Caring For Youself As a Survivor Of Sexual Assault: PTSD Awareness Month

*ATTENTION: As a survivor myself, I understand what it means to struggle through understanding, processing, and coping through my own trauma. With that being said - although this article was written as an educational piece and to support you on your healing journey, it may be triggering for some. If this is you, you can find resources for help at the bottom of the article.*

Why is it Important to Know About PTSD?

Our sexuality is the most intimate piece of ourselves, so what happens to us when that’s violated? The first word that comes to mind may not be PTSD, but that’s precisely what it is. 

PTSD is not limited to war veterans or victims of combat, despite this strong misconception. If you’re a survivor of sexual trauma, then you know your assault is not a one time experience. The flashbacks, nightmares, and both physical and emotional symptoms that follow can make life feel debilitating. 

The stigma of sexual assault may be one of the most troubling aspects of post-traumatic stress, keeping survivors bound in chains of shame and guilt. This can prevent many survivors from speaking out or seeking help for their PTSD. 

1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men become victims of rape and sexual assault every year. This means it’s more important than ever to shed light on the topic of PTSD in sexual trauma survivors. With June being PTSD awareness month, there’s no better time to do so. 


How Is Sexual Assault Defined?

Sexual assault can present itself in many different forms. While each survivor's story is unique, there is one shared commonality: it’s never their fault.  

The definition of sexual assault refers to any sexual contact or behavior that happens without clear, explicit consent from the victim. This includes acts such as rape, incest, fondling, and unwanted touching, or forcing another person to perform sexual acts. 

  • Rape: While all rape is sexual assault, not all sexual assault is rape. The definition of rape can vary from state to state, however overall it refers to non-consensual penetration of a victim's vagina or anus, done either with a body part or object. 
  • Incest: Non-consensual incest refers to forced sexual acts or rape between family members of a close relation. 
  • Fondling / Touching: This type of sexual assault is defined as any unwanted touching of another person's genitals for the perpetrator's sexual gratification. 
  • Force: While forceful sexual assault certainly refers to physical means, emotional and mental coercion are incredibly common. This may be done by manipulation or threats of violence. 

While 8 out of 10 perpetrators are known to the victim, such as instances of intimate partner violence, the term ‘date rape’ refers to sexual assault brought on by an acquaintance. Perpetrators can be family members, friends, teachers, sports coaches, and more. The physical appearance of an aggressor has no bounds. 


Being a Survivor vs. Being a Victim

If you’ve ever heard the terms ‘survivor’ and ‘victim’ being used interchangeably and wondered… what’s the difference? You’re not alone. 

When you’ve been through sexual assault, the language you use going forward can have profound effects on your healing journey. While there’s nothing inherently wrong about being a victim by any means, being a survivor means taking charge of the narrative going forward. 

The term ‘victim’ in the dictionary is defined as: “a person who suffers from a destructive or injurious agency”. 

In contrast, the term ‘survivor’ means: a person or thing that survives. Surviving is defined as: remaining alive after the death of someone, the cessation of something, or the occurrence of some event; continue to live. 

The term victim seems to focus more on what happened to someone while keeping the perpetrator in mind. The term survivor focuses on walking through the journey of healing, without letting the worst moments of your life define you. 

These terms are all about preference. There is no right or wrong way to define someone after they’ve been through sexual trauma. Right after sexual assault, it’s unlikely someone may feel like a survivor right off the bat. However, claiming that title opens the door for possibility and allows them to feel empowered through their pain. 


PTSD From Sexual Trauma

Sexual trauma has long-term effects on its victims. With 94% of women experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after rape or assault, it’s incredibly important to spread awareness on how this can affect life going forward. 

According to the DSM-5, the most comprehensive and educationally sound collection of mental health disorders, PTSD is defined as the behaviors and actions that follow the direct or indirect experience of a traumatic event. 

In the case of sexual trauma, this can include:

  • Avoidance: Either avoiding thoughts or feelings about the event, or avoiding people, places, or conversations surrounding their sexual assault. 
  • Intrusive Symptoms: This often appears as relentless, unwanted reminders of their sexual trauma such as memories, nightmares, or repeated flashbacks. 
  • Arousal: Some survivors of sexual assault may feel they live in a state of hyperviglance. This may mean they have troubling falling asleep, feel restless, are easily startled, and are constantly on the lookout for danger. 
  • Negative Thoughts or Beliefs: Oftentimes, survivors of sexual assault experience mental and emotional changes. This can manifest as warped beliefs surrounding themselves or others. In addition, they may experience feelings of horror, guilt, shame, disgust, depression, or detachment, while struggling to feel joy or contentment. 


What is Complex PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder can occur due to a single event, such as rape when walking home alone, or from repeated ongoing trauma, such as consistent intimate partner sexual violence. When the trauma is chronic, this is called complex PTSD, or C-PTSD. 

While it’s possible for C-PTSD to occur in adulthood, it’s often seen in people who have experienced ongoing sexual assault in childhood. As children experience sexual trauma, they lack the tools or resources to work through their confusion and pain. This becomes years of unhealed wounds that then follow them into their adult lives. 

There are a few symptoms of C-PTSD that are common among all survivors of chronic sexual trauma:

  1. Emotional Regulation: Adults (and children) that suffer from C-PTSD often have extreme difficulty keeping their emotions in check. Experiencing them, controlling them, and even being able to label them appropriately is a challenge. 

This can appear as: 

  • Uncontrollable anger and rage
  • Unmanaged sadness
  • Difficulty leveling themselves after highs/lows
  • Feeling dissociated or numb 
  • Inability to adjust to sudden emotional changes 
  1. Self-Perception Difficulties: Survivors living with C-PTSD often struggle with their self image for years. This is due to their self identity being brutally interrupted or warped by someone else's actions. 

