Coping after sexual violence
Sexual violence can cause significant trauma and short and long-term physical, emotional and sexual health issues.
Everyone reacts differently to trauma and adapts in different ways. Survivors’ reactions to the trauma of sexual violence
can depend on what happened and when; the support they have around them; their personal circumstances; personal
resilience and many other factors.
There is no right or wrong way of coping with sexual violence. Everyone has their own way of dealing with it. Some ways of coping are helpful but others may be harmful, such as using too much alcohol or drugs, over- or under-eating, self-harming, compulsive shopping or other risky behaviour.
You may need help at different times to cope with practical, health, or emotional issues. However, many people learn to cope, in their own way, with what happened just as they do with other forms of trauma and loss. Much depends on your own circumstances and the support you have. It helps if you give yourself time and don’t expect too much of yourself.
It is important to remember that you do not have to cope on your own.
Ways of coping after sexual violence
Some people tell no one. But many people say that talking to someone helped them. It is important to talk to someone you trust. If you are worried about the reactions of your family or the people around you, you don’t have to speak to someone from your own community. You have a choice about who to tell. The people you go to for help should listen to what you say and should believe you.
You may find it helpful to talk to us or the Rape Crisis Scotland Helpline on 08088 01 03 02. You may be able to get telephone, face-to-face, group or email/online support depending on your preference and what is available in your area.
You will find it easier to cope if you feel safe. There are many aspects to keeping safe. Do you feel safe where you live, at your work or in your neighbourhood? If not, you may need to think about contacting the police for help. Or you may want to make a practical change such as getting a new phone number. Are there any physical health risks as a result of the sexual violence? It may be worth getting a check-up from your GP or sexual health clinic.
It is important to take care of yourself and avoid using ways of coping which might become problematic. For example, some people blot feelings out through alcohol or drugs, or take it out on themselves or others, or get into risky situations. If you think you might be at risk of any of these, try to find some other outlet or speak to someone about what is going on.
If you are going through a hard time it’s easy to neglect yourself. But if you neglect yourself physically it can be more difficult to deal with emotional pain. So, it helps to take care of your physical health. You may be finding it difficult to eat, sleep exercise. Is there anything you can do to care for your body? Examples might be to have your favourite food or a hot bath. Try to get some exercise suitable for your fitness level.
Often survivors find it helps to focus on day-to-day things that are easy to do like watching TV, playing computer games or a familiar sport or hobby. Is there anything easy to get you started? Try to cut down the stress in your life so you are not under too much pressure at work or at home. Relaxation exercises including breathing deeply can be helpful. It may help to write things down or draw or paint, depending on your interests.
Try to keep some kind of routine as this can make you feel stable in the face of traumatic stress. And take care of your health. Eating regularly and well can make you feel better. Reduce sugar and caffeine as they can increase stress. Alcohol and drugs may make you feel better in the short-term but can cause long-term problems. If you think that your alcohol or drug use is becoming a problem, seek advice.
Give yourself time to rest and relax. There are many different relaxation techniques such as:
- Deep breathing
- Listening to music
Exercise reduces stress, is good for your physical and emotional health and makes you feel better. A short walk every day can make a big difference; even housework. Swimming, cycling, going to the gym, aerobics, dancing…whatever you fancy.
Social contact can also help. This could be meeting friends, volunteering or taking up a new activity. It is important that you feel safe and that the people you are with make you feel good about yourself.
Practise relaxation techniques, for example before you go to bed. Breathe in deeply, in for a count of five and out for a count of five.
Put your hand on your tummy and watch this rise and fall as you breathe. Consciously tense and relax your muscles, in turn; start with your toes and work up.
Resting and sleeping
Sleep problems are common after sexual violence, with problems such as flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, over-reliance on alcohol to numb emotional pain. The National Sleep Foundation recommends the following:
- Sleep in a place where you feel most rested and safe. It may not be possible to rest in your bedroom if you experienced violence there.
