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The psychology of healing from sexual trauma
A deeper look at what happens in the first 2 years after experiencing sexual trauma.
The content in this article may be triggering to some readers. This article contains discussion around the topics of sexual assault, rape, sexual violence, trauma and PTSD. Please read at your own discretion.
- Between 17-25% of women and 1-3% of men will report an instance of sexual abuse within their lifetime - however, research suggests up to 80% of sexual violence goes unreported, so the number of people who have experienced sexual abuse is much higher than you think.
- A 2004 study takes a look at the psychological healing process sexual abuse survivors experience within the first 21 months after their assault.
- Results of this study prove the decrease in behavioral self-blame that survivors reported feeling within the first 21 months after their attack greatly aided in their recovery.
How common is sexual assault and abuse?
17-25% of American women have reported a sexual assault sometime in their life.
Photo by fizkes on Shutterstock
Sexual assault can take many different forms but generally refers to sexual contact that occurs without the explicit consent of the victim. Some forms of sexual assault include attempted rape, fondling or unwanted sexual touching, forcing a victim to perform sexual acts and penetration of the victim's body (also known as rape).
According to the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the rate of reported sexual assault and rape has decreased by 63% from 1993 (when there were 4.3 sexual assault reports per 1,000 people) to 2016 (when there were 1.2 sexual assault reports per 1,000 people.)
While some may look at these statistics and think the risk of sexual assault and rape are diminishing, something of note when dealing with sexual assault statistics is that these statistics are only ever representative of reported cases of sexual trauma.
In reality, these kinds of results only account for sexual assaults that have been reported - and according to the U.S Department of Justice (2018), an estimated 80% of sexual assaults go unreported.
RAINN statistics (2016) on sexual violence:
- Every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted.
- One out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.
- About 3% of American men have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.
Other statistics fall closely in line with these numbers, as you can see in this 2017 study, where it was reported that around 17-25% of women and around 1-3% of men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
Surviving sexual abuse: A look at the psychopathology of sexual abuse survivors 21 months after their trauma
3% of American men have reported sexual assault sometime in their life.
Photo by Sam Wordley on Shutterstock
A 2004 study (Mary P. Koss and Aurelio Jose Figueredo) of the healing process of sexual trauma over the first 21 months proves significant improvements in the psychopathology of sexual abuse survivors.
During this study, reported rape survivors (59 participants) were assessed four times over the course of 21 months after their sexual trauma.
Researchers used the "Rape Attribution Questionnaire", which consists of three 7-item subscales that assess the survivor on the following criteria: Behavioral Self-Blame, Characterological Self-Blame, and External Blame.
This questionnaire consists of sentences such as "how often have you thought: I was assaulted because…" with the participants choosing answers that range from 1 (never) to 5 (very often). This questionnaire is used to gauge the psychopathology of the assault survivor based on how they view their traumatic experience.
The results of the Koss and Figueredo study suggest that many things happen within the first 2 years of a person experiencing sexual trauma…
Causal attributions: trying to find the "why"...
First, uncontrollable and traumatic acts (such as rape) stimulate what is known as "causal attributions", which are defined as our attempts at explaining the situation "rationally".
This leads survivors of sexual trauma to ask themselves questions such as "why did this happen to me?" and "what could I have done differently?"
Behavioral Self-Blame increases in the first few months after sexual trauma
In the months after the initial trauma, Behavioral Self-Blame increases. Survivors begin to question if there was anything they could have done to prevent the attack and can even begin to place blame on themselves (a common example for women is thinking about what they were wearing, if it was too provocative, if they encouraged the attacker in any way, etc).
Initially, after an assault, it's common for our body and mind to go into "protective mode", which is often the "numb" feeling many people experience after sexual abuse. The increase in behavioral self-blame increases the level of global distress in the survivor, bringing them out of the "numb" mode and oftentimes making their assault feel "real".
This often causes symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) such as flashbacks and anxiety.
Characterological Self-Blame increases, which leads to severe spikes in PTSD symptoms
Characterological Self-Blame also increases in the initial stages after the sexual trauma, once we have been brought out of the numb mode by the increase of our global distress levels. Survivors begin to wonder if what happened to them was a result of who they are as a person (example, thinking that "bad things happen to bad people".) They start to question who they are as a person and if they deserve what happened to them.
