Promoting Health and Wellbeing for Survivors of Sexual Violence
Michelle Pebole, MA, PhD Candidate, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
Lauren Wheatley, University of New South Wales, Sydney
Bushra Sabri, PhD, Assistant Professor, Johns Hopkin University
Sexual violence, including rape, sexual assault, and unwanted sexual experiences, can have many poor physical and mental health consequences for survivors. These sadly common, traumatic experiences often result in poor physical and mental health outcomes such as nightmares, flashbacks, depression, isolation, and chronic pain. Given that the perpetrator is often a family member, intimate partner, acquaintance, or caregiver, survivors can feel completely alone in their attempts to heal.
These effects can be addressed with proper medical and therapeutic support. However, the COVID-19 pandemic is making the challenge of combatting sexual violence even more difficult. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, sexual violence has increased dramatically in the US and worldwide, leaving many survivors to deal with the aftermath of trauma on their own.
Seeking out a mental health provider can help survivors improve their mental health and medical doctors can help treat physical injury. But due to barriers like fear of not being believed, internalized blame, high cost of services, and lack of transportation, survivors of sexual violence often do not report their experiences or seek formal healthcare.
Many healthcare providers now offer services that are more accessible via telehealth, online chatrooms, and self-help resources for those who do not want to go to the hospital. Even so, navigating the healthcare system can be complicated and scary for survivors of sexual violence.
On top of accessing medical care, there are evidence-based strategies that can improve recovery from sexual trauma. Healing from trauma takes time and won’t happen overnight but these strategies can be helpful for healing and creating a happy and healthy lifestyle.
Limit exposure to violence and media consumption. Movies and television can include graphic scenes that trigger bad feelings or flashbacks. Limit your intake of the news, read happy books, and watch lighthearted TV shows.
Reconnect with your body. Sexual trauma can make the survivor feel disconnected from their body. It can be scary to get back in touch with how your body feels. There are several strategies that can help you feel safer and more confident. These include:
- Do some physical activity. Exercising releases hormones that make you feel good. Incorporating a mindfulness component to your exercise, such as breathing, body awareness, and muscle relaxation can help manage anxiety and build a connection with your body again.
- Meditate and practice mindfulness. Take time out of your day to be more aware of the present moment and to calm the body. This can help reduce feelings of anxiety, manage stress, and help make you feel calmer. Some examples include:
- 4-7-8 breathing – inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7, then exhale for 8
- Progressive muscle relaxation – tensing and relaxing muscle groups in the body
- Meditation – meditate on your own or explore the many books, classes, and applications available to guide you
- Maintain a healthy diet. Self-care means looking after yourself and your health, which includes eating lots of fruits and vegetables and drinking lots of water.
- Sleep and rest well. Make sure you’re allowing yourself to have time to relax. If sleep is difficult, aim for rest.
Find social connection. Sexual trauma can make people feel isolated and lonely. Finding people you can talk to and having a good support system is an important part of healing. Spending some time talking with others such as family, friends, and the community can help you feel more connected to others. Connecting with others also calms the nervous system and reduces stress.
Find things you enjoy. It is important to take care of yourself when healing from trauma by making time every day to do something you enjoy. Even if it is just a small amount of time, set some aside each day to relax and do something that makes you happy, whatever it may be. Plan bigger things for the future so that you have something to look forward to, such as booking tickets to an event, planning a camping trip, or booking a massage.
Recovering from sexual violence can take time. Healing may not always be straightforward. But with practice and help, survivors of sexual violence can regain their sense of power and control and live a happy and joyful life.
If you need assistance for yourself or a family member or friend who has gone through sexual violence, please see the below resources.
National Sexual Assault Hotline, free and available 24/7: 800-656-HOPE
National Sexual Violence Resource Center: https://www.nsvrc.org/
National Organization for Victims Assistance: https://www.trynova.org/help-for-crime-victims/
SAMHSA’s National Hotline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
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