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Trauma

The Relationship Between Sexual Assault, Self-Harm, and Trauma

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Key points

  • Addiction and self-harm are unhealthy coping mechanisms often used to numb the mind from emotional distress.
  • When trauma occurs, the brain does not process the event properly; the trauma is buried in the unconscious mind and can be triggered again.
  • Sexual assault can result in emotional distress that can lead to mental health disorders and substance abuse.

Sexual Assault Awareness Month is an annual campaign in April that serves to raise public awareness about sexual assault and trauma and educate communities and individuals on preventing sexual violence. Sexual trauma is just one form of trauma that can cause emotional, physical, and mental scars for an insurmountable amount of time. Victims of sexual trauma have an increased likelihood of suffering from mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, and substance use disorders.

According to studies, individuals who experience some form of trauma, whether it's sexual trauma, psychological trauma, emotional trauma, or physical trauma, are more likely to develop mental health or substance abuse disorders compared to those who lack a history of sexual trauma. When trauma occurs, the brain does not process the event properly. The trauma is buried in the unconscious mind and can be triggered again in the future. Substance abuse disorders can begin to avoid the thoughts and feelings of the past traumatic event. The disordered thoughts and behaviors associated with addiction are often practiced to suppress unwanted emotions associated with trauma and are used as unhealthy coping mechanisms and often become excessive to the point that the addiction takes over the individual’s life.

Self-harm and sexual trauma

Additionally, many individuals engage in self-harm behaviors and substance use as a form of self-punishment. Sadly, many survivors employ thoughts and behaviors such as:

  • “I had no control/safety during my trauma, and now I can find control/safety in my addiction or self-harm behavior."
  • “I deserve to be punished, and I will punish myself through using self-harm/addictive behaviors.”
  • "I’m a bad person, I deserve to hurt myself."

Beginning to tear apart these distortions and the behaviors that follow is vital in the healing and rebuilding a different internal and external dialogue. While addiction and self-harm behaviors often co-occur with sexual trauma, it is important to treat each disorder separately while simultaneously understanding the underlying triggers. Individuals with a history of sexual trauma will often disconnect from their bodies to “numb” the pain. They may choose not to look at their bodies in the mirror or neglect their body as a form of coping with their trauma. Addiction and self-harm are unhealthy coping mechanisms often used to numb the mind from emotional distress, eliminate any discomfort, or distract, numb, or fill an emotional void.

Who is affected by sexual assault?

  • Every 73 seconds, another American is sexually assaulted.
  • That means every single day, more than 1,000 individuals experience sexual violence in this country.
  • 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed, 2.8% attempted).
  • About 3% of American men, or 1 in 33, have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.
  • From 2009-2013, Child Protective Services agencies substantiated or found strong evidence to indicate that 63,000 children a year were victims of sexual abuse.
  • The majority of child victims are 12-17. 34% of young victims of sexual assault and rape are under age 12, and 66% of victims of sexual assault and rape are 12-17 years old.
  • Almost one-third (31%) of all rape victims developed PTSD sometime during their lifetime.
  • Rape victims are 13 times more likely than non-crime victims to have attempted suicide.
  • Sexual assault victims are 13.4 times more likely to have two or more major alcohol problems and 26 times more likely to have two or more major serious drug abuse problems.
  • Rape victims are three times more likely than non-victims of crime to have had a major depressive episode.

Seeking treatment for sexual assault and trauma

Sexual assault can result in emotional distress that can lead to mental health and substance abuse disorders. Therefore, it is important to seek professional treatment right away, even if you feel you are okay. It is important to find a therapist who specializes in trauma-informed care. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is an eight-phase treatment technique involving brief, interrupted exposures to the traumatic event, eye movement tracking, and recall of feelings and emotions associated with the traumatic event. It is the first-line psychotherapy approach for individuals who have experienced any form of trauma, including sexual trauma.

Professional mental health experts also recommend attending a trauma support group to get involved with a community for additional support. Many substance abuse and mental health treatment centers offer trauma-informed care, including EMDR, since trauma and mental health are closely linked. Studies have shown that EMDR can be used for mental health disorders when a co-occurring trauma is present.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

This post is also published on AKUA Mind and Body.

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