Select Page

Coping With Rape

When a person is raped or sexually assaulted, his or her world is turned upside down. Not only has he or she been violated in the most intimate way possible, he or she has to heal from the assault. But…how? Society is still afraid to talk openly about a rape or sexual assault; people may not know how to approach the rape victim – afraid to say the wrong thing.

Read more information about rape/sexual assault.

Read more about male sexual assault.

Every person who has been sexually violated responds differently to the crime – some become horribly depressed while others become very angry. All emotions are fair responses to a rape or sexual assault.

Here are a list of tips for talking to a rape victim as well as how to help yourself recover from a rape or sexual assault. Note that for the purposes of this resource, we are using rape and sexual assault interchangeably.

How To Recover From A Rape/Sexual Assault:

The trauma of being raped or sexually assaulted can be shattering, leaving you feeling scared, ashamed, and alone or plagued by nightmares, flashbacks, and other unpleasant memories. But no matter how bad you feel right now, it’s important to remember that you weren’t to blame for what happened and you can regain your sense of safety and trust. Recovering from sexual trauma takes time, and the healing process can be painful. But with the right strategies and support, you can move past the trauma, rebuild your sense of control and self-worth, and even come out the other side feeling stronger and more resilient.

Sexual violence is shockingly common in our society. According to the CDC, nearly 1 in 5 women in the U.S. are raped or sexually assaulted at some point in their lives, often by someone they know and trust. In some Asian, African, and Middle Eastern countries, that figure is even higher. And sexual assault isn’t limited to women; many men and boys suffer rape and sexual trauma each year.

Regardless of age or gender, the impact of sexual violence goes far beyond any physical injuries. When you’ve been raped, the world doesn’t feel like a safe place anymore. You no longer trust others. You don’t even trust yourself. You may question your judgment, your self-worth, and even your sanity. You may blame yourself for what happened or believe you’re “dirty” or “damaged goods.” Relationships feel dangerous, intimacy impossible. And on top of that, like many rape survivors, you may struggle with PTSD, anxiety, and depression.

It’s important to remember that what you’re experiencing is a normal reaction to trauma. Your feelings of helplessness, shame, defectiveness, and self-blame are symptoms, not reality. No matter how difficult it may seem right now, with these tips and techniques, you can come to terms with what happened and learn to heal and move on with your life.

If you have been the victim of a rape or sexual assault, you may not know how to feel normal again. You may feel that the emotional pain of a rape or sexual assault will never go away. You may feel shame, depression, anxiety and fear after the attack. No matter how you feel, know that things will become better, you will learn to heal, and life will go on in your new normal.

Physically:

Seek medical attention – even if you do not want to take the assault to the police, you must be seen by a doctor to receive care for any injuries and to be tested (and receive treatment) for any sexually transmitted infections.

Even though you may have the intense desire to shower, before showering go see a doctor so he or she can collect evidence to try and convict your rapist. Even if you do not want to press charges right away, you may change your mind later. Chances are, your rapist has or will attack someone else. This evidence could be the difference between a conviction and another rape on another person.

Do not throw away or wash the clothes you were wearing at the time of attack. Place them in a sealed plastic bag to take to the police.

Emotionally:

Adjusting To Life After Rape: Reach Out

You are not alone – one out of every six women and one out of every 33 men have been the victim of a rape.

Remind yourself that every person responds differently to a rape or sexual assault – and that all feelings, ranging from depression, to humiliation, to fear, to confusion, to anger, to numbness, to guilt, to shame. All of these feelings, however unpleasant, are normal.

It can be extraordinarily difficult to admit that you were raped or sexually assaulted. There’s a stigma attached. It can make you feel dirty and weak. You may also be afraid of how others will react. Will they judge you? Look at you differently? It seems easier to downplay what happened or keep it a secret. But when you stay silent, you deny yourself help and reinforce your victimhood.

Reach out to someone you trust. It’s common to think that if you don’t talk about your rape, it didn’t really happen. But you can’t heal when you’re avoiding the truth. And hiding only adds to feelings of shame. As scary as it is to open up, it’s what will set you free. However, it’s important to be selective about who you tell, especially at first. Your best bet is someone who will be supportive, empathetic, and calm. If you don’t have someone you trust, talk to a therapist or call a rape crisis hotline.

Challenge your sense of helplessness and isolation. Trauma leaves you feeling powerless and vulnerable. It’s important to remind yourself that you have strengths and coping skills that can get you through tough times. One of the best ways to reclaim your sense of power is by helping others: volunteer your time, give blood, reach out to a friend in need, or donate to your favorite charity.

