PTSD and sexual violation

By Jen Hauraki

Sexual assault and abuse are experiences which people can react to in different ways. For some, sexual violence can bring up a range of reactions, some of which might be recognisable as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (or PTSD). This month’s research paper is written by Jen Hauraki and discusses Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and what supporters can do to help someone who may be experiencing PTSD. Jen Hauraki was a part-time worker at Rape Crisis Auckland.

PTSD is a psychological response that develops in some people after experiencing extremely traumatic events, and although feeling some sort of stress after trauma is a part of a normal human response, severe and persistent symptoms warrant a diagnosis of PTSD. About 1 to 9% of the population will experience PTSD during their lifetimes, and the incidence increases to about 20% for those living in inner cities and for wounded combat veterans.

PTSD can either occur soon after the trauma or the individual can experience symptoms more than 6 months after the trauma. It effects people of any age, gender or race and can result from a range of traumas, including physical assault, sexual assault, natural disasters, war and accidents.

PTSD consists of three main groups of symptoms. Intrusive, Avoidance and Arousal symptoms.

Intrusive symptoms occur when memories and images of the trauma keep reoccurring, either through vivid dreams at night or daytime flashbacks. For a PTSD sufferer, it just feels like the present is dominated by the trauma, and that they are reliving it day after day. These images often occur with really intense feelings of grief, guilt, fear or anger.

An individual may avoid situations, people or events that remind them of the trauma. It could get as bad as an individual totally withdrawing into themselves and detaching from others to shut out the painful memories and feelings. Individuals often report feeling emotionally numb.

Arousal symptoms present as a person being “jumpy” and being constantly on guard and on watch. They have problems sleeping and concentrating, and feel irritated and angry at themselves or at the world.

People with PTSD also experience feelings of panic, extreme fear or depression. They might engage in potentially harmful behaviours such as alcohol and drug abuse to blunt the pain of the memories.

PTSD not only affects a person psychologically, it also affects relationships with family and friends. Due to the symptoms of PTSD, a person may withdraw from these people, making it hard to go through daily life. Family and friends may also feel that a survivor is rejecting them because he/she can’t show appropriate feelings or warmth.

Treatment of PTSD includes education, stress management, dealing with the memories and perhaps drug treatment.

Education enables the individual and their family to gain an understanding about the common reactions to trauma and to feel that their reaction is normal.

Stress management teaches the individual techniques, such as relaxation, to deal with panic and distress they are feeling.

Although survivors can’t change or forget the trauma, dealing with the memories enables the individual to view the memories and the world differently so that they can remember what happened without the extreme distress.

Drug treatments can help with the symptoms but no one drug can take care of all of them. Here, drugs are used to treat specific problems, such as depression and anxiety.

How can you help someone with PTSD?

Give them general support because support and a sense of security from loved ones and people who have genuine concern is really important for recovery. Just offer to help them out with everyday things like housework, and show them that you care.

Be there for them talk to you about what happened. Survivors need to be able to talk about and make sense of the trauma in order to deal with it. But keep in mind that not everyone will be ready to talk about it.

Keep in mind what the survivor is capable of and don’t ask too much or little of them.

Affirm and try to understand the survivor’s situation and reactions to the trauma. It could be as simple as just realising that an individual can be extremely angry and still feel emotionally numb. Feeling that their reactions are acknowledged is extremely important for survivors.

If the survivor feels like he/she needs help, support them through this process by helping them find specific counsellors or agencies that deal with PTSD, or just giving them some information that you’ve researched for them.