How to Cope With Sexual Assault

6 Coping Skills for Dealing With Sexual Assault Triggers| Everyday Health

How to Cope With Sexual Assault

The disgraced entertainer Bill Cosby’s overturned conviction for aggravated indecent assault and his sudden release from prison has undoubtedly been triggering for many survivors of sexual assault — meaning it has brought about distressing memories of their own experience or a strong emotional or physiological reaction.

For this reason, the court decision has led to a “tremendous outcry” from advocacy groups who support survivors, says Elizabeth L. Jeglic, PhD, a professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

“Sexual abuse is the most underreported crime, and it is estimated that only about one-third (37 percent) of survivors report the crime to authorities,” Dr. Jeglic says. “What is even more frustrating is that only 25 every 1,000 sex crimes result in incarceration for the perpetrator.”

Sexual violence — sexual contact that happens without consent — is very common, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), affecting more than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men at some point in their lives. Barriers to reporting sexual assault include distrust of the criminal justice system, and the fact that victims know how rare convictions are in such cases, says Jeglic.

RELATED: What Is PTSD? Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

How Cases Cosbys Affect Survivors

When a high-profile sexual assault case unfolds in court, it can cause different reactions among survivors of sexual assault, notes Shauna Springer, PhD, a California-based trauma expert and the chief psychologist at the Stella Center.

In some cases, the news generated by these trials can galvanize survivors to continue speaking out against sexual assault and in support of victims, while in other cases, it can be retraumatizing, Dr. Springer explains.

“When sexual assault survivors report the assault, everything from collection of evidence to sharing their story in public takes so much courage, and when that is not met with justice, or when someone is convicted and then released on a legal technicality, that can promote the message that survivors of assault cannot defend themselves or cannot get justice,” explains Springer.

Jeglic says, “When a high-profile case such as Cosby’s is overturned, this brings survivors' feelings of helplessness and hopelessness to the forefront and can retrigger the trauma.”

The news can also produce physiological reactions in survivors, Jeglic says.

It can cause the brain to respond as if it’s back in a traumatic situation, which can activate a fight-or-flight instinct and elicit symptoms shortness of breath, racing heart, nausea, difficulty focusing, feelings of panic, and feelings of depersonalization or derealization — feeling as though you’re having an out-of-body experience or are disconnected from your surroundings.

If you or a loved one feels triggered or retraumatized by the news of Cosby’s release from prison and similar headlines, first let yourself acknowledge the injustice. It is important when going through difficult emotions to realize they’re valid.

But if you find yourself consumed by these thoughts and feelings, it also helps to have a cache of coping strategies you can turn to. Here are six expert-recommended techniques to try. As with all coping strategies, they work best if you practice them first when you’re not feeling triggered.

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1. Turn Off News and Social Media

Constant reminders of Cosby’s situation and others it can be more harmful than helpful for sexual assault survivors, Jeglic says. “While you may want to know more about what happened, constant exposure to the details of the crimes and others’ reactions can just exacerbate the trauma symptoms,” she explains.

2. Lean on Your Support System

If you’re a survivor of sexual assault, having people in your life who support you is key to healing, says Springer, adding that having a support system can help survivors if they feel activated or retraumatized by Cosby’s being freed or similar scenarios.

“If a survivor has people in their corner who believe them, who have been down this road before, or who have advocated for them, in other words a ‘tribe’ of people that support them, they are going to be protected from some of the negative effects of what they can’t control,” Springer explains.

Jeglic agrees, recommending you call a friend, family member, or your therapist and let them know you are struggling.

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3. Use Grounding Techniques

Grounding techniques are relaxing activities that alleviate anxiety and stress by replacing your focus on thoughts of the past with a connection to what’s currently happening around you, according to experts at James Madison University (JMU).

Grounding techniques that involve using your senses of sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch are particularly effective for survivors of sexual assault. “Using your five senses can help you stay grounded in the present and minimize flashbacks,” Jeglic explains. Per JMU, some techniques include:

  • Press your feet firmly into the ground to remind yourself of where you’re standing.
  • Keep a calming photo with you and look at it when you’re anxious.
  • Notice the people, sights, and sounds around you.
  • Light a scented candle or visit a place with pleasant smells, such as a coffee shop or bakery.
  • Pet or play with an animal, whether it’s your own pet or an animal at a local shelter.
  • Listen to an audiobook or familiar, comforting music.