Consider joining a support group for other rape or sexual abuse survivors. Support groups can help you feel less isolated and alone. They also provide invaluable information on how to cope with symptoms and work towards recovery. If you can’t find a support group in your area, look for an online group.

The rape was NOT your fault. Self-blame is common among rape victims. Rape victims tend to feel as though they are somehow responsible for the rape. It’s not true – the only person responsible for the sexual assault is the person who committed the rape.

It may take quite some time to rebuild trust in other people. Being the victim of a rape shatters your sense of trust and it’s not something easily rebuilt – like anything else, it takes time.

If you’re finding that you’re having a particularly difficult time coping in the aftermath of the rape, don’t be afraid to find a local counselor who specializes in rape and sexual assault.

Confide in a trusted loved one about your feelings. Don’t keep them bottled inside because you feel you should be “strong” for other people. Let them know how you’re hurting and what they can do to help.

Adjusting To Life After Rape: Coping With Guilt and Shame

Even if you intellectually understand that you’re not to blame for the rape or sexual attack, you may still struggle with a sense of guilt or shame. These feelings can be present immediately following the assault or arise years after the attack. But as you acknowledge the truth of what happened, it will be easier to fully accept that you are not responsible. You did not bring the assault on yourself and you have nothing to be ashamed about.

Feelings of guilt and shame often stem from misconceptions such as:

You didn’t stop the assault from happening. After the fact, it’s easy to second guess what you did or didn’t do. But when you’re in the midst of an assault, your brain and body are in shock. You can’t think clearly. Many people say they feel “frozen.” Don’t judge yourself for this natural reaction to trauma. You did the best you could under extreme circumstances. If you could have stopped the assault, you would have.

You trusted someone you “shouldn’t” have. One of the most difficult things to deal with following an assault by someone you know is the violation of trust. It’s natural to start questioning yourself and wondering if you missed warning signs. Just remember that your attacker is the only one to blame. Don’t beat yourself up for assuming that your attacker was a decent human being. Your attacker is the one who should feel guilty and ashamed, not you.

You were drunk or not cautious enough. Regardless of the circumstances, the only one who is responsible for the assault is the perpetrator. You did not ask for it or deserve what happened to you. Assign responsibility where it belongs: on the rapist.

Adjusting To Life After Rape: Flashbacks And Nightmares

When you go through something stressful, your body temporarily goes into “fight-or-flight” mode. When the threat has passed, your body calms down. But traumatic experiences such as rape can cause you nervous system to become stuck in a state of high alert. You’re hyper sensitive to the smallest of stimuli. This is the case for many rape survivors. Flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive memories are extremely common, especially in the first few months following the assault. If you’re nervous system remains “stuck” in the long-term and you develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they can last much longer.

To reduce the stress of flashbacks and upsetting memories:

Try to anticipate and prepare for triggers. Common triggers include anniversary dates; people or places associated with the rape; and certain sights, sounds, or smells. If you are aware of what triggers may cause an upsetting reaction, you’ll be in a better position to understand what’s happening and take steps to calm down.

Pay attention to your body’s danger signals. Your body and emotions give you clues when you’re starting to feel stressed and unsafe. These clues include feeling tense, holding your breath, racing thoughts, shortness of breath, hot flashes, dizziness, and nausea.

Take immediate steps to self-soothe. When you notice any of the above symptoms, it’s important to quickly act to calm yourself down before they spiral out of control. One of the quickest and most effective ways to calm anxiety and panic is to slow down your breathing.

It’s not always possible to prevent flashbacks. But if you find yourself losing touch with the present and feeling like the sexual assault is happening all over again, there are things you can do.

Accept and reassure yourself that this is a flashback, not reality. The traumatic event is over and you survived. Here’s a simple script that can help: “I am feeling [panicked, frightened, overwhelmed, etc.] because I am remembering the rape/sexual assault, but as I look around I can see that the assault isn’t happening right now and I’m not actually in danger.”

Ground yourself in the present. Grounding techniques can help you direct your attention away from the flashback and back to your present environment. For example, try tapping or touching your arms or describing your actual environment and what you see when look around—name the place where you are, the current date, and 3 things you see when you look around.

You may want to learn some breathing exercises to help you calm down. This is one we recommend:

  • Sit or stand comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
  • Take a slow breath in through your nose, counting to four. The hand on your stomach should rise. The hand on your chest should move very little.
  • Hold your breath for a count of seven.
  • Exhale through your mouth to a count of eight, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but your other hand should move very little.
  • Inhale again, repeating the cycle until you feel relaxed and centered.

