abuse of others.

Images on Creative Commons license courtesy of Storem, Ruurmo, Alyssa L. Miller

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