Looking After Yourself
- If you have any physical injuries after the assault, get help. You don’t have to tell the doctor details of the assault if you don’t want to.
- If you don’t want to tell members of your family, or friends about the assault you can contact Rape Crisis any time you need to talk. You can ‘dip into’ our service whenever you feel you need it.
- If you have reported the assault to the police and you want to know about what is going to happen at court, you can ring Rape Crisis and speak to one of our workers who will talk you through the process.
Common feelings experienced by survivors and some coping strategies
A common myth around rape is that all women will react hysterically or tearfully after the attack. The truth is that women react in a range of ways and describe a wide range of emotions in the immediate aftermath of the attack, or in the hours/days that follow.
After rape, many women are in shock. This feeling may be so strong that a woman experiences disbelief or denial. She may refuse to believe that it has happened, shut it out and have no immediate reaction at all.
Or the shock may be displayed by crying uncontrollably, laughing or talking continuously or with displays of anger.
There is no ‘correct’ response.
Apart from the physical injuries that women sometimes receive during the rape, women may also have other physical reactions in the days following the attack. Sleeplessness is common, with women often being fearful of sleep in case the attacker returns. Nightmares and flashbacks are also common, sometimes revisiting the attack over and over again.
Women may also suffer loss of appetite, stomach pains or sickness, and may experience nausea any time they think of the attack.
A common response is that women will feel the need to wash over and over again, to ‘wash away’ the feeling or the smell of the rapist. For some women this can be harmful and it is important to ensure that only safe products are used for washing, no household substances should ever be used.
Many women who have been supported by the Rape Crisis Centre have spoken about feeling that they would be severely injured or murdered while they were being raped and indeed rapists may use the threat of murder to control the women while the attack is taking place.
The extreme trauma that is associated with rape and the fear of death/murder can lead to post traumatic stress disorder.
This is the most common reaction as we always look for a reason, an explanation for what has happened to us. We also try to apportion blame...
‘I should never have asked him in for a coffee.’
An invitation for coffee is not an invitation for sex. We have the right to invite whom we choose into our home and to be confident that our safety will not be compromised. No man has the right to presume that he can force a woman to have sex under any circumstances.
‘I was really drunk; I’m not really sure what I was doing.’
Taking an advantage of a woman who is drunk and unable to consent is rape. Being drunk does not give a man the right to rape you.
‘I just froze. I should have fought more.’
When we are in situations of extreme danger, our bodies will react in a way that it thinks will best protect us. For some of us we will run, scream, fight – but for some, our bodies will freeze and be unable to move. We are not in control of this and it may be that this response will mean that we are less physically injured during the attack.
‘He’s my boyfriend, I don’t always want to, but he says he needs sex more than I do. ‘
Many women don’t speak about forced or coercive sex in their relationships as it can be very painful to admit that the person you love, who is supposed to love you, is hurting you. If you are experiencing forced or coercive sex from a man you are in a relationship with your trust is being betrayed. Sexual relationships should always be consenting and loving and should never cause fear or pain.
your trust is being betrayed. Sexual relationships should always be consenting and loving and should never cause fear or pain.
Firstly, it’s OK to be angry with this person, or people who abused you. Anger is a very normal reaction to hurt and pain but we’re raised to believe that it is a bad thing and that we should suppress it. Often our anger and our aggression are used against us, as an excuse not to deal with the abuse. The anger is all people see, not the pain behind it.
People are scared of anger, and we can be scared of it when it’s inside ourselves: we may feel that if we let it out it may overwhelm us and we won’t be able to control it. Anger can be a very positive emotion when channelled and expressed appropriately but can be very destructive when turned on ourselves.
It’s also common for women survivors of rape to suffer sleep disturbances or nightmares. These may be an exact replay of the events or it may be an abstract series of events that are hard to remember but are still upsetting.
Nightmares may be triggered by a date, a smell or a familiar place or person and can make you afraid to go to sleep. Talking to someone about the nightmares and the feelings they bring up may help. It may also help to have someone with you or a friend you can wake up for support if the nightmares do not go away.
Flashbacks are a natural reaction to the trauma of rape or sexual assault but they can be very frightening and women often describe feelings of fear, confusion, panic, being out of control, terror. This is because they can happen when you least expect them and can be triggered by a noise, a smell or by seeing something that reminds you of the attack. They can make you feel as though the attack is happening all over again but don’t worry – you are not crazy.
You may feel that you can’t speak to anyone about your flashbacks because you think you are going crazy, but it’s a natural part of the healing process.
Sometimes women will try to avoid all the things that trigger flashbacks but the down side of this is that it can really limit what you do and where you go. There are other ways to help alleviate the fear and panic that flashbacks cause.
- Tell yourself that it’s a flashback and that, scary as it is, you are now safe. Remember, it is only a memory.
- Breathe. When you are having a flashback you stop breathing normally and this can cause a pounding in your head, dizziness, shaking, sweating, feeling faint. If you can start breathing normally the feelings of panic will lessen.
- Take time to recover. It will take a while for you to feel yourself again so give yourself permission to take some time to get back to your normal activities.
- Get some support. You might want to be on your own when the flashbacks happen but if you have someone who knows about them, you can choose to talk about your feelings anytime you need to.
- Remind yourself you’re in the real world. Stamp your feet or clap your hands loudly.
- Remember that this is part of your healing process and you are a survivor.
Panic attacks are sudden, unexpected anxiety attacks that can include sweating, tightening of the chest, shortness of breath, numbness, tingling of the hands and feet or needing to go to the toilet, your mouth may dry up and you may jump at even the slightest noise.
