Common Reactions to Trauma & Coping Mechanisms
Researchers recognize a set of common reactions and coping strategies that many survivors* of sexual assault experience. Reactions to trauma are unique to each victim, and there is no definitive response that a “real” victim has to an assault. This list is meant to help recognize some of the more common reactions and emotional strategies.
Often a survivor will attempt to understand what happened by coming up with reasons that the assault happened. This can often negatively manifest as a survivor blaming themselves for what happened to them (“it would not have happened if I had not…”). Positively, a survivor can assign blame to the perpetrator, but studies show it may be very hard to do so because it deprives the survivor of feeling as though they have any control over what happens to them. Rationalizing the assault can be a way of maintaining a sense of control and autonomy.
Survivors often struggle with feeling damaged, dirty, or responsible for what happened to them. They may be afraid of how friends and family will think of them or respond to them. Negative responses from these loved ones, such as victim blaming or dismissive reactions, may exacerbate these feelings.
Survivors may attempt to downplay the severity of the assault in order to try to manage their feelings or attempt to downplay them. Some survivors will also often try to assign positive meaning to the experience by identifying side benefits (“at least it helps me appreciate good things in life more”) or comparing themselves to others (“other people experience things that are way worse, therefore what happened to me isn’t so bad”). This cognitive strategy can often be confusing or upsetting to a supporter, but should be recognized as a way of attempting to define the experience and control one’s feelings about it.
Many survivors attempt to handle the often overwhelming emotions following an assault by trying to distract themselves with other activities— working, socializing, exercising, etc. While someone might expect all survivors to withdraw from social life, some survivors become more active in their work, or go out more frequently, or fill their time with other things to keep their mind off of the assault.
Difficulty trusting others
Sexual assault is a betrayal of trust, especially when the perpetrator is someone the survivor knows. Most survivors find it difficult to trust other people as well as themselves and their own perceptions. A survivor might feel like they can’t make good judgements about who is trustworthy or not, which makes friendships and relationships more difficult. On the other hand, they may place an inappropriate level of trust in everyone.
A survivor may attempt to forget about the assault all together, or avoid anything that reminds them of the assault. This could include places, people, times of day, or anything else in their environment that might act as a trigger for memories of the assault.
Needing to Process Verbally
One of the most helpful coping strategies is to talk about the range of emotions and to talk about the experience. Some may feel an almost compulsive need to talk about the assault. Working through the assault and the aftermath by talking through it can help give a survivor a sense of control over how they feel and think about what happened.
Seeking Social Support
A survivor might try to surround themselves with others or avoid being alone. Some survivors might seek out the presence of others not to talk about the assault, but just to be around others. Sometimes survivors have an intense fear of being alone or isolated.
Rather than a flood of emotions, some survivors feel numb after an assault and have a difficult time feeling anything. Many survivors in the days following their assault feel shock that manifests as emotionlessness or flat affect. Some survivors felt “out of body” during their assault, and memories of the assault can trigger that dissociated feeling again.
A survivor may experience changes to their daily routine, sleeping and eating schedules. Some survivors make conscious choices about their habits to reduce the amount of stress or fear they experience, such as avoiding the place where the assault happened, or only going to the dining hall when they feel they won’t see anyone they know.
Frazier, Patricia A., and Jeffery W. Burnett. "Immediate coping strategies among rape victims." Journal of Counseling & Development 72, no. 6 (1994): 633-639.
Burgess, Ann W., and Lynda L. Holmstrom. "Adaptive strategies and recovery from rape." The American journal of psychiatry (1979).
Burt, Martha R., and Bonnie L. Katz. "Dimensions of recovery from rape focus on growth outcomes." Journal of interpersonal violence 2, no. 1 (1987): 57-81.
Meyer, C. Buf, and Shelley E. Taylor. "Adjustment to rape." Journal of personality and social psychology 50, no. 6 (1986): 1226.
Cohen, Lawrence J., and Susan Roth. "The psychological aftermath of rape: Long-term effects and individual differences in recovery." Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 5, no. 4 (1987): 525-534.
Valentiner, David P., et al. "Coping strategies and posttraumatic stress disorder in female victims of sexual and nonsexual assault." Journal of abnormal psychology 105.3 (1996): 455.
Other Facts about Trauma & Recovery
- Survivors can engage in emotion-focused coping or problem focused coping (Frazier & Burnett 1994).
- Changing cognitions through emotion-focused coping, such as talking about the assault or seeking counseling, is associated with better recovery from uncontrollable events and is shown to reduce overall negative psychological symptoms (depression, anxiety, PTSD) (Forsythe & Compas, 1987).
- Problem-focused coping, such as helping the police catch the suspect or participating in adjudication, can help stressors feel more controllable (Valentiner, Holahan, & Moos, 1994).
- Many sexual assault victims experience acute PTSD symptoms immediately following an assault (Riggs, Rothbaum, & Foa, 1995; Rothbaum, Foa, Riggs, Murdock, & Walsh, 1992). These symptoms subside in many survivors, even without clinical intervention. However, around one third of victims experience ongoing PTSD symptoms that could be diagnosed as chronic PTSD (Riggs et al., 1995; Rothbaum et al., 1992; Kilpatrick, Edmunds, & Seymour, 1992).
- Women with a known offender reported significantly poorer self-rated recovery and more psychological symptoms (Ullman & Filipas 1996).
- Victims of incapacitated rape were significantly less likely to disclose to formal sources such as the police, administration or other crisis services than were forcible rape victims. (Brown, Testa, & Messman-Moore 2009)
- Survivors of rape while incapacitated were significantly more likely to blame themselves for the rape (Brown, Testa, & Messman-Moore 2009).
Forsythe, Carolyn J., and Bruce E. Compas. "Interaction of cognitive appraisals of stressful events and coping: Testing the goodness of fit hypothesis." Cognitive Therapy and Research 11, no. 4 (1987): 473-485.
Valentiner, David P., Edna B. Foa, David S. Riggs, and Beth S. Gershuny. "Coping strategies and posttraumatic stress disorder in female victims of sexual and nonsexual assault." Journal of abnormal psychology 105, no. 3 (1996): 455.
Riggs, David S., Barbara O. Rothbaum, and Edna B. Foa. "A prospective examination of symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder in victims of nonsexual assault." Journal of Interpersonal Violence 10, no. 2 (1995): 201-214.
Rothbaum, Barbara Olasov, Edna B. Foa, David S. Riggs, Tamera Murdock, and William Walsh. "A prospective examination of post-traumatic stress disorder in rape victims." Journal of Traumatic stress 5, no. 3 (1992): 455-475.
Kilpatrick, Dean G., Christine N. Edmunds, and Anna K. Seymour. "Rape in America: A report to the nation." (1992).
Ullman, Sarah E., Henrietta H. Filipas, Stephanie M. Townsend, and Laura L. Starzynski. "Psychosocial correlates of PTSD symptom severity in sexual assault survivors." Journal of traumatic stress 20, no. 5 (2007): 821-831.
Brown, Amy L., Maria Testa, and Terri L. Messman-Moore. "Psychological consequences of sexual victimization resulting from force, incapacitation, or verbal coercion." Violence Against Women (2009).
*We know that there are differing opinions about when it is appropriate to use the terms “survivor” or “victim.” On this page we use the term “survivor” to refer to people who have experienced sexual violence to denote the healing process and redefining of one’s identity that takes place after an assault. When the term “victim” is used, it will refer to someone actively experiencing abuse, or when sexual violence is described in the context of the criminal justice system.