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Sexual Abuse Trauma

Sexual abuse is an extreme form of trauma that can cause emotional psychological pain. Often perpetrated by those who are supposed to love and protect, sexual abuse can cause long-lasting repercussions on an individual’s mental health, sense of self, and ability to form healthy relationships. As devastating as sexual abuse can be to a child, teenager or adult, receiving compassionate care from experts with specialized training in treating trauma can help survivors of sexual abuse heal. They can go on to form loving relationships that are satisfying and trusting. Survivors of sexual abuse trauma can come to understand, both intellectually and emotionally, that they are not to blame for what happened to them. And they can develop strategies for dealing with lingering stress and anxiety, so that those negative emotions don’t define their lives.

What Constitutes Sexual Violence?

There are many forms of sexual violence, including rape, child sexual abuse and intimate partner violence, according to the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse. When it comes to children, sexual violence is defined broadly. Inappropriate touching through clothing counts as sexual abuse of a child. According to experts, no physical contact has to happen for a child. Non-contact abuse includes exposure to inappropriate sexual activity or materials, voyeurism and child pornography. These distinctions are important because often people who are victims of sexual abuse may downplay their experience if it was anything other than rape. But any form of sexual exploitation, especially when it involves a violation at the hands of a family member or a supposedly trustworthy adult, can do immense harm and cause severe symptoms of sexual abuse trauma.

Prevalence of Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse can happen to both girls and boys of at any age and from any type of life circumstance. The precise prevalence of child sexual abuse is difficult to determine, because so many instances go unreported. Because people who are abused as children often don’t understand what’s happening or don’t have the words to express it, they may never tell anyone, or they may go many years without confronting what happened and seeking treatment for symptoms of sexual abuse. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, child sexual abuse is all too common.

  • 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys has been a victim of child sexual abuse.
  • Studies show that 30% of adult females and 19% of males recall a childhood sexual assault or sexual abuse incident.
  • During a one-year period in the U.S., 16% of youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized.
  • Over the course of their lifetime, 28% of U.S. youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized.
  • Children are most vulnerable to child sexual abuse between the ages of 7 and 13.
  • The abuse most often happens at the hands of someone they know – a study by the National institute of Justice found that three in four teens who were sexually assaulted were harmed by someone they know.

Yet often it’s only when people get older and are able to articulate what happened and recognize the ways that the sexual abuse is continuing to negatively impact their lives that these victims seek out the help they need.

“Thank you.” Really, I mean it.

The Short and Long-Term Impacts of Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse can cause significant trauma, destroying a child’s sense of safety and impacting the developing mind, ability to trust, and feelings of self-worth and self-confidence. People who have suffered the trauma of sexual abuse may feel powerless and guilt-ridden, feelings that remain long after the abuse has ended. People who have been victimized by sexually abusive predators often feel shame about what occurred. Those feelings can be compounded if they have been made to feel by the sexual predator or other adults that they bear some of the blame. This manipulation of people’s thoughts, feelings and perceptions can add to their trauma and worsen the symptoms of sexual abuse. Research shows that children with a supportive, loving family recover more readily from sexual abuse trauma. But often, children who have been abused come from situations that are challenging in other ways. Many children who are sexually abused suffer other adverse experiences such as physical abuse, neglect, exposure to domestic violence among adults in the household, substance abuse in the home, or caregivers with mental illness. One study of 229 sexually abused children ages 8 to 14 found these children had experienced an average of 2.6 additional traumas, most commonly the sudden death of a family member, witnessing domestic violence and physical abuse. While other forms of trauma in the home are common, it’s important to recognize that children may suffer from sexual abuse in homes that, to an outsider, appear to be safe and ordinary.

