Sexual Assault: What You Need to Know About PTSD

Understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome
Sexual Assault: What You Need to Know About PTSD

Sexual assault. The trauma can go deep and have a lasting impact. Even if you just want to leave it behind and move on with your life, it’s often not that simple. Do you feel unable to concentrate? Are you having nightmares or flashbacks? These are signs that you may have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

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If you have PTSD, others can help you work through your upsetting thoughts and emotions and shift to a more positive outlook. Don’t try to just power through on your own. This condition is well known among combat veterans, but it can happen to anyone who experiences a traumatic event.

Kirste Carlson, a psychiatric and mental health nurse, answers questions about PTSD and how to treat lingering issues after a sexual assault.

Q: What are the signs of PTSD?

A: A frequent and disturbing symptom is nightmares. Reoccurring nightmares in adults aren’t normal.

Night terrors may happen to kids, but even they shouldn’t have them frequently.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Intrusive memories
  • Flashbacks of the assault
  • Memory loss
  • Triggers that boost anxiety
  • Avoidance
  • Hopelessness

Some people have many symptoms, others just a few. But if you’re uncomfortable or your symptoms impair your daily life, you should seek help.

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If you are often fearful or find yourself avoiding anything that reminds you of your assault, that may signal the beginning of PTSD.

Q: Are some people more likely to get PTSD?

A: Yes. You’re at higher risk if you:

  • Were abused as a child
  • Were already struggling with depression or anxiety
  • Have blood relatives with depression or anxiety
  • Misuse drugs and/or alcohol
  • Have little or no social support from family or friends

It really can happen to anyone, though — immediately or months later.

Q: How do you identify sexual assault?

A: Nothing gives another person permission to hurt you. If anyone does anything that hurts you, or if you say stop and the person doesn’t stop, it is abuse.

It doesn’t matter where it happens. If you were drinking alcohol, it doesn’t mean you were asking for it. And there are no states that allow one spouse to force sex on the other.

Q: What should you do if you suspect you have PTSD?

A: You need to talk with a mental health professional or your primary care provider. Most communities have a domestic violence center you can contact.

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Q: How do you treat PTSD?

A: Several types of cognitive-behavioral therapy help treat PTSD effectively.

You’ll learn strategies to help you work through your trauma and manage upsetting thoughts and feelings about the event. Therapy can help you shift from fear and anxiety to more positive thoughts and feelings.

Your doctor also may prescribe antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs. A blood pressure medication known as Prazosin may help reduce nightmares.

Q: Are there self-care activities that may help reduce symptoms?

A: Keep your schedule as normal as possible. Get exercise — even when you don’t feel like it. Eat well and avoid alcohol and other mood-altering substances. You need to help your body and mind recover.

Q: Any other advice?

A: It’s critical to see a health care professional. Even if you don’t want to talk about what happened or don’t want the details in your medical record, your doctor needs to check for sexually transmitted diseases and other effects.

It’s a natural urge to avoid talking about it, but it’s not a benign situation. Take care of yourself by letting others, such as experienced medical professionals, help you.

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