Last month, Netflix released Unbelievable, a crime series based on the real-life case of a rape victim the police refused to believe.
The show has garnered a lot of media attention for its unflinching portrayal of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after sexual assault, specifically for highlighting some of the less obvious (yet common) symptoms.
One in six women will experience attempted or completed rape, and one in 16 women describe their first sexual experience as nonconsensual. The implications of such trauma rest heavily upon how a person’s brain processes it, which is why it’s no surprise that 50% of sexual-assault survivors develop PTSD.
Why are some more susceptible to developing PTSD than others? Because we all have a psychological immune system — shaped by our biology, environment, and coping style — that fights off stressors and trauma. PTSD is born and grows in the coping style of avoidance — of memories and emotions related to the trauma, of people, places, and things that remind them of the trauma or that now feel dangerous. The aftermath and reactions of others are particularly relevant to the post-traumatic avoidance seen in sexual assault because it can produce immense shame. It’s not uncommon for PTSD sufferers to find themselves stuck in a vicious cycle of shame, reckless behavior, and emotional numbness after their assault.
We are better prepared to help ourselves and loved ones break this cycle by understanding how it manifests. Below are three common, yet often overlooked, manifestations of PTSD in sexual-assault survivors:
Sexual assault can be life-altering, but there is hope for those who continue to suffer — PTSD is very treatable. Prolonged exposure (PE) is a specific type of cognitive-behavioral therapy that was developed in Philadelphia for sexual-assault survivors. PE is the frontline treatment for adults with a roughly 80% success rate. PE addresses distress related to the trauma, and its avoidance, through prolonged and repeated exposure to those traumatic memories in a safe setting. This empowers survivors to emotionally process their assault so it can be effectively stored into memory. PE also teaches survivors to discern between past and present, danger and safety, being traumatized and the memory of being traumatized. Doing this targets PTSD symptoms directly in a time-efficient, cost-effective manner so that you or your loved one does not have to suffer forever.