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Sexual Violence and Traumatic Memories

Victims may be haunted by stressful memories for a long time. But there's hope.

Victims of sexual violence suffer haunting memories.
Source: nadja-golitschek/pixaby

Young women with a history of sexual violence suffer from more repetitive thoughts and more intense memories of all stressful events in their lives than women who have never experienced sexual violence, according to a study published in the September 5, 2018 issue of Frontiers in Psychology. A team of researchers at Rutgers University surveyed, interviewed, and assessed 183 college-age women with some form of trauma history that involved serious injury, a threat of death or sexual violation. Of these, 64 participants reported experiences of sexual violence and of those, 21 met SCID-5 diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

At least one out of four women worldwide has reportedly experienced some form of sexual violence, most often during adolescence and early adulthood. While only some victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence develop PTSD, all are at higher-than-average risk of developing the disorder, and many suffer some of the same symptoms as someone who is diagnosed with PTSD, the researchers found. Those participants who had experienced sexual violence had, on average, seven current symptoms of PTSD, whether or not they met the full criteria for diagnosis. In contrast, women who had been exposed to a form of trauma not related to sexual violence averaged one current symptom of PTSD.

Ruminative thoughts and intensely felt memories of trauma and stress are common symptoms of PTSD experienced by women with a history of sexual violence, along with symptoms anxiety and depression. In this study, the intense thoughts and feelings were not limited to memories of sexual violence but extended to memories of other traumatic events as well. Although all participants felt similar intensity when recalling traumatic events, those who had been victims of sexual violence recalled their events in significantly more detail and were more severely affected by their memories than participants who had not experienced sexual violence.

The women in this study who had experienced sexual violence reported significantly more reflective, depressive and brooding rumination than the women who did not have a history of sexual violence. Memories of trauma, though strong on details, were likened to repeatedly watching a movie of the event, rather than actually experiencing the intense feelings all over again. Those with a history of sexual violence reported symptoms of moderate yet significant depression and anxiety.

How do women recover from sexual violence? One treatment that is considered effective is Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PET), wherein a trauma victim is encouraged to repeatedly recall the memory until it begins to fade and become less accessible, in turn reducing any associated fear and anxiety. As the researchers point out, however, PET is not accessible to everyone. This type of therapy can be expensive, time-consuming and so emotionally painful for the victim that they can’t finish the treatment. The researchers looked for another way to treat victims of sexual violence.

Rather than focus on the memory itself, the researchers developed a program that targets rumination in order to reduce repetitive thoughts and painful memories of stressful life events. Their program, which they call MAP (Mental and Physical training) involves six weeks of twice-weekly, hour-long sessions divided into 30 minutes of silent meditation and 30 minutes of aerobic exercise. Upon completion of this combination program, women in this study with a history of sexual violence reportedly had fewer ruminative and trauma-related thoughts than women who only practiced meditation or only exercised. The researchers concluded from this experience that reducing rumination may be an appropriate goal for recovery from sexual violence because it can reduce intense memories of the trauma.


Millon EM, Chang HYM, Shors TJ. Stressful Life Memories Relate to Ruminative Thoughts in Women with Sexual Violence History, Irrespective of PTSD. Frontiers in Psychology. 2018;9.