Adjusting To Life After Rape: Feeling Your Feelings

Your nervous system is in a hypersensitive state following a rape or assault, so you may start doing things to numb yourself or avoid any associations with the trauma. But you can’t selectively numb. When you shut down the unpleasant sensations, you also shut down your self-awareness and capacity for joy. You may end up disconnected both emotionally and physically—existing, but not fully living.

It’s frightening to get back in touch with your body and feelings following sexual trauma. In many ways, rape makes your body the enemy, something that’s been violated and contaminated—something you may hate or want to ignore. It’s also scary to face the intense feelings associated with the assault. But while the process of reconnecting may feel threatening, it’s not actually dangerous. Feelings, while powerful, are not reality. They won’t hurt you or drive you insane. The true danger to your physical and mental health comes from avoiding them.

Once you’re back in touch with your body and feelings, you will feel more safe, confident, and powerful.

These techniques may help:

Massage. After rape, you may feel uncomfortable with human touch. But touching and being touched is an important way we give and receive affection and comfort. You can begin to reopen yourself to human contact through massage therapy when you are ready

Rhythmic movement. Rhythm can be very healing. It helps us relax and regain a sense of control over our bodies. Anything that combines rhythm and movement will work: dancing, drumming, marching. You can even incorporate it into your walking or running routine by concentrating on the back and forth movements of your arms and legs.

Yoga, Tai Chi, and Qigong. These activities combine body awareness with relaxing, focused movement and can help relieve symptoms of PTSD and trauma.

Mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation can be practiced anywhere, even while you are walking or eating. Simply focus on what you’re feeling in the present movement—including any bodily sensations and emotions. The goal is to observe without judgement.

Signs You May Be Numbing The Pain You’re Feeling

You shut down physically. You don’t feel bodily sensations like you used to and you may not be able to distinguish between pleasure and pain

Feeling disconnected from your body and/or surroundings – you may feel like you’re watching yourself or the situation you’re in, rather than participating in it, from far away

Trouble concentrating and remembering things.

Using stimulants, risky activities, or physical pain to feel alive and get rid of the empty feeling inside of you.

Compulsively using drugs or alcohol.

Escaping through fantasies, daydreams, or excessive TV, video games, etc.

Feeling detached from the world, the people in your life, and the activities you used to enjoy.

Mental Recovery After Rape:

Recovering from a rape or sexual assault is a long, complicated experience. Do not feel guilty if you cannot simply “get over it.”

Part of healing from a rape or sexual assault involves regaining feelings of control over your environment. In addition to all of the other complicated feelings after a rape, feeling out of control is not uncommon. The rape took away your control – you must fight to bring it back.

Rebuilding feelings of safety, trust, control and self-worth can take quite a long time – that is okay.

Don’t hesitate to ask for help. If you need help from a counselor or therapist, if you need help finding a support group, if you need help going to the grocery store and getting chores done, ask someone for help. There is no shame in admitting you cannot do it all alone.

Write out your feelings. Don’t hesitate to keep a private journal of your thoughts or contribute a post or three to The Band.

It’s common to feel isolated and disconnected from others following a sexual assault. You may be tempted to withdraw from social activities and your loved ones. But it’s important to stay connected to life and the people who care about you. Support from other people is vital to your recovery.

Remember that support doesn’t mean you always have to talk or dwell on what happened. Having fun and laughing with people who care about you can be equally healing.

Participate in social activities, even if you don’t feel like it. Do “normal” things with other people, things that have nothing to do with the sexual trauma.

Reconnect with old friends. If you’ve retreated from relationships that were once important to you, make the effort to reconnect.

Make new friends. If you live alone or far from family and friends, try to reach out and make new friends. Take a class or join a club to meet people with similar interests, connect to an alumni association, or reach out to neighbors or work colleagues.

Support:

Find – and join – a support group for victims of rape and sexual assault. It can be very healing to be among people who understand the feelings you are dealing with.

Ditch anyone who doesn’t take you seriously or tries to play down what happened to you. Listening to that kind of garbage will only make you feel worse – like you need THAT in your life.

Being raped can make you feel unsafe. It may make you feel like you’re not brave any more – like you want to hide out from everyone to stay safe. Don’t be afraid to ask a friend or loved one to go with you when you begin to go out again.

There is no right or wrong way to heal. Everyone has their own way of healing.

How To Help Someone Recover From A Rape or Sexual Assault:

Your friend or loved one has been attacked and violated in one of the most horrifying of ways. You feel powerless, angry, and unsure of what to do next. 

Here are some tips for helping a loved one recover from a sexual assault:

Right After The Sexual Assault:

Encourage your friend to see a doctor and receive proper medical attention after a sexual assault. He or she may need treatment for STDs or pregnancy testing after the assault.

