How Therapy Plays a Role in Helping Survivors of Sexual Assault
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How Therapy Plays a Role in Helping Survivors of Sexual Assault

Many survivors of sexual assault resist any recommendations to see a professional, reluctant to re-live their greatest traumas. However, in our personal experience, most survivors of sexual assault exhibit the greatest signs of progress and healing through some form of psychotherapy.

Many of our clients are initially reluctant to try psychotherapy at first – but they eventually report that they are grateful for taking the leap. Psychiatric therapy can be an effective form of treatment for survivors of sexual assault and other abusive events in numerous holistic ways.

Therapy Helps You Deal with Your Situation Head-On

There are many valid reasons someone who has been sexually assaulted may feel reluctant to see a therapist. Some believe if they don’t talk about it, it will eventually away.

However, we know that seeking professional help to overcome avoidance behaviors is important. According to Elyssa Barbash, Ph.D., LMHC, “Avoidance is a short-term strategy to relieve yourself of distress, but unfortunately, it creates much more severe long-term difficulties. Therefore, avoidance does not actually work. While you may think you are reducing your suffering by not dealing with the assault (i.e., not talking about the assault, holding back/repressing your emotions, and avoiding reminders of the trauma), this will only prolong and intensify psychological suffering.”

Therapy Can Help Treat the Immediate Effects of an Assault

The psychological effects of a sexual assault can be devastating to anybody. Survivors may often exhibit physical, cognitive, and emotional symptoms such as:

  • Insomnia
  • Eating problems
  • Depression and suicidal thoughts
  • Avoidance and being withdrawn from society
  • Substance abuse
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

A therapist can help you go through all of these symptoms one-by-one and treat them individually in a sympathetic, compassionate manner. In the short term, they may initially prescribe medication to help you overcome intrusive thoughts, sleep problems, flashbacks, and anxiety. But for the best long-term outcomes, therapists take a trauma-informed approach – remaining sympathetic to your needs and tailoring their techniques to what you respond to the best.

Some people benefit from talking about the event or other past events, but some do not necessarily need to re-live or re-tell their story multiple times in order to regain their sense of self. Understanding the triggers that lead to these symptoms, thoughts, and reaction to those triggers, and how they are formed is crucial to assisting survivors of sexual assault.

Therapy Can Help You Process Your Emotions

You may feel that you are emotionally and mentally strong enough and that you have already processed what has happened to you – even if you would prefer not to talk about it. But compartmentalizing the event and ignoring it ever really happened is a red flag that you actually have not processed it – and this can wreak havoc below the surface.

Without processing your emotional state, you can manifest harmful physical symptoms. Clenching your jaw, picking your cuticles, or even turning to self-harm to relieve your stress – these are all the effects of not facing your emotions head-on.

Therapy aims to remedy those physical manifestations by helping survivors face their emotions and thoughts head-on – however uncomfortable they may be. One common way to seek this is through journaling.

By recording any daily thoughts that come up about the assault, survivors of sexual assault become a partner in their own recovery with their therapist. In addition to helping identify triggers and responses, journaling can provide therapeutic release and document harm caused by the assault. This information can then be further utilized by therapists to develop optimal strategies to remove any detrimental effects on the mind, body, and spirit.

Therapy Can Help Your Move On

One of the biggest benefits of therapy for survivors of sexual assault is their ability to cope with their own personal the guilt about events that occurred. Many survivors, unfortunately, blame themselves for the event, citing many things they did wrong or could have done better to avoid the assault.

But with a technique called Cognitive Processing Therapy, a therapist can help a survivor take into account all the factors that were beyond their control. A survivor was not sexually assaulted because they got drunk and got into a rideshare vehicle with a driver – it is simply because the driver was a predator who committed a criminal act.

By reframing these negative thoughts, a survivor of sexual assault can move forward and accept that, deep down, it wasn’t their fault, despite what they did or did not do. As a survivor comes to terms with their situation, they become more present and experience more joy in their lives.

Making Just a Small Commitment to Therapy Can Go a Long Way

If you fear going to therapy or don’t believe it can help you, make a small commitment and pledge to attend at least three sessions. At the end of each session, make an appointment for your next session while you are with the therapist. This will help you commit to going and not have to remember to schedule later. Survivors commonly start to feel more at ease after the third session and want to continue.