April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, which represents an ideal opportunity to examine what constitutes sexual assault, how it affects women and what related issues may contribute to the problem.
What Is Sexual Assault?
Sexual assault is a form of domestic violence that encompasses any form of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the victim’s explicit consent, ranging from unwelcome touching or fondling to rape or attempted rape.
While sexual violence can affect people of all gender identities, it disproportionately affects women in heterosexual relationships. For example, nearly one in five women has experienced an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. However, statistics surrounding sexual assault may be understated, because many survivors do not report the event out of intense fear or embarrassment.
Long-Term Symptoms of Sexual Assault
Sexual assault and violence can have wide-ranging effects on a victim’s life, especially her mental health. Even with a therapist’s help, it may take a sexual assault survivor years to come to terms with complex problems like:
- Internalized shame or worthlessness
- Panic attacks
- Avoiding people or places that trigger memories of the event
- PTSD symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares and hypervigilance
- Disrupted sleep
- Loneliness and isolation
- Eating disorders
- Substance misuse
The Link Between Sexual Assault and Trauma
Trauma is one of the most prevalent mental health problems associated with sexual assault. Unresolved trauma can significantly disrupt your daily life, making it challenging for you to function. Many people living with trauma experience a condition known as dissociation, where they go to great lengths to block out the unpleasant memories of the event. This phenomenon often creates difficulties in accurately diagnosing trauma.
However, even when you try to blot memories of the trauma from your awareness, signs will begin to trickle through the mental block you’ve created. These will take a toll on your relationships, erode your health and lead to a range of self-destructive behaviors, including drug use and drinking.
Why Might Sexual Assault Victims Turn to Substance Abuse?
Because sexual assault can create long-term trauma, the struggle may cause people to turn to unhealthy outlets, including substance abuse. Women who start drinking or using drugs may initially do so to numb their pain or self-medicate the symptoms of trauma-related mental health disorders such as anxiety or depression.
The weight of trauma can feel like a prison from which there’s no escape, which is why a significant number of sexual assault victims might rely on substance misuse as an unhealthy coping mechanism. However, women tend to become addicted more quickly after their initial exposure to drugs and alcohol, and might have more intense relapse symptoms when trying to quit using or drinking.
Empowering Sexual Violence Survivors
If you have experienced sexual assault, it’s essential to remember that you are not at fault for what happened to you. Blaming yourself or allowing others to blame you allows the perpetrator to avoid experiencing any accountability for their actions. If you feel unresolved guilt or trauma because of what you went through, it’s crucial to seek professional help.
Trauma-informed treatment for sexual abuse is a unique approach to care that can address the multifaceted nature of trauma, substance abuse and related disorders. To learn more about what this entails, please reach out to us at Canyon Crossing today.