4. Practice Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness is a type of meditation that involves focusing on what’s happening in the present moment and being aware of any thoughts, sensations, or feelings you have without judging them, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

If you decide to give mindfulness a go, try zeroing in on your breath as it enters and exits your body. This, Jeglic explains, can be especially helpful for keeping you in tune with the present if you begin thinking or feeling as if you are back in a traumatic situation.

Meditation can also help you relax by lowering your breathing rate and loosening tense muscles, says the Cleveland Clinic.

RELATED: Stress Less During COVID-19: 4 Virtual Meditation Options You Can Try at Home

5. Avoid Drugs and Alcohol

If you’ve been through a traumatic event a sexual assault it may be tempting to turn to drugs or alcohol to dull your reaction to triggers or distressing memories of your experience, according to the University of Michigan.

“While there may be a tendency to want to numb the emotional pain, using drugs and alcohol will only make the situation worse,” Jeglic cautions.

It could inadvertently foster a substance abuse disorder down the road — meaning you habitually use alcohol or drugs to the point that it impairs your ability to function. This could pave the way for relationship issues with loved ones, problems at work, and health issues, the University of Michigan experts say.

6. Get Help if You Need It

If you’re feeling triggered or retraumatized, reach out to a therapist or mental health professional.

“There are ways to treat many of the most severe symptoms without having survivors share the worst day of their experience repeatedly; these new treatments can really alleviate suffering very efficiently while not necessarily requiring survivors to talk through details of their assault,” Springer explains.

If you’re not sure where to start, Jeglic recommends contacting the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), which offers resources for survivors of sexual abuse and assault. RAINN also has a free, confidential, 24/7 National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE (4673).

RELATED: Treatment and Medication Options for PTSD


Overcoming Sexual Assault: Symptoms & Recovery

How to Cope With Sexual Assault

According to (2017) statistics, an American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds. This statistic alone is incredibly alarming, but other statistics suggest that:

  • One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old (National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 2015).
  • One in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college (National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 2015).

Sexual assault is an under-reported crime. It is estimated that only 63% of incidents are reported to the authorities—and just 12% of child sexual abuse cases (NSVRC, 2015). Beyond the obvious legal implications of not reporting these crimes, those who do not report sexual assault incidents are less ly to receive appropriate treatment.

This can mean months or years of struggling with anxiety, depression, intrusive memories, and intimacy difficulties.

What Is Sexual Violence?

The term “sexual violence” is an all-encompassing, non-legal term that refers to crimes sexual assault, rape, and sexual abuse.

Sexual assault is defined by the United States Department of Justice as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.

” This can mean inappropriate and unwanted touching and forced sexual acts (including attempted acts) such as sexual intercourse or oral sex.

Common Experiences and Symptoms Following Sexual Assault

Sexual assault is traumatic. Similar to other traumatic experiences, it is normal for a person to experience trauma-reaction symptoms in the weeks following an assault.

In fact, 94% of women who are raped experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in the two weeks following the assault. This is normal.

It is a reaction to the fear, feeling of loss of control, and vulnerability that one experiences following any unexpected and shocking event (i.e., what is called trauma). These symptoms generally include:

  • Intrusive re-experiencing (through memories or reminders) of the assault
  • Avoidance of trauma-related stimuli or reminders
  • Alterations in thoughts and mood (negative thinking and depressed, anxious, or angry mood)
  • Increased arousal and reactivity (anxiety, hypervigilance, irritability, easily startled)

The relationship that a person had with the perpetrator prior to the assault also significantly impacts the frequency and intensity of distress that is ly to follow. Generally speaking, the closer you were with the person who committed the assault, the more ly you are to be impacted by the trauma.

NSVRC (2015) found that 84% of survivors victimized by an intimate partner are ly to experience psychological distress and related difficulties at work or school, 79% of survivors victimized by a family member, close friend, or acquaintance experience distress, and 67% of survivors who were victimized by a stranger experience distress.

