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Trauma

How to Cope Following Sexual Abuse

Learn five effective coping strategies to reduce trauma symptoms.

Key points

  • More than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will experience sexual violence involving physical contact during their lifetime.
  • Long-term consequences of sexual abuse include PTSD, cognitive disorders, and relationship problems.
  • Psychotherapy, especially cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), has been effective in helping sexual abuse survivors process trauma.
Shahariar Lenin Pixabay. Pixabay License. No attribution required.
Source: Shahariar Lenin Pixabay. Pixabay License. No attribution required.

Sadly, sexual abuse remains a significant problem in our society. According to the Centers for Disease Control more than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will experience sexual violence involving physical contact during their lifetime, with the majority of the abuse happening before the age of 18. Studies have shown that there are many long-term consequences to sexual abuse including:

  • Psychological problems including depression, anxiety, PTSD, borderline personality disorder, increased risk for suicide, and substance abuse
  • Physical problems such as poorer overall health, obesity, cognitive disorders, pain and fibromyalgia, gastrointestinal symptoms, gynecological symptoms, and cardiopulmonary symptoms
  • Psychosocial problems including relationship problems (break-up divorce/dissatisfaction), sexual unfaithfulness/promiscuity/dysfunction, and increased risk for revictimization
  • Socioeconomic problems such as employment instability, lower lifetime earning potential, lower educational attainment, less financial stability.

However, there is evidence that intervention can help to decrease some of these negative consequences of sexual abuse, and the sooner that the person reaches out for help following the abuse the better the outcome. There are various strategies and techniques that can be used to help an individual cope following sexual abuse. The following are five effective research-based strategies to minimize trauma following sexual abuse:

1. Seek Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy, especially cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) for children and adolescents who have experienced abuse, has been found to decrease symptoms of trauma, depression, anxiety, behavioral problems, and sexual acting out issues. Among adults who have experienced sexual assault and are experiencing trauma and PTSD symptoms (approximately 40% of those who experience rape will develop PTSD 3 months following the assault), CBT encompassing elements of either cognitive processing therapy or prolonged exposure therapy, or EMDR can help with symptom reduction.

2. Practice Mindfulness

Studies have found that mindfulness-based interventions can decrease symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD among survivors of sexual abuse. Some examples of mindfulness including focusing on your breath or mindful meditation.

3. Obtain Social Support

Having a support system in place can help to mitigate trauma symptoms following a sexual assault. Research has shown that having supportive family, peers, and community following the sexual abuse can serve as a protective factor against later negative outcomes. The research does suggest that it is the individual’s perception of the support that matters, as opposed to the amount of support received.

4. Practice Self-Care

Trauma can impact every facet of people's lives including eating, sleeping, and exercise. However, when those who have experienced abuse are not sleeping, eating, or exercising regularly their ability to cope effectively is decreased. Working on sleep hygiene, healthy eating, and regular exercise, which can include mindful walks in nature or yoga, can all help individuals cope more effectively with trauma symptoms.

5. Use Grounding Strategies

Many individuals who experience sexual abuse report feeling disconnected from their bodies. Further, in times of stress or when those who experience sexual abuse have reminders of the trauma, they may experience dissociation or severe anxiety. In times like those, using grounding strategies, such as the 5 senses technique, can help stay grounded in the present.

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

References

Jeglic, E.L., & Calkins, C (2018). Protecting your Child from Sexual Abuse: What You Need to Know to Keep your Kids Safe. Skyhorse, New York

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