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In the late 90’s, I began venturing into the early stages of my counseling education. In addition, I began a required semester of volunteer counseling. My first clients were women from the large church my family attended. One particular young woman came to see me who had been in an elementary Sunday School class I taught years before. Therefore, I struggled to maintain a calm composure as she described the sexual trauma she had endured at the hands of her brothers…and the subsequent PTSD she was suffering.
Unfortunately, I was not equipped to help her then. As a professor told us in our undergraduate program, we knew just enough to be dangerous. In the following years, more Christian women came to me with similar stories. As a result, I quickly realized that I never wanted to be in that position, again. There are people, trained therapists, programs, hotlines available for women who no longer want or need to be silent about their abuse and the resulting PTSD.
PTSD And Sexual Trauma Identified
As noted last week, initial research on trauma and PTSD focused on men. Most of these researchers concentrated on male combat veterans and how they responded to trauma sustained from war. However, in 1995, researchers who studied women’s experiences of sexual assault identified a syndrome that was similar to that experienced by combat-exposed men. This recognition led to an increase in research on women’s experiences of traumatic events and risk for PTSD.
Consequently, research exploded on women, trauma, and PTSD. As mentioned in my former blog, Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. did extensive research on trauma and the brain, (The Body Keeps The Score). (https://amzn.to/3gSijpA)
What is Sexual Assault?
This may seem like a silly question. Nevertheless, I fear that it has grown so common in our culture that we have grown numb to the reports.
The term “sexual assault” refers to a range of behaviors that involve unwanted sexual contact or behavior. This can include actual and attempted rape as well as unwanted sexual touching.
Furthermore, sexual assault occurs at staggering frequency in the United States. The CDC, (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,) estimate that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will experience sexual violence at some point in their lives.
Common examples of sexual assault are:
- Being taken advantage of by someone who has authority over you (boss, parent, teacher, doctor)
- Bribed or manipulated into performing unwanted sexual acts against her will
- Being forced into sexual activity because a woman is unable to give consent due to intoxication or being mentally/physically incapacitated
- Being physically forced or violently sexually assaulted
Short-Term Effects of Sexual Trauma
Initially, the trauma of being assaulted can leave you feeling scared, angry, guilty, anxious, and sad. Additionally, the stigma surrounding sexual assault causes many to feel humiliated, embarrassed or ashamed. Other things someone who has been traumatized by sexual assault may experience are:
- Shock and disbelief
- Mistrust, sense of betrayal
- Memory loss
- Heightened sensitivity to touch
- Repulsion to sexual contact, or hypersexuality
- Change in eating or sleeping habits
- Anger, thoughts of revenge
- Disorientation, confusion
- Overwhelmed, fear of “going crazy”
- Intense fear of injury or death
Many survivors experience a reduction in symptoms within a few months, whereas some women experience distress for years.
Long-term Effects of Sexual Trauma
Unfortunately, sexual assault produces negative, long-term side-effects when left untreated. Children who have experienced sexual abuse have many, sometimes severe long-term negative effects. We may discuss that in a later blog.
Surprisingly, the long-term effects of PTSD are global – mental, emotional and physical:
- Chronic pain and worsening physical health problems
- Risk of developing autoimmune diseases
- Depression, anxiety, social withdrawal or suicidal thoughts and behaviors
- Loss of occupational or academic functioning
- Difficulties with interpersonal relationships
- Substance abuse, addiction
- eating disorders
Healing: Is It Possible?
First, YES, healing is possible for most people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. The process can be slow, however, and requires patience and a therapist. Regrettably, for some PTSD symptoms will be lasting.
Notably, the recommended therapy for PTSD is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, (EMDR.) Dr. Van Der Kolk found this to be true in his research and therapists support it today. This therapy helps the client process the trauma and release the past.
Secondly, Van Der Kolk recommends yoga. The brain tends to shut down during a trauma event which leads to numbing. Yoga enables you to reconnect with your body.
Helping Yourself While Healing
Along with therapy, there are several ways an assault survivor can help herself.
- Focus on slowing your breathing when you feel frightened. Your breathing may become irregular when you’re scared, which could lead to panic.
- Carry an object that reminds you of the present. Some people find it helpful to touch or look at something when they’re having a flashback.
- Tell yourself you’re safe. Write down key phrases ahead of time which you can refer to when you are frightened.
- Comfort yourself. Curl up in a blanket, listen to soothing music, or cuddle a pet.
- Keep a journal. Writing down what happens when you have a flashback could help identify patterns in what triggers those experiences. You might also learn to notice early signs that they’re beginning to happen.
- Try grounding techniques. Grounding techniques can help you stay connected to the present. For example, describe your surroundings out loud.
Where Was God?
I’ve heard the anguished question many times as a hospital chaplain and as a therapist, “Where was God when my baby died?” or “Where was God when I was repeatedly raped as a child?” or date raped or…
Fortunately, there have been several books written over the years asking similar questions. These books were written by people wiser than me. For instance, C. S. Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain. Philip Yancey wrote Where is God When it Hurts?
In addition, Tim Keller wrote Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering. Joni Erikson Tada wrote When God Weeps: Why Our Sufferings Matter to The Almighty. One last book by an author I especially admire: Suffering and The Heart of God – How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores by Dianne Langberg, PhD.
These authors have each suffered and/or worked with suffering people.
What I know is sin entered the world in the Garden. With sin came death, evil and destruction. And we have been suffering the consequences to this day.
Suffering and The Bible
As one who has suffered, I also am convinced that God never wastes our sorrows, though they may be many. Jesus suffered greatly. He identifies with your suffering.
1 Peter 3:18
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.
And He comforts us with the comfort that only He can give…if we will accept it.
2 Corinthians 1:3-4
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
It may be hard to see now, but our sufferings are not comparable to the glory we will see later.
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
And His love will never be taken from us.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
And then, when it’s all over…
He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
Hear this song from a man whose son committed suicide in Nov. 2020.
The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis (https://amzn.to/3hwkcbX)
Where is God When It Hurts (https://amzn.to/3hwkz6l)
Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering (https://amzn.to/3k3kVDc)
When God Weeps: Why Our Sufferings Matter to The Almighty (https://amzn.to/3r1rO9p)
Suffering and The Heart of God – How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores (https://amzn.to/3qXX8G5)