Some good news is that research shows that 90% of individuals “naturally recover” from a traumatic event, meaning that their PTSD symptoms dissipate over time. It is not exactly known why some individuals recover more quickly than others, but one theory is that those individuals who recover do not “avoid” the trauma.

That is, they do not avoid thinking about it, talking about it (which is suggested, with a trained mental health professional), and expressing natural emotions related to the assault. Conversely, avoidance is known to be the most significant factor that creates, prolongs, and intensifies trauma-reaction or PTSD symptoms.

  • What Is Trauma?
  • Find a therapist to heal from trauma

Unhelpful Ways of Coping

Making the decision to not report a sexual assault may temporarily help you to believe you are “fine,” in control of yourself and the situation, or that you are not too bothered by what occurred.

Making the decision to not seek professional mental health treatment may also help to temporarily reinforce these desired beliefs.

While these are understandable acts of demonstrating resiliency to yourself (and perhaps others), these actions, unfortunately, do not work to actually relieve you of the psychological distress that is ly to follow.

Some readers may be thinking, “well, I’ve managed what happened to me well and I am fine” or “I got past it.” It is possible that you may feel that way—albeit temporarily. Very often when individuals forego trauma treatment, they may temporarily feel a lot better and not even think about what happened too often. This effect may even last for several years.

However, unfinished psychological business can create significant distress in your life.

Research shows that 70% of sexual assault survivors experience moderate to severe distress, which is a larger percentage than for any other violent crime (NSVRC, 2015). The importance of seeking professional help and not engaging in avoidance behaviors cannot be understated.

Avoidance is a short-term strategy to relieve yourself of distress, but unfortunately, it creates much more severe long-term difficulties. Therefore, avoidance does not actually work. While you may think you are reducing your suffering by not dealing with the assault (i.e.

, not talking about the assault, holding back/repressing your emotions, and avoiding reminders of the trauma), this will only prolong and intensify psychological suffering.

When to Seek Treatment

It is highly suggested that you seek treatment sooner rather than later. Some of the more easily identifiable benefits to doing this include shortened treatment time, quicker recovery, and less time spent missing out on life.

From a clinical perspective, the amount of suffering and distress is substantially reduced when a person seeks treatment earlier on. This can be hard to appreciate when you have never experienced severe anxiety, depression, irritability and anger, or intimacy problems.

Other common maladaptive reactions that are more ly to be prevented with early treatment include increased use of illicit substances, suicidal ideation, and difficulty functioning at work, school, and at home.

More specifically, NSVRC (2015) research on sexual assaults found:

  • 33% of women who are raped contemplate suicide
  • 13% of women who are raped attempt suicide
  • Victims are 3.4 times more ly to use marijuana than the general public…
  • 6 times more ly to use cocaine than the general public, and
  • 10 times more ly to use other major drugs than the general public
  • 38% of victims of sexual violence experience work or school problems
  • 37% experience family/friend problems, including getting into arguments more frequently than before, not feeling able to trust their family/friends, or not feeling as close to them as before the crime

One of the goals of this article is to help anyone reading this to avoid experiencing such significant problems altogether by seeking treatment early on.

Effective Treatments

There are highly effective, trauma-focused therapy treatments available. These include Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), Prolonged-Exposure Therapy (PE), and Eye-Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR). Each of these treatments looks different in practice, but helps the individual to work through the traumatic experience(s) and move forward in life. Trauma-focused therapy can:

  • Help you calm and soothe yourself
  • Increase your awareness of, and access to, inner strengths and outside resources
  • Process specific memories, through carefully guided talk and/or writing
  • Challenge yourself to reconnect and do non-dangerous things you have been avoiding since the traumatic event(s)
  • Challenge trauma-based thinking, so that you can restore a healthy mental framework for living
  • Make meaning of what happened and how it has affected your deepest self and your family
  • Reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Increase a personal sense of confidence and competence
  • Regain your quality of life, including enhanced relationships with others, greater activity level, and more positive and stable mood
  • Reduce, if not eliminate, trauma-reaction symptoms/symptoms of PTSD


National Sexual Violence Resource Center. (2015). Statistics about Sexual Violence. Retrieved from:… about-sexual-violence_0.pdf (2017). Types of Sexual Violence. Retrieved from: violence.

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