Recovery from sexual violence

Sexual violence can have immediate and long term effects on your overall health and wellbeing. This can include physical health issues as a result of the assault or longer term physical, mental and emotional health issues due to the impact of trauma. Recovering from sexual violence can often take time.

To assist your recovery it is helpful to have a good support network. This could include family, friends, counsellors, a sexual assault support service and/or a trusted doctor. If you are concerned about how you are coping, or feel unsafe, you can contact a sexual assault support service for help and support.

How will I be affected?

It is important to know that everyone reacts differently to a traumatic event – no response is right or wrong.

Responses to a sexual assault can be immediate or delayed and the recovery process is different for each individual. There are however common patterns to trauma recovery that are normal and you may experience some or many of the following symptoms:

  • anxiety and hypersensitivity
  • tearfulness
  • shame, self-blame and guilt
  • anger, fear, depression, sadness or numbness
  • disbelief and/or denial
  • physical revulsion
  • helplessness and hopelessness
  • flashbacks
  • changes in sleeping and eating patterns
  • difficulty concentrating
  • fatigue or immune system responses
  • phobias or fear of leaving the house or being alone
  • withdrawal from people, relationships and activities.

It is normal for intimacy to be affected after experiencing sexual violence. Some people may avoid sexual activity fearing losing control of their body or feeling vulnerable, while others may react by increasing their sexual activity as a way for them to regain a sense of power. Other common reactions/responses can include:

  • avoiding or being afraid of sex
  • seeing sex as an obligation
  • experiencing negative feelings such as anger, disgust, or guilt with touch
  • difficulty becoming aroused or feeling sensation
  • feeling emotionally distant or not present during sex
  • intrusive or disturbing sexual thoughts and images
  • engaging in compulsive or inappropriate sexual behaviours
  • difficulty establishing or maintaining an intimate relationship
  • vaginal pain or difficulty with orgasm
  • erectile or ejaculatory difficulties.

Talking with your partner, counsellor or other trusted professional about how the violence has impacted your feelings of safety and ability to engage in intimacy can assist you to develop strategies to manage the issues you may be experiencing.

It can also be helpful to research what coping strategies other survivors of sexual violence have utilised to regain their feelings of safety and trust in intimacy. Information and resources can be accessed from a sexual assault support service.

Having positive sexual experiences over time may also assist you to feel safe with intimacy again.

Developing coping strategies

People cope with trauma in many different ways and it is important not to rush or push yourself. The most important resource in your recovery journey is YOU and it is necessary to take the time to care for yourself, as this will support your immediate and ongoing health and wellbeing.

The following suggestions can assist your recovery journey, particularly in the early stages of recovery following an assault. It helps to recognise that you have been through an extremely stressful and traumatic event. You are not to blame.

  • Get plenty of rest, even if you can't sleep, and try to eat regular, well-balanced meals as much as possible.
  • Regular gentle exercise such as walking or cycling or relaxation exercises such as yoga, meditation, breathing exercises or deep muscle relaxation can reduce the physical effects of stress and trauma.
  • Emotional self-care will assist you to manage your feelings and build your emotional resilience. It is important to talk about your feelings with other people who you trust and feel safe with. Keeping a journal or diary to record your thoughts and feelings can also be helpful, especially when you cannot or don’t feel like talking to others about your experience.
  • Minimise the use of stimulants (caffeine, energy drinks) as your body is already ‘hyped up’ and these substances can make that worse.
  • Be more careful than usual, for example when cooking, driving or using machinery; following trauma, we are more vulnerable to accidents and illness.
  • Avoid making any major life decisions, such as moving house or changing jobs, in the immediate period following the trauma.
  • Try to resume a normal routine, but do not throw yourself into activities or work to avoid unpleasant feelings and memories. Try to structure your days by planning concrete activities and try to schedule at least one enjoyable activity each day
  • Develop strategies for dealing with nightmares and flashbacks and try to anticipate and prepare for triggers. This could include developing self-soothing strategies, such as simple breathing exercises, to assist in times of stress. Nightmares, flashbacks and recurring thoughts are normal and will decrease over time.
  • It is normal to try and avoid feelings and emotions that are unpleasant or distressing. However using drugs or alcohol as a coping strategy to avoid these feelings will lead to more problems in the long term. It can be helpful to talk with a counsellor so you can develop strategies to manage intense emotions.
  • If you are struggling with the use of drugs and alcohol there are counsellors who can assist you. The Alcohol and Drug Information Service is available 24 hours, 7 days a week on 1800 177 833 (free call).