Rape Trauma Syndrome by Ashley Rondini
experiences are more traumatic than a rape or sexual assault. While the physical wounds may heal, the emotional wounds can
fester for a lifetime. Following a sexual assault, a survivor may have to face difficult medical and legal experiences and
decisions. But the process of dealing with a sexual assault doesn't end there.
Survivors may feel overwhelmed, disconnected from their feelings, or a combination of both. There is no such thing as a
"correct" way to react to an attack, but there are common feelings that many survivors experience. Many sexual assault counselors
call this experience rape trauma syndrome (RTS). RTS is a kind of posttraumatic stress disorder, which often occurs when people
have potentially life-threatening experiences or have witnessed other people having them.
There are three main phases of RTS. Phases may last weeks or years. Recovering from the experience of an assault may mean
moving back and forth within these phases over the course of a lifetime.
The Acute Phase
In most people, the initial (acute) phase of RTS occurs right after an assault. Although it varies for different people,
this phase typically lasts for several weeks after the attack. People may assume that the "normal" response to an attack is
to cry. This may be true for some survivors, but not all.
Survivors may display "expressed" or "controlled" emotional responses during the acute phase. Expressed responses release
emotions through crying, laughing, shouting, talking, or any other way of letting out emotional tension.
Controlled responses hold back the emotions. People with controlled response may seem withdrawn, resistant to talking,
silent, distracted, numb, or disconnected from their feelings.
During the acute phase, a survivor may also experience noticeable changes in sleeping and eating habits. Just as an assault
often causes feelings of losing control over what is happening to one's body, the disturbances to normal sleeping or eating
habits may also raise issues of control over the physical self. Survivors may also be extremely aware of their surroundings
— for example, they may be very startled by unexpected sounds or occurrences.
The Reorganization Phase
In the second stage of RTS survivors begin to reorganize their lives after the assault has disrupted their routine. During
this phase, some of the initial shock is likely to wear off, and the survivor's understanding of what has happened begins
to really sink in. This may go on for months or even years.
Dealing with the reality of what has happened can be very painful. Survivors in the reorganization phase sometimes feel
guilty or ashamed (even though being assaulted is never the survivor's fault). Nevertheless, survivors may feel hatred toward
their bodies and may punish themselves with unhealthy eating patterns.
Survivors may do other things that seem out of character — like withdraw from the activities and people that they
usually enjoy. Sometimes, survivors may indulge in uncharacteristically self-destructive or risky behavior like abusing drugs
to block their feelings or cutting themselves in attempts to release feelings they cannot otherwise express.
The effort to reorganize may affect a survivor's sexual relationships. For some survivors, being sexually intimate after
an attack can be frightening, and they may find it difficult to be close to someone in a sexual way. But for others, the response
is exactly the opposite. Being assaulted may cause people to feel disconnected from their bodies, and they may seek out as
many sexual experiences as possible in order to try to erase or replace the memory of the assault.
The Resolution Phase
Survivors who come to terms with their experience are in the resolution phase. They may still be sad, angry, or hurt by
the assault, but in this phase, survivors may begin to focus on recovering and moving forward with their lives. This does
not necessarily mean that they've gotten over the experience. What it does mean is that they are getting stronger and learning
ways to manage feelings about the attack in order to feel a greater sense of control in their lives.
Survivors who have reached the resolution phase can still experience flashbacks and nightmares. Flashbacks can be triggered
by certain sounds, places, or smells that remind them of the assault. Healing is a lifelong process. The Rape, Abuse and Incest
National Network can provide counseling and assistance for survivors of rape. Call 1-800-656-HOPE or visit its website for additional information and support.