What is Rape Trauma Syndrome?

Rape Trauma Syndrome

Sexual violence, including rape, has long-lasting emotional, psychological, and physical effects on survivors. One of these effects is rape trauma syndrome, sometimes called sexual assault trauma syndrome. 

Other common mental health disorders after being a victim of sexual violence include depression, anxiety, self-harm, and substance abuse.

While being a victim is traumatizing, help is available, and you should seek it out if you’re experiencing symptoms of mental health disorders. Many mental health disorders worsen, and complications occur if you don’t receive treatment. This is true for rape victims and anyone dealing with a traumatic experience. 

What is Rape Trauma Syndrome?

Rape trauma syndrome or RTS is a type of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This type of PTSD occurs specifically after a sexual assault, including forcible rape. In addition to an association with rape, RTS can occur with attempted rape and other forms of sexual assault.

RTS or rape-related PTSD includes consistent behaviors, feelings, and thoughts that frequently occur in sexual assault victims. If you’re a victim, you could experience one of the symptoms, some of them, or all. These psychological reactions and symptoms can persist for months or years following the event.

Nurse Anna Wolbert Burgess and sociologist Lynda Lytle Holmstrom came up with the term rape trauma syndrome in 1974.

The Stages of Rape Trauma Syndrome

There are several stages of RTS that victims frequently experience. You can also learn about the Types of Trauma in our other article.

These include:

  • Acute stage: The acute phase occurs immediately following a sexual assault with symptoms that can look similar to acute stress disorder. There are usually one of three categories adult rape victims fall into during the acute stage. There’s the expressed category, where you might be outwardly upset and emotional. You might experience particular symptoms like panic attacks. 
  • Controlled stage, which means you aren’t outwardly upset, but you’re instead in shock and acting like everything is fine. The third category you could fall into is shocked disbelief. You might feel disoriented and have a hard time remembering what happened.
  • Outward adjustment stage: In this phase of RTS, you may appear less outwardly traumatized or upset compared to the acute stage. You might seem to others to be moving on with your life and normal activities, but often appearance isn’t the reality for rape survivors. This stage may last for years. You could try to justify what you experienced, avoid talking about, or minimize it.
  • Resolution stage: This phase is also known as integration. You have come to terms with what happened, and you’re trying your best to move forward in the healing process. You may have long-lasting effects sexually or in other ways, but you make an effort to move on anyway.

Symptoms of RTS

Everyone experiences rape trauma syndrome differently. We don’t all share one exact response to things, but there are often common patterns. Some of the symptoms that are most frequent with RTS include:

  • Shock
  • Disorientation
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Crying
  • Withdrawal
  • Rationalization or denial
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Problems concentrating
  • Self-blame or shame
  • Suicidal thoughts or ideation
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Rage
  • Phobias

RTS is one particular type of PTSD. You could experience RTS even if you weren’t raped under the exact definition of the law. You could know your attacker, and it can happen in different settings.

The prevalence of PTSD is high in anyone who experiences sexual violence or assault. 

rape trauma syndrome

Rape Trauma Syndrome and PTSD

Posttraumatic stress disorder is the larger name for what RTS falls into, as far as a mental health diagnosis. When you’re a survivor of a sexual assault, you can experience extreme fear, anxiety, and nervousness. You may feel like you’re always in danger, and PTSD affects your functionality in daily life.

Symptoms of PTSD tend to fall into one of three categories.

  • You may re-experience the attack through dreams, flashbacks, or intrusive thoughts.
  • The next set of symptoms is avoidance, where you either consciously or subconsciously avoid situations associated with the traumatic event.
  • Some symptoms are related to hyper-arousal. With hyper-arousal, you always feel on edge. You might experience emotional or angry outbursts, have difficulty sleeping, and be easily startled.

If you are the victim of rape or sexual assault, you likely have RTS or PTSD.

How to Cope with Sexual Abuse or Assault

When you’re the victim of rape or a sexual assault, it can feel like you’re never going to be able to get away from the psychological trauma you feel. You won’t ever be able to erase the situation from your mind, but there are things you can do to live a healthy life and feel happy again.

  • One thing that anyone who is the victim of rape or sexual assault should do is work with a trauma-informed therapist.
  • A trauma-informed therapist can work with you through the framework of the effects the trauma had on your life, emotions, and relationships. 
  • This particular type of therapist understands that the impact of trauma is much more pervasive than people even realize.
  • Trauma-informed therapists will focus on the underlying reasons for behaviors or thought patterns you might want to change. 
  • The goal is to help you heal on a deep level for long-lasting change and benefits.

Working with mental health professionals gives you a non-judgmental place to process what you’re feeling, manage your stress, and develop new coping skills that will work for you. There are different types of helpful therapy to treat sexual assault.

Cognitive behavior therapies are one example. You work with a therapist to recognize and replace your troubling thoughts, emotional reactions, and behaviors.

Another type of therapy is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing or EMDR. EMDR is interactive therapy that helps with trauma and distress.

Other coping strategies you might use include:

  • Participating in group therapy or a support group so you can connect and share with other sexual assault survivors and victims of rape. You can learn more about how other people experience the trauma of rape and their common reactions to this life experience. That helps you see you aren’t alone in the recovery process. 
  • Working on developing healthy coping strategies like yoga or progressive muscle relaxation to help your physiological responses to anxiety.
  • Creating strategies to face fears you might have following the assault.
  • Finding skills to help you manage flashbacks and intrusive thoughts.
  • Reach out to the people who love and care about you. You don’t have to go through the experience alone.

If you don’t get help and support for rape trauma, you may experience a range of physical and mental effects. For example, many people who survive assaults and don’t get help will develop substance use disorders to drugs or alcohol as a common symptom. 

You may feel unworthy or develop suicidal thoughts or feelings.

Physical symptoms include muscle tension, chronic fatigue and pain, and sexual dysfunction.

Don’t Do It Alone 

If you aren’t sure where to begin to heal from sexual assault or the effects of rape, please contact us. Our team of compassionate professionals can help you learn more about the options that you may have available for treatment. 

Don’t suffer alone; let the team at the Mental Health Center of San Diego help, all you have to do is call (858) 258-9883. There are ways you can move toward a path of healing from your trauma and any other co-occurring mental disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

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