Following a sexual assault you may experience a wide range of emotions that can be distressing, surprising and difficult to cope with.
Each person reacts differently: you may also feel tearful, withdrawn, depressed or just numb. You may also feel very anxious and panicky, or have nightmares and flashbacks of the assault. For many people these emotions pass within a few weeks. If they persist you may need professional help to overcome these traumatic responses. Being able to recognise these reactions is helpful, especially when you realise that they are normal and you are not going crazy or mad. The following emotions are common.
We all experience anxiety at certain times, for instance you may recall feeling anxious when going for a job interview. When you are anxious your heart can beat faster, you breathe more quickly, and your skin becomes clammy and sweaty. You may feel dizzy or shaky and have ‘butterflies’ in your stomach. If you are really anxious, and in a state of near panic, you may feel as though you are having a heart attack and hyperventilate or over-breathe. If you do experience these symptoms they will usually pass within 20 minutes.
After an assault many people feel anxious and afraid that something might happen again, and see the world as a dangerous place with no one they can trust. You may find you are always watching out and constantly on edge, waiting for something else to happen. You may be jumpy, especially if someone is too close or touches you unexpectedly.
Anything that reminds you of the assault can trigger anxiety and this can be smells, colours, sounds, as well as more specific reminders.
What can I do about anxiety?
First try to notice what is making you feel anxious. Is it what you are thinking, doing or a reminder of the assault? Our body usually reacts to what we are thinking so if you can distract yourself, or think more helpful thoughts, this can help stop the panic rising. You could try counting objects, listening to music, or thinking of a favourite place.
Relaxation and deep breathing exercises may also help. If the anxiety is becoming overwhelming seek help before it becomes a problem.
Nightmares and sleeping problems
Nightmares, which can be replays of the assault or other distressing images and dreams, are common and can really affect your sleep. Nightmares are one way your mind tries to make sense of what has happened.
You may find yourself waking up suddenly feeling very afraid and anxious. If you then try and avoid sleeping, for fear of having a nightmare, lack of sleep can affect your mood: you may become irritable, have difficulty concentrating and feel depressed. Even if your sleep is not being disturbed by nightmares, you may find that you have difficulty getting to sleep, wake early, or experience fitful waking.
What can I do if I can’t sleep?
It is important to try and maintain a normal routine so go to bed at your usual time and get up at the same time even if you haven’t slept. Avoid napping in the afternoon to catch up on your sleep as this will make it harder to sleep at night. Try relaxing before going to bed: have a bath or listen to music that will distract your mind. Try not to go over and over what has happened, or force yourself to recall what you can’t remember, or worry about what you should or should not have done. This can make you more agitated and may make it harder for you to sleep. If you do wake up during the night, don’t lie in bed tossing and turning. Instead get up and have a warm drink, as long as it is not tea or coffee which contain caffeine and can make you more alert.
These are very vivid images that make you feel as if the assault is happening again. Flashbacks occurr because a traumatic experience is so shocking and so different from your everyday experience that you can’t fit it into what you know about the world. Your mind keeps bringing the memory back in order to understand what happened.
You will probably want to try and push these images away as they are distressing and very uncomfortable. Unfortunately this can increase the power of the images. Instead try and focus on where you are and bring yourself back into the here and now; remind yourself that you are safe, not still being assaulted. Flashbacks should become less frequent but if they do not, psychological therapy can help.
People sometimes feel guilty or ashamed. These feelings are related to you taking personal responsibility for the assault, the feeling, ‘I did something to deserve this’. You may also feel guilty for how you are feeling, ‘I should just get over this’, or guilty that others are upset or angry. Remember you are not to blame for being sexually assaulted.
Many people who have been assaulted feel angry, not only with their assailant but also with themselves and others. You may well feel that the world is not fair. If you are not used to feeling angry this can seem scary and confusing, particularly if your anger is directed towards those who are closest to you. Although being angry can be a positive sign in the healing process, it can sometimes mask other feelings such as sadness and pain.
Try not to block up your anger as this may result in it spilling out when you don’t want it to. Try and talk about how you are feeling and remember it’s a normal reaction.
After your assault you may well feel under significant physical and emotional stress of which you are not fully aware. As a result you may find yourself become irritable very easily and reacting to things that normally wouldn’t have bothered you.
With both anger and irritability it is important to try and look after yourself. Use the support of others and try to relax. Moderate exercise can also help to release some of the tension.
This is a common reaction to sexual assault and can include feeling down, sad, hopeless or despairing. You may cry more often or find it difficult to cry at all. You may lose interest in people and activities you used to enjoy. Plans you had for the future don’t seem to matter any more and you feel life isn’t worth living. Your may also be grieving for what you have lost because of the assault.
If you feel like this try and discuss it with someone, either staff at the Treetops Centre or someone you trust. Focus on the reasons why life is worth living; you can overcome depression. If your feelings lead to thoughts of wishing you were dead, or doing something to hurt of kill yourself, it is better to go to your GP or A&E as they will be able to help.