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  • Writer's pictureJuan Chapa, MS, LPC, CCST

Sexual Abuse and Mental Health

Meta description: If you have ever experienced any form of abuse (sexual, physical, emotional, or mental), you are aware that it may have a significant impact on your mental as well as physical health. The best way to deal with these issues is to get help from a professional.

Sexual Trauma and Mental Health

It's not your fault, and it's not okay that you have fallen victim to sexual predators. But it's common for things like sexual assault and defilement to change how you feel about yourself and how you feel about other people. The mental health problems resulting from such an incident include, but are not limited to, eating disorders, PTSD, various forms of depression and anxiety, alcohol use disorder (AUD), and substance use disorder (SUD).

When these problems affect your mental health, they can hurt many parts of your life, such as your relationships and career. Seeking help from a mental health professional can help you work through and heal from past trauma

What is Trauma?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the term "trauma" refers to an individual's emotional response to a traumatic event that is both physically and emotionally hazardous or destructive. Some examples of traumatic events include a violent assault, an accident, rape, or a natural disaster.[1]

Different people conceptualize trauma differently. However, the trauma you experience can be classified as follows depending on the period of exposure;

· Acute trauma -emanates from a single dangerous and stressful event such as rape.

· Chronic trauma – affects you if you have been exposed to repeated and prolonged highly stressful events such as child abuse or neglect, bullying, or domestic violence.

· Complex trauma- emanates from being exposed to multiple traumatic events.

Sexual Trauma

Sexual traumas are the bodily, mental, and emotional signs that you may exhibit immediately or at a later day after you have been sexually assaulted, including other forms of sexual assault. You may be in a position where you are involved in sexual contact or behavior without your consent. Sexual assault may occur in different forms, including;

· Attempted rape

· Rape

· Fondling or unwanted sexual touching

· You are forced to perform sexual acts such as oral sex or penetration.

RAINN -an organization that works with sexual abuse victims, reports that:

· Every 68 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted.

· 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys under 18 years face sexual assault at the hands of adults. [2]

Sexual assault continues to cause complex mental health conditions in the general population since some cases are never reported. Hence, the victims hardly get any treatment for the invisible scars. You need to visit a hospital immediately for post-exposure prophylaxis and documentation of events for use by the police.

Symptoms of Sexual Trauma

Your reactions and behaviors after experiencing sexual assault are completely unique to you. It's possible that your body will decide to ignore the assault in some situations and go on as normal.

Depending on the severity of the traumatic event that occurred in the past, some individuals may be able to function normally for a considerable amount of time despite the effects of the trauma before developing a variety of symptoms at a later point in their lives. The signs and symptoms may present themselves in a variety of different ways, including psychologically, emotionally, or physically.

Physical Symptoms

You may be keen to observe the following physical symptoms in a loved one who you suspect has experienced an unwanted sexual act;

· Difficulty sleeping

· Headaches

· Concentration challenges

· Chest pain

· Stomach difficulties

Sexual assault victims may exhibit physical symptoms such as;

o Bruising

o Bleeding (vaginal or anal)

o Difficulty walking

o Soreness

o Broken or dislocated bones

o Sexually transmitted infections and diseases

o Pregnancy

Psychological Signs

The effects of sexual trauma may also intrude on your mental functions, as shown by the following signs;

· Difficulty concentrating

· Random emotional outbursts

· Self-harm

· Substance abuse

Emotional Effects

You may be able to hide the physical aspects of sexual assault or even the sexual trauma that you are struggling with. Still, the emotional effects of the following signs may linger longer in your sun conscience:

· Emotional numbing to avoid feeling any specific pains

· Avoiding all persons, places, and things that might trigger a memory of the event

· Intrusive thoughts that playback traumatizing scenes

· Sexual trauma may cause a shift in personality- you may find it hard to relate to others if you were previously "a people person," and you may avoid others due to the sexual violence.

How do abuse and trauma affect your mental health?

You may have been abused as a child or adult. The abuse may be emotional, verbal, physical, or sexual. However, trauma can include hazardous, terrifying, or highly stressful situations or events, such as sexual assault, war, an accident, natural disaster, the sudden or violent death of a close relative, or a serious physical health problem.

The trauma you are suffering from originates from a tragic event that hurt you emotionally or physically; this may affect your mental, physical and emotional health, leading to mental health conditions such as;

Anxiety disorders

Anxiety is a normal feeling of worry and fear. Anxiety becomes a disorder when you are excessively worried, taking a long to disappear, or combined with other symptoms such as; losing control, being on edge for no reason, sweating or shivering, and being overwhelmed by unnecessary worry.

Different types of anxiety disorders such as Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), Panic disorder, Phobias, and Separation anxiety have different specific symptoms.


Depression or major depressive disorder is a psychiatric disorder that affects your mood, behavior, and health. Depression is a serious mental health disorder that causes severe symptoms that alter how you feel, think, and handle your daily chores. In some cases, major depression can interfere with your ability to carry out significant activities such as eating, sleeping, or work performance.

NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) confirms that 5.6 million young adults had MDE, and 4.0 million had MDE with severe impairment the previous year. It also reported that 52.9 million adults 18 years and older had Any Mental illness (AMI). In contrast, 14.2 million had Serious Mental Illness (SMI) in the previous year.[3]

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder you develop when you have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event, in this case, sexual trauma.

You may experience a wide range of reactions after trauma. Yet, you are likely to recover from the initial symptoms naturally. Naturally, your body's "fight or flight" mechanisms kick in to defend you from the predicted danger.

If you continue to experience these symptoms- you may feel stressed or frightened even when you are not in danger, leading to PTSD.[4]


Alcohol use disorder (AUD) and substance use disorder (SUD) may develop due to trauma or other mental disorders such as depression and vice versa; You may develop mental health conditions from a drinking or drug problem. The relaxing and "feel good effect" alcohol and substances triggers in your brain make you want to repeat the consumption.

Borderline personality disorder

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is characterized by poor self-image, a feeling of emptiness, and great difficulty coping with being alone. Suppose you or a loved one is suffering from BPD. In that case, you may observe that you exhibit highly volatile and intense moods and unstable relationships. You may also show impulsive behavior. [5]

You are at a higher risk of trying to self-harm or committing suicide. You may unintentionally cut or burn yourself, thinking you are administering self-punishment or fighting against an empty feeling.

Trauma and abuse cause lasting mental health problems with long-term effects such as;

· Severe anxiety, stress, or fear

· Abuse of alcohol or drugs

· Depression

· Eating disorders

· Self-injury

· Suicide or suicidal thoughts

Steps to take if you have been abused or traumatized

After being abused or traumatized, your emotions may compromise your decision-making. However, you need immediate professional help, including getting medical help and filing reports with the police.

The doctor and police play an essential role since they help document the events if you may need to move forward with legal actions against the perpetrator. The sooner you can access professional help, the sooner your healing can begin. [6]

You may also be experiencing changes in your feelings, behavior, perspective, or way of thinking that may interfere negatively with your work or daily activities. You need to seek the services of a mental health professional near you. One-on-one counseling and group therapy with others with similar problems are some interventions that may help in your recovery process.

The mental health provider can help you develop solutions that best suit the mental health condition you may be diagnosed with and any other co-occurring issues.

Consider Getting Help Today

The fact that you've been abused sexually is never and never will be your fault. You are not alone; others have had similar experiences and have recovered, and so can you. To stay concealed, to retreat inside oneself, or to feel guilty is not a choice. Trauma does not need to feel like a life sentence. Reach out for help from a professional to start your healing journey today.


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