While a sexual assault survivor’s physical injuries may not always be visible, the unseen psychological impacts of trauma can be severe and profoundly debilitating. In providing effective, respectful, and appropriate support to survivors, engaging in trauma-informed practice is crucial. Whether in your professional life or your personal life, a trauma-informed understanding of and approach to sexual assault will serve to benefit your ability to meaningfully support survivors. Considered through this lens, sexual assault survivors’ actions and behaviours are understood as normal responses to abnormal experiences, rather than as ‘symptoms’ of a ‘problem.’ Instead of asking, ‘What is wrong with this woman?’ we shift to asking, ‘What has happened to this woman?’
Trauma-informed practice puts forth an understanding of trauma as an adaptive response to a serious external threat, rather than an individual pathology or injury. All of a survivor’s responses to sexual assault are adaptive attempts to survive this traumatic experience. During a sexual assault, a survivor’s sympathetic nervous system (SNS) becomes activated, fighting for survival by flooding her body with stress hormones. Survivors respond to trauma in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. A survivor may tell you that she fought back (fight) or that she tried to get away (flight). The vast majority of sexual assault survivors experience the freeze response, also known as ‘tonic immobility’; these survivors describe being unable to move or speak during the assault. Understanding the neurobiology of trauma and sharing this information with survivors can be beneficial in supporting their resilience. Providing simple, concise, and plain language explanations to survivors can assist them in making sense of their own responses during a sexual assault. Survivors often hold themselves fully or partially responsible for what happened; this is particularly pronounced for survivors who experienced the freeze response. Learning that this response is automatic and protective (i.e., meant to minimize harm) can help survivors move away from tendencies to blame themselves. When asked about what they were thinking or feeling during a sexual assault, many survivors will share that they feared they may be killed; recognizing this fear, and their body’s protective response to it, can help survivors make sense of what they might initially view as a passive response.
During a disclosure of sexual assault, you might hear a range of experiences and observe a range of emotional responses to this trauma. Whether she is disclosing immediately following the sexual assault or after some time has passed, the impacts of trauma are multifaceted; you may hear a survivor describing anxiety, fear, anger, sleep disturbances, nightmares, invasive memories, changes in appetite, depression, self-isolating, self-blame, panic, and difficulty trusting others. It is also not uncommon for a survivor to appear calm and collected, which stands in contrast to the emotional reactions many would expect a survivor to display, even though she is likely experiencing these emotions internally. If a survivor is disclosing soon after she was sexually assaulted, it is common for her to express confusion, shock, or disbelief. She may also appear numb or seem disoriented. Additionally, it can be beneficial to examine the impact of shock on a survivor’s immediate cognitive processing of what happened to her. Helping the survivor to name and understand her responses can benefit her process of recovery. Additionally, when a survivor discloses sexual assault, a trauma-informed approach emphasizes that the hormones released during a traumatic event – which serve a protective function during a sexual assault – impact how the brain encodes memory. A survivor may have clear memories of the assault and how it unfolded. Conversely, she may remember only fragments of the assault, primarily recall sensory details (e.g., sounds, smells, tastes), and/or lack a sense of chronological order. Through trauma-informed practice, you can assist a survivor of sexual assault in recognizing her reactions to and recollections of what happened as normal responses to trauma.
A trauma-informed approach also emphasizes the capacity for overcoming trauma, recognizing survivors’ strengths and resilience in their path toward healing. Every survivor copes with sexual assault in a different way, based on numerous factors that include her support system, any prior abuse or violence, past experiences of disclosing and/or reporting, and the context of the sexual assault itself. Being sexually assaulted can compromise a survivor’s ability to earn a living, feel safe and secure, and maintain relationships with friends, family, and partners. Survivors may feel that being sexually assaulted has permanently damaged them, or they may struggle with the belief that there is a ‘correct’ way to heal from sexual assault. In the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault, the experience and resulting trauma can be a central aspect of survivors’ lives. It is important that a survivor knows that how she feels and how the assault is affecting her will likely shift over time. Recovery from a sexual assault is not a linear process. At times, survivors may feel as though their healing has regressed to an earlier time and feel discouraged by what they interpret as a lack of progress; it is critical to normalize this, and help survivors understand the assault will come to encompass less space as she moves forward in her healing.
How you react to a survivor’s disclosure can have a significant impact. The first person a survivor discloses to is a key person in their experience. A judgmental response can be discouraging and damaging, while a trauma-informed response can help a survivor feel heard, believed, and empowered to make their own decisions about what to do next. A trauma-informed approach is invaluable in that it can deepen your understanding of the impacts of sexual assault, survivors’ strength and resilience, and the path toward healing.
Survivors of sexual assault can access support services through the Ending Violence Association of BC and through VictimLink BC’s multilingual, 24/7 telephone service at 1-800-563-0808.