Encourage – but do not pressure – your friend to report the attack. If your friend does not want to report the rape, respect that decision as his or hers to make.

Shortly After The Rape:

Listen, listen, listen to your friend who has been raped. He or she may try to go over and over the assault, replaying it in his or her mind. Listen without judgement as often as your friend would like.

Assure your loved one that he or she is not to blame for the rape. Expect to do this often as your loved one tries to work out why he or she was the victim of sexual assault.

Reassure your friend or loved one that you will be by their side no matter what. Your door is always open and you’re always just a phone call away.

Reassure your loved one that no one “deserves” to be sexually violated or raped.

Remind your friend that there is no right or wrong way to feel after a rape. Many of the emotions of a rape victim can be confusing – especially to the victim of the sexual assault.

Long Term Help After A Rape:

If your friend seems to be having a particularly hard time recovering from the rape, gently suggest that he or she speak to a counselor trained to help victims of rape.

Help your friend seek therapy for the assault by finding a list of local therapists or support groups that specialize in working with the victims of sexual assault. Often, while very depressed, it is hard for a rape victim to take these steps on his or her own.

Remind your friend who has been through a sexual assault that he or she is not to blame – the guilt and the what ifs can plague a person who has been assaulted for a long time.

Expect that your loved one will experience many emotions following a rape or sexual assault. Feelings of anxiety, fear, humiliation, shame, guilt, anger, numbness and confusion are common following a sexual assault.

Give them time – if your loved one indicates that he or she is still struggling, remind them that there is no timetable for recovering from a rape. Recovery is a slow, gradual process.

If your loved one is a male who is admitting that he was raped, take extra care to reassure him that you believe him. Many people do not believe that men can be the victim of a rape – this could not be farther from the truth. Men and women can both be the victim of a sexual assault.

Read more about male sexual assault.

Help your loved one who was raped to feel that they are now safe. It may take time for a rape victim to feel safe; to begin to participate in activities when they are ready – this is okay. If they ask for your companionship to various activities – including support groups – be sure to provide it if you can.

Allow your loved one to make choices for him or herself. Being raped is the ultimate type of loss of control over their environment. Don’t step in and try to take charge – allow your friend or loved one to make their own decisions as a way to begin the road to empowerment.

Ask – rather than assume you know best – how best you can help your friend. This can help your friend begin the path to recovery and begin to rebuild trust.

It’s natural to be overprotective of a loved one who has been raped – however, your loved one may not appreciate being treated with “kid gloves” or coddled. Play it by ear – you know your loved one best – and if all else fails, ASK them what they want and need from you.

If you are having a hard time coping with the feelings that the rape has stirred up inside you, consider talking to a therapist or counselor about how to manage your OWN feelings.

Self-Care:

Regardless of whether you are a victim, a survivor, or a loved one, taking care of yourself is the best way to help others. There are many ways we can take care of ourselves.

Healing from sexual trauma is a gradual, ongoing process. It doesn’t happen overnight, nor do the memories of the trauma ever disappear completely. This can make life seem difficult at times. But there are many things you can do to cope with residual symptoms and reduce your anxiety and fear.

Take time to rest and restore your body’s balance. That means taking a break when you’re tired and avoiding the temptation to lose yourself by throwing yourself into activities. Avoid doing anything compulsively, including working. If you’re having trouble relaxing and letting down your guard, you may benefit from relaxation techniques such as meditation and yoga.

Be smart about media consumption. Avoid watching anything that could trigger bad memories or flashbacks. This includes obvious things such as news reports about sexual violence and sexually explicit TV shows and movies. But you may also want to temporarily avoid anything that’s overly stimulating, including social media.

Take care of yourself physically. It’s always important to eat right, exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep—doubly so when you’re healing from trauma. Exercise in particular can soothe your traumatized nervous system, relieve stress, and help you feel more powerful and in control of your body.

Avoid alcohol and drugs. Avoid the temptation to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. Substance use worsens many symptoms of trauma, including emotional numbing, social isolation, anger, and depression. It also interferes with treatment and can add to problems at home and in your relationships.

Balance your life – Make sure you are sleeping, eating, and exercising as regularly as possible. This will help your life regain some normalcy.

Be patient with yourself – It can take a long time to recover. It may happen in small steps, incrementally, or there may be setbacks. Be mindful of your progress and your setbacks

Breathe – Often we forget to breathe and regulating and focusing on your breath is a great way to calm and center your body. It allows you to tune in to what is going on and what you are feeling.

