If you are a survivor of sexual assault, you are painfully aware of the lengthy process involved in rebuilding your sense of self-worth. Unfortunately, this does not happen overnight and the healing journey can seem long and tedious. On top of this, it can be particularly strenuous if the assault takes place when you are a student attending university. This period of our lives is often described as a momentous occasion of freedom, self-discovery and making friends for life. Yet, if this experience has been stolen by something as life-altering as sexual assault, you may find yourself feeling isolated and out of control of your life. Perhaps even disappointed that your expectations of the ‘classic’ university experience have been shattered. The aftermath of sexual assault can leave you questioning your own sanity and judgement, some people even blame themselves as they relive the night and think about what they could have done differently. It’s important to note that these are normal responses to any traumatic event. But in order to support you on this journey of healing, we have included some simple steps below that may help you start feeling like your old self again.
Confide in others
Due to the stigma attached to sexual assault and rape, it can be extremely difficult to admit that this has happened to you. You may also be concerned with how people will react to this information, questioning if they will look at you in a different way or even blame you for the assault. Sometimes it feels like talking about it will make it seem more real, and if you remain silent, it’s easier to forget. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. When you stay silent and try to deny what happened, you are delaying your chances of healing. Having said this, opening up can be scary and it is so much easier said than done. In order to combat this fear, it is important to be selective about who you tell. Choose someone who is trustworthy and will show empathy and compassion towards you. If you cannot find anyone you feel comfortable telling, there will always be alternative options that can offer support such as contacting a rape crisis hotline. You can even contact your health and wellbeing centre at university or arrange a session with the student councillor. It is also worth considering a support group for rape and sexual abuse survivors. Being surrounded by people who have had similar experiences can help you feel less alone. They can also provide invaluable information that will help you work towards recovery.
Prepare yourself for upsetting images and flashbacks
After an assault, survivors may find it difficult to think about anything but the incident, and your mind will often replay what happened time and time again. During stressful situations like assaults, our bodies temporarily go into ‘fight-or-flight’ mode. When the threat passes, your body calms down. But traumatic experiences can cause your nervous system to become stuck in a state of high alert. This can manifest itself through nightmares, flashbacks and intrusive thoughts, especially in the first few months afterwards. Although you cannot always stop a flashback from occurring, there are certain things you can do in the moment to try and bring yourself back to the present. Start by slowing down your breathing. Remind yourself that this is a flashback, that the event is over and you survived it. Grounding techniques such as describing the environment or touching your arms are excellent tools in taking you away from your flashback and back to the present.
Coping with feelings of guilt and shame
Even though many survivors are aware that the assault was not their fault and they cannot be blamed for what happened, you may still struggle with feelings of guilt or shame. It is easy to look back on the event and question what you could have done differently to avoid what happened. Yet, feelings like this are counter-productive and it is important to remember that you had no part to play in what happened. When feelings like this arise, you need to remind yourself of the reality of the situation and accept that you were not responsible and so have nothing to feel ashamed of. It’s easy to think about what we could have done differently, and harder to be kind to ourselves.
Feelings of guilt and shame frequently arise from misconceptions you had about the person or the situation, such as trusting someone you ‘shouldn’t’ have. This is particularly heightened if you knew your attacker and had some kind of a relationship with them. If your trust has been violated, it is natural to question your own judgement and if you missed any warning signs. Remind yourself that your attacker is the only one to blame, and they should be the ones feeling guilty and ashamed, not you.
Another common reason for survivors feeling guilty is that they didn’t actively stop the assault from occurring. However, in the midst of an assault it is common for your body to go into shock and ‘freeze’. Don’t beat yourself up for your body’s natural reaction. If you were in the position to stop the assault you would have, trust you did the best you could under the circumstances.
Being under the influence when the assault took place can leave you feeling like you were irresponsible and should have been more cautious. Remember that no matter how sober you were, what you were wearing or where you were, this assault didn’t happen because of your actions. The blame needs to be allocated where it belongs, with the perpetrator.
Inform your university
Although there is clearly a much needed reform at universities across the UK in regards to the way they handle and investigate sexual assault claims, it is helpful to let your university know what has happened. Student Support and Wellbeing Services, Disclosure Teams and Counselling Services will be available at your university.
After experiencing trauma, it is common to have difficulties concentrating and focusing on work. You may find it beneficial to communicate with your tutor to limit misunderstandings about expectations on essays or your contribution seminars as well as gain extensions on any deadlines that are approaching.
It’s natural to feel isolated and disconnected from your peers following a traumatic event. Socialising can seem like an impossibility and it’s tempting to hibernate and turn down social invites. Although it’s important to follow your healing journey at your own pace, and only do things if and when you’re ready, staying connected is an important aspect of recovery. This isn’t to say that the traumatic experience always needs to be the topic of conversation. Spend time with people who are supportive and love you, who make you laugh and act as a reminder of all the good and happiness that is still present in your life.
Listen to yourself and go at your own pace, but there may be occasions when you have to force yourself to participate in social activities when you may not feel up to it. Returning to ‘normal’ activities will allow you to rediscover yourself. But remember that this is your journey, and there is no time limit for how long it should take for you to start feeling normal again.
If you are comfortable doing so, perhaps even consider joining a society at university. This will allow you to focus your energy on a new activity whilst also making new friends who have similar interests to you. As well as this, participating in ‘feel good’ activities such as volunteering at a food bank or charity will give you a real sense of purpose. Giving back to the community can make you feel helpful and productive.
Make self-care a priority
Overcoming a traumatic event and dealing with the emotions that accompany it can seem impossible. In these situations, it is important to make self care your main priority and take some time to nourish your body and soul. Modern day society encourages us to be constantly hustling and working towards goals, but it is crucial that you do not put too much pressure on yourself to snap back into this mindset. If you struggle to take time for yourself, we have included several tips below.
Allow yourself time to relax and replenish. Maybe if you are away at university, take a few days to go back home to restore your balance. It is ok to take a break and you shouldn’t feel guilty or punish yourself for doing so. If you find it difficult to relax, perhaps take up journaling, meditation, yoga or go on walks.
Try to avoid self-medicating with alcohol or drugs. Although this may seem like the easy route to take your mind off what happened, substance use exemplifies many symptoms of trauma. You may find this step particularly difficult if you feel pressure from your peers to engage in these activities. But it is important to put your health first. Perhaps suggest to your friends a game night in or going out for an activity such as mini golf! Not all social interactions need to involve alcohol and you will benefit much more by avoiding it for a while.
Rekindle your love of childhood hobbies or pick up new ones. It is particularly useful to engage in creative activities such as drawing or painting or playing an instrument. Express yourself and emotions through creating something tangible. We also recommend taking care of yourself physically through regular exercise. Perhaps get that gym membership you’ve always put off, or join the university netball team. Exercise is a great way to sooth your traumatised nervous system, relieve stress and help you gain a sense of control over your body.
Be smart about media consumption. Avoid anything that may trigger you such as news reports about sexual violence or any sort of sexually explicit shows or movies. It’s even a good idea to temporarily avoid going on any social media platforms. It’s become the norm to stare at our phones for hours on end, but this type of behaviour can be really detrimental to our mental health. Particularly when trying to heal, it can be really difficult to constantly see the best version of everyone’s lives, comparing ourselves to these unrealistic expectations. Take some time away and reconnect with who you are before trying to engage in this type of activity.
Returning to ourselves cannot happen overnight, and it is important to take time to adjust and reorganise your life. A fundamental aspect of this guide is to be gentle with yourself throughout the process. Everyone is on their own path of healing.