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Violence Prevention

Violence Prevention Programs
Dean of Students Office
Virginia Solan
TLC 232-A
University of Idaho
Moscow , ID 83843-2431
Phone: (208) 885-0688

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Coping with Feelings and Fears

Feeling "crazy" is normal

Sexual assault is a violent or coercive invasion of personal privacy and space, and can be a humiliating and terrifying experience. Sometimes victims fear for their lives. In other cases, sexual activity without consent may not have violent overtones, but it can still radically affect the survivor in all aspects of life. The experience of sexual assault has different meanings for different people. Survivors typically experience a variety of behavioral and emotional reactions, based on their experiences, their support systems, and the characteristics of the assault itself.

Feelings after an assault vary widely and are dependent on the emotional makeup of the individual survivor and past traumatic experiences. But the range of reactions has a name: Rape Trauma Syndrome, which is often referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. It means that a survivor has experienced a trauma or a significant, terrifying event.

Many survivors of sexual assault find support and understanding in talking with other survivors to see how they have reacted to their own experiences of assault. Healing is facilitated by developing a support network. Not everyone has understanding friends or family, yet there are ways to find the support you need. Research shows that the sooner a survivor can speak of her/his experience in a supportive environment, including with family, friends, and professional counselors, the more rapid and thorough the healing process. Professional counselors with experience in this area understand Rape Trauma Syndrome. They can help you sort out your options and refer you to support groups for survivors or individual counseling.

Survivors of sexual assault may experience a spectrum of fears, and have a legitimate concern for their safety. These fears are normal, and each person will need her/his own time to heal and to feel safe again. Some people are afraid at home (whether or not the assault occurred there), and some may be afraid when they go out. They may fear being alone while at the same time have a need to isolate themselves. Others feel mistrustful of others; this is especially true if you know your assailant. These feelings will go away, but it will take time for them to subside. Staying with a close friend or supportive relative for a while may be helpful. Talking with a sexual assault counselor can be a vital connection that can help you through this difficult time.

An effective method for calming these fears without the help of a therapist is called systematic desensitization. With the help of a partner or close friend, make a list of the things you are afraid of doing. Put the things you fear least at the top of the list and end with activities you fear most. Take a few deep, relaxing breaths, and then imagine yourself doing the first thing on the list. Try to keep your body relaxed as you visualize successfully completing the activity. Proceed to the next item on the list only if you feel relaxed and able to do so. Take as much time as you need to work through each listing. The next step is to try the activity, first with a friend and later alone, if you feel it is safe to do so. Confronting each fearful situation at your own pace will help empower you to live without the fears and constraints that naturally occur following an assault.

The most important concept to keep in mind is that everyone reacts differently and it is not unusual for feelings to change from day to day. In particular there can be a long gap between the assault and the emotional reaction. It can be difficult to talk about the experience to friends or family yet it is important to have understanding and support. It can be helpful to reach out to resources for emotional support and healing: talk to a trained person in confidence -- a counselor from the University Counseling & Testing Center or an advocate from Alternatives to Violence of the Palouse or another counselor of your choice--  in planning for emotional safety and moving forward with your goals. You also can Instant Message with a confidential advocate from RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network, 24-hours a day.

Common Feelings

Fear and mistrust are very normal, natural, and common reactions to a sexual assault. Many survivors look for quick solutions, which can create a sense of guilt. You may think you could have prevented the assault. But, the responsibility for sexual assault lies with the offender, even if you knew him. Or you just want the experience to go away, which, unfortunately does not happen.

Women and men who have suffered sexual assault describe feeling:

  • frightened
  • guilty
  • powerless
  • angry
  • ashamed
  • depressed
  • numb
  • loss of self-confidence

Sometimes survivors have difficulty with eating or sleeping. They may lack concentration and find this makes academic work difficult. The Dean of Students Office can help survivors work with faculty for academic success through the stressful weeks following a sexual assault.