This increase in characterological self-blame also spikes the global distress of the survivor, leading to more severe PTSD symptoms and can often lead to self-destructive behavior.
Looking outside ourselves for answers often gives a reason to isolate and "shut down"
External blame and maladaptive beliefs form - which can mean the survivor begins to look for blame outside of themselves, often isolating themselves from the society that harmed them. The survivor begins to adapt their beliefs to attempt to understand what happened to them and why.
In this initial aftermath of sexual trauma, sexual assault survivors may seek to understand the reasons for what happened by blaming external forces (such as their attacker or society as a whole), or they can try to seek answers by turning to internal explanations (often taking their own behaviors and actions into judgment).
21 months after sexual trauma: behavioral and characterological self-blame decrease, driving recovery
A 2001 study (Frazier, Berman & Steward) concluded that Behavioral Self-Blame (example: blaming what we did that night to "provoke" the assault) was consistently associated with more distress among victims of rape or sexual assault.
However, Characterological Self-Blame (example: blaming who we are for what happened) leads to an ever higher distressing and harmful effect on the survivor's overall health. These causal attributions and the self-blame that many survivors put onto themselves directly influence the severity of their global distress.
The results of the Koss and Figueredo study prove that while behavioral/characterological self-blame, isolation, and PTSD increase within the initial months after the attack, the decrease in behavioral self-blame that survivors reported feeling within the first 21 months after their attack greatly aided in their recovery.
You are not alone.
Psychiatrist Judith Herman explains why individual and/or group therapy is so helpful to survivors of sexual abuse:
"Trauma isolates: The group re-creates a sense of belonging. Trauma shames and stigmatizes: The group bears witness and affirms. Trauma degrades: The group restores your sense of humanity."
Need help? Call 800-656-4673 (HOPE).
The National Sexual Assault Hotline is 100% safe and confidential - when you place your call, only the first 6 numbers of your phone number are used to route the call to a hotline center in your area.
- MeToo ›
- Sexual harassment: What can and can't you say at work? - Big Think ›
- Why rape cases should not be subject to reasonable doubt - Big Think ›
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Can an orgasm a day really keep the doctor away?
- Achieving orgasm through masturbation provides a rush of feel-good hormones (such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin) and can re-balance our levels of cortisol (a stress-inducing hormone). This helps our immune system function at a higher level.
- The surge in "feel-good" hormones also promotes a more relaxed and calm state of being, making it easier to achieve restful sleep, which is a critical part in maintaining a high-functioning immune system.
- Just as bad habits can slow your immune system, positive habits (such as a healthy sleep schedule and active sex life) can help boost your immune system which can prevent you from becoming sick.
How masturbation affects your brain...<p>Orgasms are a very common human phenomenon. The physical and mental health benefits have been researched frequently as a result, and yet, there is still so much to be learned about how our bodies and brains react to the chemicals and hormones released during and after experiencing this type of sexual release.</p><p>"The amount of speculation versus actual data on both the function and value of orgasm is remarkable" explains Julia Heiman, director of the <a href="https://kinseyinstitute.org/" target="_blank">Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction</a>.</p><p>Masturbation causes a rush of <a href="https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/what-is-dopamine" target="_blank">dopamine</a>, which is a chemical that is associated with our ability to feel pleasure. Along with the rush of dopamine that is released during an orgasm, there is also a release of a hormone called <a href="https://www.livescience.com/42198-what-is-oxytocin.html" target="_blank">oxytocin</a>, which is commonly referred to as the "love hormone."<br></p><p>This concoction of chemicals does more than just boost our mood, it also can play a key role in decreasing stress and promoting relaxation. Oxytocin decreases <a href="https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/what-is-cortisol" target="_blank">cortisol</a>, which is a stress hormone that is usually present (in high volumes) during times of anxiety, fear, panic, or distress. </p><p>According to BDSM and fetish researcher <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists/dr-gloria-brame-colbert-ga/278388" target="_blank">Dr. Gloria Brame</a>, an orgasm is the biggest non-drug induced blast of dopamine that we can experience. </p><p>By boosting the oxytocin and dopamine levels and subsequently decreasing our cortisol levels, the brain is placed in a more relaxed, euphoric, and calm state. </p>