The Legacy of Sexual Abuse Trauma

Sexual abuse can have a lasting impact on people’s physical, social and psychological well-being. Physical effects, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention include:

  • Chronic pain
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Gynecological complications
  • Migraines and other frequent headaches
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Unwanted pregnancies

The psychological and social effects can be just as profound. Children abused at any early age often become hyper-sexualized or sexually reactive. Issues with early promiscuity and poor self-esteem are unfortunately common reactions to early sexual abuse. As children become teens and young adults, symptoms of sexual abuse can commonly manifest into substance abuse and eating disorders as a result of the trauma. People may turn to alcohol or drugs as a way to forget painful memories, to numb feelings of distress and anxiety, or as a coping mechanism to deal with stress. Eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia can also be a way to exert control over the body and cope with negative emotions.

Symptoms of Sexual Abuse Trauma

  • Withdrawal and mistrust of adults
  • Depression
  • Flashbacks
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts
  • Difficulty relating to others except in sexual or seductive ways
  • Unusual interest in or avoidance of all things sexual or physical
  • Sleep problems, nightmares, fears of going to bed
  • Frequent accidents or self-injurious behaviors
  • Refusal to go to school, the doctor, or home
  • Secretiveness or unusual aggressiveness
  • Sexual components to drawings and games
  • Neurotic reactions (obsessions, compulsiveness, phobias)
  • Habit disorders (biting, rocking)
  • Unusual sexual knowledge or behavior
  • Extreme fear of being touched or undergoing physical exams

PTSD and Sexual Abuse

The trauma of sexual abuse can also lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms of PTSD can extend far into adulthood and can include withdrawn behavior, reenactment of the traumatic event, avoidance of circumstances that remind one of the event, and physiological hyper-reactivity. According to the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse, the three most common symptoms in people who have been traumatized by sexual abuse include:

  • Re-experiencing: feeling like you are reliving the event through flashbacks, dreams, or intrusive thoughts.
  • Avoidance: intentionally or subconsciously changing your behavior to avoid scenarios associated with the event or losing interest in activities you used to enjoy.
  • Hyper-arousal: feeling “on edge” all of the time, having difficulty sleeping, being easily startled, or prone to sudden outbursts.

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The Link Between Sexual Abuse and Eating Disorders

Research has shown a connection between experiencing sexual abuse and the development of eating disorders. The exact mechanism isn’t fully understood, and it’s important to understand that there are many people with eating disorders who have not been abused. But it’s thought that the eating disorder may be an attempt to gain a sense of power over the body, or a method to deal with residual stress of child sexual abuse. When eating disorders are accompanied by past sexual abuse, it can be especially difficult for people to “give up” the eating disorder because it has provided a source of comfort to them, even if it is making them sick. During the recovery process, it’s important for patients to work with a therapist who they trust and feel comfortable with.

Recovering from Sexual Abuse Trauma

No matter how difficult the past circumstances, it’s important to know that recovery from sexual abuse trauma is possible. Recovery isn’t necessarily forgetting what happened, treating the symptoms of sexual abuse, nor being completely free of any anger or sadness about what occurred. Recovery from sexual abuse trauma means that the distressing, painful memories no longer have the power to impact decisions, relationships and sense of self on a daily basis. Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders is a trauma-informed facility, meaning that our experts are trained in making sure patients who have suffered sexual abuse trauma feel safe, cared for and empowered at each step of their recovery journey. Our licensed therapists are compassionate and experienced in helping people through issues such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, substance use and eating disorders that grew out of the trauma. Research shows that specific therapeutic techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help people work through relationship difficulties as well as thought processes that have resulted from the trauma and continue to cause the person pain. We also use EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), a technique which research has shown can help take away the power of traumatic memories that cause stress, anxiety and other physical reactions. Holistic and experiential therapies such as animal-assisted therapy, art therapy, music therapy and other methods of communicating thoughts and emotions without the use of words can also help people overcome sexual abuse trauma. At Rosewood, treatment for sexual abuse trauma is done concurrently with treatment for eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder.

Get Help Now

Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders provides a personalized approach to eating disorder treatment, taking into account co-occurring conditions and past trauma, including sexual abuse trauma. We accept individuals of all ages, genders, and stages of eating disorders, treating them with respect, compassion and mutual trust at our eating disorder rehab. Our caring clinicians get to know each individual, allowing them to create an eating disorder recovery plan based on each person’s specific preferences and needs.

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