When you first experience a panic attack you may be confused, not sure of what is happening to your body and frightened that you can’t control it. But panic attacks are another way your body has of coping with the abuse you have experienced. If your body feels threatened, it responds with the ‘fight or flight’ response and a panic attack is an exaggerated form of this.
Although panic attacks are your body’s way of coping with the memories of the attack, there are some substances that can make it worse. These include:
- Alcohol, nicotine and caffeine and some drugs can make panic attacks worse. Also some prescription drugs can bring the attack on more severely. Withdrawal from some sedatives can have the same effect.
- Your blood sugar levels being too high – this can be caused by junk food, overeating or too much fasting.
- Hyperventilating caused by stress can make a panic attack worse.
There are a number of myths around self injury – such as, ‘it’s a suicide that failed’ or ‘it’s attention seeking’. This is not the case. Self injury is a way of coping with emotional pain, a release when the pain becomes too much to bear.
Women survivors who self injure are not insane or dangerous; they are just trying to cope with the pain in their lives without hurting anyone else. It’s important to recognise that women who are self injuring need to have space to talk about their experiences, need to be believed and most importantly, need to be free of judgment.
There are a number of good publications about self harm that can be obtained from book shops or on loan from the Rape Crisis Centre library.
There are also a number of ways to keep yourself as safe as you can when you are self injuring:
- Use clean blades if you are cutting and never share with anyone else.
- Have a well stocked first aid box and keep it where you can reach it easily.
- If your wounds become infected, get to your doctor as soon as you can.
- If you’ve cut too deeply or cut a vein or artery by mistake, get help immediately.
- If you have burned yourself, dress the burn as quickly as you can. If it’s a large burn, get medical help as quickly as you can. Put the burn in cold water as soon as possible.
Drugs and Alcohol
Alcohol or prescription or non-prescription drugs are often used by women survivors as a way of coping with memories of sexual abuse. Often drugs can be prescribed to assist the woman to cope with how she is feeling or to improve sleeping. Whilst this can be a very effective short term support it should be remembered that it is easy to become dependent and reliant on medication which numbs the pain. Open discussion with your GP will allow you to determine what the best treatment plan is for you.
ometimes illicit drug use and/or excessive drinking is a problem for women who have abuse issues, again, these mask the pain and stop women remembering and experiencing their feelings.
If heavy drinking or drug use are factors it may be better that this is addressed prior to entering into any kind of therapy or counseling. Whilst feeling the emotions and experiencing and acknowledging the pain you are in are extremely difficult it is a vital part of the healing process.
Many studies have shown that a high number of women who have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse, have eating disorders. For some women, control over their eating is a way of coping and expressing their emotions. Some women who are bulimic or compulsive eaters reveal that bingeing is their way of stuffing down the emotions they feel. Food becomes their only source of comfort and it can help to numb their feelings.
Some women who have been sexually assaulted believe that if they are too thin or too obese it will make them unattractive or protect them further assaults. Some believe that by not eating they can just fade away and die. Others have expressed a need to be in control in the areas of food. Purging is a way for some to release their emotions. If they believe they cannot tell anyone about the abuse and express the emotions they are experiencing, purging may be the only way they know how to get those feelings out. Many feel relieved and calm after purging.
The binge/purge cycle may serve a protective purpose; in particular, it seems to reduce the intensity of intolerable emotional stress, and provides an outlet for:
- expression of anger
- regaining sense of self
- ensuring predictability
- cleansing oneself of the abusive experience
- relieving stress and tension
- establishing control
- developing a sense of personal space
- an opportunity to refocus
Dealing with memories of the rape or sexual assault can be very painful and difficult. At times you may feel like you are reliving the assault. If your memories are flooding back and you feel like you are re-experiencing the assault, you may feel like you are going crazy and want to die. You will probably want to isolate yourself and not talk to anyone.
It can be good to have someone to talk to and help you through it, rather than having to experience the feelings, emotions and pain all alone. Having someone to turn to and support you may help you feel less alone and make the difficult times a little easier to get through.
Ways of Looking After Ourselves
When we are going through a particularly difficult time, we can often neglect ourselves. If we neglect ourselves physically however, it can make it even harder to deal with the emotional pain we are experiencing. Below is a list of ‘self help’ tips you can use to help you look after yourself.
- Remember what you are feeling is OK and normal
- Stay warm
- Eat if you can. If you can’t eat, remember to drink fluids and maybe a little fruit juice to get some vitamins
- Have friends around you if you can
- Try to find ways of expressing your anger which work for you e.g. screaming, shouting, running, writing, painting
- Take some exercise: walk as much as you can
- Try not to drink alcohol or take drugs as they might intensify the feelings you are having
- Try painting or drawing your feelings. It doesn’t have to be good – no one will see it if you don’t want them to. It’s just for you.
- Write down your feelings. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling or what the writing looks like. Just express your feelings.
- Buy yourself something delicious to eat. Allow yourself to really
- Try not to spend too much time in crowded situations
- Have a big warm bath with something extravagant in the water like lavender oil or bubble bath. Make the bathroom safe, lock the door, light some candles and play soft music. If you can, allow yourself plenty of time to really enjoy this.
- Take some time just for you. Do what you want to do – read, draw, do nothing, go to the pictures, or meet a friend.
- Take care of yourself first and others later if you need to
- Recognise how special you are and try to realise that you are worth looking after.