Masturbation boosts your immune system and raises your white blood cell count.<p>How do those effects on the brain from reaching orgasm translate to boosting our immune system and making our body healthier?</p><p>The increase of oxytocin and dopamine that causes a decrease in cortisol levels can help boost our immune system because cortisol (well-known for being a stress-inducing hormone) actually helps maintain your immune system if released in small doses. </p><p>According to <a href="https://www.health24.com/Sex/Great-sex/incredible-health-benefits-to-masturbating-20181030-2" target="_blank">Dr. Jennifer Landa</a>, a hormone-therapy specialist, masturbation can produce the right kind of environment for a strengthened immune system to thrive. </p><p><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15316239" target="_blank">A study</a> conducted by the Department of Medical Psychology at the University Clinic of Essen (in Germany) showed similar results. A group of 11 volunteers were asked to participate in a study that would look at the effects of orgasm through masturbation on the white blood cell count and immune system.</p><p>During this experiment, the white blood cell count of each participant was analyzed through measures that were taken 5 minutes before and 45 minutes after reaching a self-induced orgasm. </p><p>The results confirmed that sexual arousal and orgasm increased the number of white blood cells, particularly the natural killer cells that help fight off infections. </p><p>The findings confirm that our immune system is positively affected by sexual arousal and self-induced orgasm and promote even more research into the positive impacts of sexual arousal and orgasm. </p>
Masturbation can ease and prevent pain, which allows you to achieve the restful sleep that helps your immune system stay strong and healthy.<p>The benefits of masturbation have long been debated, but the more research that is done on the topic the more we understand that there are many positive reactions that happen in our bodies and brains when we orgasm.</p><p>Orgasms can help prevent or mitigate pain, which boosts the immune system, preventing cold and flu symptoms. </p><p>According to neurologist and headache specialist Stefan Evers, about one in three patients experience relief from migraine attacks by experiencing sexual activity or orgasm. Evers and his team <a href="https://www.livescience.com/27642-sex-relieves-migraine-pain.html" target="_blank">conducted an experiment</a> with 800 migraine patients and 200 patients who suffered from cluster-headaches to see how their experiences with sexual activity impacted their pain levels. </p><p>The study showed that 60% of migraine sufferers experienced pain relief after participating in sexual activity that resulted in orgasm. Of the cluster-headache sufferers, about 50% said their headaches actually worsened after sexual arousal and orgasm. </p><p>Evers suggested in his findings that the people who did not experience pain relief from migraines of headaches during their sexual activity did not release as large amounts of endorphins as those who did experience pain relief. </p><p>According to <a href="https://www.sharecare.com/health/chronic-pain/chronic-pain-affect-immune-system" target="_blank">rheumatologist Dr. Harris McIlwain</a>, people who suffer from chronic pain have immune systems that are simply not functioning at full capacity - therefore, alleviating pain (through orgasm, as an example) can help boost the immune system. </p><p>Orgasms can also promote relaxation and make it easier to fall asleep. Serotonin, oxytocin, and norepinephrine are all hormones that are released during sexual arousal and orgasm, and all three are known for counteracting stress hormones and promoting relaxation, which makes it much easier for you to fall asleep.</p><p>There are <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1233384" target="_blank">several studies</a> showing that serotonin and norepinephrine help our body cycle through REM and deep non-REM sleeping cycles. During these sleep cycles, the immune system releases proteins called <a href="https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/how-sleep-affects-your-immunity" target="_blank"><span id="selection-marker-1" class="redactor-selection-marker"></span>cytokines<span id="selection-marker-2" class="redactor-selection-marker"></span></a>, which target infection and inflammation. This is a critical part of our immune response. Cytokines are both produced and released throughout our bodies while we sleep, which proves the importance of a good sleep schedule to a healthy immune system.</p>
Masturbation promotes a high-functioning immune system; a healthy immune system prevents cold and flu.<p>The immune system is a balanced network of cells and organs that work together to defend you against infections and diseases by stopped threats like bacteria and viruses from entering your system. While there are many things we need to do to keep our immune systems functioning at optimal levels, masturbation (or other means of achieving orgasm) has proven to have positive effects on the immune system as a whole.</p><p>Just as bad habits (such as an inconsistent sleep schedule or harmful chemicals in your body) can slow your immune system, positive habits (such as a healthy sleep schedule and active sex life) can help boost your immune system. </p>
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