Sexual Trauma and Co-occurring Disorders
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is the most common mental health disorder arising from sexual assault. Because the nature of sexual abuse is so sensitive and impactful, it can have deeply engrained psychological effects. If you’ve survived sexual assault, you may experience flashbacks – where images of the event replay in your mind – or nightmares, which can drastically interfere with your sleep patterns and worsen your anxiety. PTSD can progress into complex post-traumatic stress, or C-PTSD, which also involves a persistent fear of abandonment.
Survivors of sexual abuse are more likely to suffer from a variety of anxiety disorders, including agoraphobia: fear of open spaces. They might also develop disproportionate fear reactions to things and situations that trigger memories of the event, like people whose physical appearance is similar to that of the abuser.
Most people feel deeply saddened after experiencing sexual abuse. But sometimes these feelings persist and develop into a chronic state characterized by numbness, hopelessness about the future and a general disinterest in life. Depending on the severity, this can even lead to self-harm and suicidal behavior.
When we’re sexually abused, it teaches us not to trust. Survivors of sexual abuse are often wary of others, and find it very difficult to let their guard down even in situations that are safe. Because sexual and emotional intimacy require
us to be vulnerable in order to have connected, satisfying experiences, this emotional state can severely interfere with our ability to form and sustain healthy bonds with others.
Drugs, alcohol, sex and compulsive eating too often become go-to escapes for those wanting to avoid emotional pain, and survivors of sexual abuse are no exception. Trauma dramatically throws off your limbic system, the parts of your brain that regulate your fear response. As a result, sexual assault survivors may feel they’re always on edge – and substances are an easily available way to temporarily self-soothe. While this is a coping mechanism, it is an unhealthy one, and one that quickly ramps up into dependence and addiction, compounding issues and making matters far worse.