- Create an environment in which you can sleep well. It should be safe, quiet, cool and comfortable. While it often helps to sleep in a dark room, if keeping a nightlight on helps bring about a more safe feeling, then consider keeping the room dimly lit. It may also help if a friend or family member stays in the room, or perhaps in a nearby room, while you are sleeping.
- Engage in a relaxing, non-alerting activity at bedtime such as reading or listening to music. For some people, soaking in a warm bath can be helpful. Avoid activities that are mentally or physically stimulating, including talking about what happened right before bedtime.
- Do not eat or drink too much before bedtime and recognise the negative effect that alcohol can have on your sleep.
- Rest when you need to rest. It is common to feel exhausted after trauma, so you may need more rest or to rest differently during this time. Relaxing and resting for brief times throughout the day and taking short naps (15-45 minutes) may help.
- Go to bed when you feel ready to sleep. Try not to force sleep, which can add to the pressure of wanting to get to sleep. Developing the habit of lying in bed awake for long periods when you want to sleep is counter-productive
Concentrating on your breathing can help your body to relax naturally. Take slow deep breaths in and out. Relax your shoulders back; breathe out; and pull your stomach muscles into your spine.
Breathe in deeply, in for a count of five and out for a count of five. Put your hand on your tummy and watch this rise and fall as you breathe.
Grounding is a way of keeping yourself in the present. This can help you manage overwhelming feelings. Take a look around and note what is happening. What can you see and hear? Tell yourself your name and the date and time. You could keep an elastic band on your wrist and ‘ping it’ to bring yourself back to the here and now. Or, you could carry a pebble, a hankie or key-ring in your pocket which you can hold or rub when you need to ground yourself in ‘now’ (for example if you have a flashback or panic attack).
Grounding exercise 1
Begin by tracing your hand on a piece of paper and label each finger as one of the five senses. Then take each finger and identify something special and safe representing each of those five senses.
For example: thumb represents sight and a label for sight might be butterflies or middle finger represents smell and a label for smell could be roses. After writing and drawing all this on paper, stick it on your fridge or other safe places in your house where you can see it and memorise it. If memories are triggered, breathe deeply and slowly, and put your hand in front of your face where you can really see it – stare at your hand and then look at each finger and try to do the five senses exercise from memory.
Grounding exercise 2
Keep your eyes open, look around the room, notice your surroundings, notice details:
- Hold a pillow, stuffed animal or a ball
- Place a cool cloth on your face, or hold something cool such as a can of juice
- Listen to soothing music
- Put your feet firmly on the ground
- FOCUS on someone’s voice or a neutral conversation or music
Grounding exercise 3: 54321 game
- Name 5 things you can see in the room with you
- Name 4 things you can feel (‘chair on my back’ or ‘feet on floor’)
- Name 3 things you can hear right now ('fingers tapping on keyboard’ or TV)
- Name 2 things you can smell right now (or, 2 things you like the smell of)
- Name 1 good thing about yourself
Grounding exercise 4
Re-orient yourself in place and time by asking yourself some or all of these questions:
- Where am I?
- What day of the week is it?
- What is the date?
- What is the month?
- What is the year?
- How old am I?
- What season is it?
Mindfulness is a technique that helps you to focus your attention in the present moment – to focus on your breathing, your thoughts and feelings. It can help you relax before sleeping or if you wake after a nightmare. Mindfulness helps you to observe your thoughts and feelings without judging yourself. It also helps you to become more aware of changes in the way you see or feel about yourself.
It means noting the things that you might not usually notice about yourself or your surroundings. For example:
- When you are out for a walk notice what your arms and legs, hands and feet are doing; notice your breathing; hear, see and smell what is around you
- When you are washing the dishes, notice the temperature of the water, the feeling of the water on your skin, the bubbles, the sounds of the plates
Visualisation and expressing feelings
Picture something that makes you feel happy and safe. Try to visualise being calm and relaxed when you are dealing with difficult situations.
You have a right to express your feelings, including anger. Expressing your feelings can help you feel better as long as you do this without hurting yourself or other people. Are there things you can do safely?
Some examples which other people have found helpful are walking or running, shouting, writing, keeping a diary and painting.
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