Inner struggles with self-perception may feel like:

  • Being “bad”
  • Feeling helpless
  • Carrying shame
  • Feeling responsible for what happened 
  • Believing they are unworthy of love or affection 
  • Feeling like a burden to others 
  • Feeling like an outcast or ‘different’ than everyone else 
  1. Interruptions In Consciousness: One of the most frightening symptoms experienced by survivors with C-PTSD is the way their brains may entirely black out their trauma or abuse. While these memories are stored away, survivors may still experience the emotions intrusively, experience large chunks of missing time in childhood, or develop dissociation ranging from mild to severe. While this is our brain's way of protecting us, it can often cause more harm than good. 
  1. Difficulty With Relationships: Not only do all the symptoms above play a role in the quality and depth of a survivor’s relationships going forward, there are other ways they may experience troubles in their future relationships:
  • Feelings of isolation from peers
  • Troubles understanding how to engage with others 
  • Inability to trust anyone 
  • Trusting people too easily
  • Abandoning relationships abruptly 
  • Often finding themselves in toxic or abusive relationships 
  • Constantly searching for someone to “rescue” them 

How To Spot Them In Yourself

While some symptoms of PTSD are visible to the outside world, a majority of symptoms are internal struggles, only seen and experienced by survivors themselves. 

Keep in mind, everyone’s experience with sexual assault and PTSD is unique. You may have gone through a similar trauma, yet experience completely different symptoms as someone else. 

There are a few key things to look out for if you suspect you may be suffering from either PTSD or C-PTSD:

  • Flashbacks of the event 
  • Physical sensations: nausea, trembling, or sweating, or pain
  • Feeling irritable and angry unlike before 
  • Changes in sleep
  • Difficulty concentrating on everyday tasks 
  • Feeling as though you need to stay busy at all times in order to avoid thinking about the experience 
  • Using alcohol or drugs to cope with the memories
  • Never feeling at peace 

While there are many other symptoms to look for, you may feel overwhelming fatigue from fighting a battle within yourself on a daily basis. Don’t lose hope, healing is entirely possible. 


Healing From PTSD Both Inside and Out

Taking the first steps to heal from sexual assault PTSD is a monumental decision. The journey of healing requires determination and patience with yourself. It’s often going to be uncomfortable as you begin to face emotions and memories you’ve been avoiding for some time, however the long term benefits are life changing. 

One way you can begin to heal yourself at home is by practicing self care. Self care means nurturing you inner emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical self. It means putting your needs first as you begin to pay attention to any areas you’ve been neglecting. For those that are struggling with negative thoughts and beliefs related to sexual assault, self care is a wonderful way to begin to rebuild a relationship of love within yourself. 

A few examples of self care include:

  • Journaling 
  • Meditation 
  • Breathwork 
  • Yoga 
  • Mindful eating 
  • Exercise
  • Listening to mindfulness podcasts 
  • Reading books on inner healing 

Another way to practice self care at home is by taking the time to pamper yourself. When you carve out time everyday, you’re retraining your brain to view yourself worthy of effort, and care. One way you can do this is through choosing healthy products for yourself that nurture your self love. 

Here at Bellavana Beauty, we have the perfect self care set meant to target each aspect of healing. Tending to your physical needs, you can treat yourself to clean, luxurious body butter and oil. For your mental and emotional needs, practice healthy self talk with the affirmation cards, as well as keeping a clear mind with the included daily journal. You’ll even access the joy of a calming, peaceful environment with our soy candle and amethyst crystal, because you’re worth it. 


For In Depth Healing

For some, symptoms of PTSD weaken over time. For others, they become stronger the longer they’re ignored. Thankfully, there are options to help. Getting professional help navigating the confusing emotions and debilitating symptoms of PTSD has been proven to be incredibly effective. Psychotherapy can be helpful in managing the stress and symptoms of PTSD and can include:  

  1. Cognitive Processing Theory: A therapist is utilized to help a survivor face traumatic memories and emotions as they help correct any negative, unhelpful thoughts and behaviors that may be triggering symptoms of PTSD. 
  2. Prolonged Exposure Therapy: Confronting fears and emotions head on is quite successful in desensitizing the traumatic experience, allowing space for healing. 
  3. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing: Through guided eye movements, a survivor is walked through their traumatic experience as the eyes stimulate healing and desensitization. 

Reaching out for help is never an easy experience. It’s key to stay patient with yourself as you walk down this uncharted territory. Remember, there are trained professionals who dedicate their entire lives to helping you overcome the PTSD associated with your sexual assault. 


Final Thoughts

Recovering from sexual assault, and the PTSD that can follow is challenging. However, it’s not impossible. If you feel as though you’re disconnected from the world, your emotions have changed, or your behaviors no longer align with what they used to - you may be struggling with PTSD. Flashbacks and nightmares can be paralyzing, but with professional help you can learn the tools to overcome these setbacks. In addition, taking care of yourself at home is a wonderful way to show yourself extra love, while rebuilding a healthier relationship within. Let us at Bellavana Beauty walk through this journey with you. You’re not alone. 


You May Also Like:

Redefining Diversity & Inclusion in the Beauty Industry 

The Differences Between Self - Care vs Selfish


Resources for Help

  • Call 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area from
  • Call: 800-799-SAFE (7233) for domestic violence from
  • Call: 866-331-9474 for sexual assault help from
  • Video call: 855-812-1001 for sexual assault help from the National Deaf Domestic Violence Helpline



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