Allow yourself to experience your feelings – This is a tall order, and some people may feel numb after a rape. However, for most there will be emotions that come up at some point. Allow yourself to feel them and give them space to happen. You might feel angry, scared, sad – these are all normal and okay.

Find an outlet – Find an outlet to express your emotions and feelings. This can help rebuild your confidence and your sense of empowerment.

As a Loved One:

Take time for yourself – It is a big job to be supportive of a friend going through a difficult time. Make sure that you give yourself enough space so that you can be mentally available for your loved one.

Get help if you need it – Sometimes it’s worth recognizing that we don’t have all the answers. You’re not expected to be an expert. If you or your loved one need additional help or resources, scout those out and get the help you need too.

Be there – Sometimes just being there is enough. Your loved one is likely looking for a safe space to share, not for a fixer or a solution.

Things To Say To Someone Who Has Been Raped:

“I believe you.”

“I’m so sorry this happened to you.”

“This is not your fault.”

“How can I help?”

“Would you like me to find a support group for you?”

“I’m here if you want to talk.”

“I’m here if you don’t want to talk.”

“You are not alone.

It’s common to feel isolated and disconnected from others following a sexual assault. You may be tempted to withdraw from social activities and your loved ones. But it’s important to stay connected to life and the people who care about you. Support from other people is vital to your recovery. But remember that support doesn’t mean you always have to talk or dwell on what happened. Having fun and laughing with people who care about you can be equally healing.

Participate in social activities, even if you don’t feel like it. Do “normal” things with other people, things that have nothing to do with the sexual trauma.

Reconnect with old friends. If you’ve retreated from relationships that were once important to you, make the effort to reconnect.

Make new friends. If you live alone or far from family and friends, try to reach out and make new friends. Take a class or join a club to meet people with similar interests, connect to an alumni association, or reach out to neighbors or work colleagues.

How NOT To Help Someone Recover From A Rape or Sexual Assault.

Sometimes even the most well-meaning people can say the wrong thing to a victim of rape or sexual assault. It’s very hard to know what to say and what not to say.

Here are some tips for what not to do or say to a sexual assault survivor.

Don’t guilt or pressure your friend into reporting the rape – it is up to his or her discretion whether or not he or she wants to report the rape to the police. You can encourage this, but do not use guilt or pressure as a motivator – your friend is already dealing with a lot of guilt and grief about the rape.

Don’t imply or outwardly criticize the survivor for not resisting the attack. A rape is not the victim’s fault no matter what.

Don’t suggest that the rape or sexual assault was somehow related to being in the wrong place – and that the victim should’ve known better.

Don’t ask after what the rape or sexual assault victim was wearing or doing at the time of the attack – it implies that blame should be given to the victim for behaving inappropriately.

Don’t judge. Anyone can be a victim of rape or sexual assault – not simply “drunk chicks.” Assaults can happen to anyone at any time at any age. So check judgement at the door and listen openly as your friend opens up about the assault.

If your friend indicates that he or she does not want to talk about the rape, do not push for details. It may make them feel more uncomfortable than they already do, having survived a rape.

Don’t imply that he or she is mis-remembering the situation. If your friend was the victim of sexual violence, it’s not up for debate.

If the rape victim is male, do not indicate that male rape is fake or that the assault didn’t happen. Men can be raped, too.

Don’t frighten them – even as a joke. If your friend or loved one has experienced a sexual assault, chances are that they will feel jumpy and startled under the best of circumstances. So don’t come up behind them suddenly or touch them – this may trigger flashbacks of the rape.

Don’t be offended if your loved one doesn’t want to be close or touch you. Touches may trigger flashbacks of the rape. Ask before hugging or holding their hand if they are okay with you hugging them. Ask every single time you feel compelled to hug them – don’t assume that they are always going to feel comfortable with your touch.

Don’t take out your feelings on your loved one. Knowing that you weren’t able to protect someone you love from a violent sexual assault can cause a lot of unpleasant feelings inside you – it is not your friend’s responsibility to hear about or comfort you about how the rape makes you feel.

Don’t expect too much of yourself. Your friend or loved one may need different types of support from different people – you should not and cannot be the sole person to support your friend as he or she recovers from a rape.

Don’t speak for your loved one unless they have asked you to. When friends, doctors or police ask questions, allow them to speak for themselves.

Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Been Raped:

“Were you drunk?”

“What were you wearing?”

“Men can’t be raped.”

“It’s your fault.”

“Why aren’t you getting over this faster?”

“You’re wallowing.”

“That wasn’t rape.”

“You were leading him/her on.”

“You shouldn’t report it – it’s only going to make it worse for you.”

“You’re overreacting.”

If you have additional suggestions to add to this page, please email bandbacktogether@gmail.com.