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Surviving Sexual Assault – How To Get Help

This is not for use in an emergency. If you are in immediate danger or require medical attention, call 999 straight away.

Sexual assault is one of the most devastating and difficult experiences a person can go through. Worse still, many victims turn the blame on themselves when they’ve done absolutely nothing wrong.

The horrifying statistics show that 1 in 4 women, 1 in 6 children and 1 in 18 men have been raped, sexually abused, or sexually assaulted.

In this article, we hope to give you useful advice on what to do if this happens to you and how to cope with the emotional fallout.

The information in this article aims to help you understand the following:

    • How to identify if you’ve been sexually assaulted and what to do
    • Who to turn to for medical help and support
    • The importance of collecting and preserving evidence
    • Dealing with the psychological impact of sexual assault
    • How to move forward and recover from sexual assault

Have I been sexually assaulted?

For many survivors, knowing how to compartmentalise their experience can be challenging.

You may feel deeply traumatised, violated, and hurt by the incident but unsure whether what’s happened is sexual assault.

Rape Crisis offers advice and support to help you navigate this confusion if you are not sure what happened.

It’s not just about meeting police requirements for reporting a sexual assault but about supporting you to cope and heal.

What should I do if I’ve been sexually assaulted?

In the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault, it’s vital to deal with any immediate danger to your physical health.

You may be left with injuries that need to be tended to, require medical attention for wounds, cuts, or infections, and want to mitigate any risk of pregnancy.

However, this is the time when collecting forensic evidence will be vital if you decide to report the incident to the police.

You don’t need to make that decision immediately, but the NHS advises visiting your nearest sexual assault referral centre (SARC) so their trained doctors, nurses, and support workers can help you.

How to preserve physical evidence:

In the middle of such awful confusion, fear, and distress, your first instinct might be to clean yourself immediately.

However, if you wash or change your clothes, you’ll risk losing vital evidence that could be used in a case against your assaulter.

Give yourself the option of taking it to the police. You can seek support from a specially trained medical professional who can help you through that difficult evidence-gathering process with care and compassion.

Domestic violence charity IDAS has a guide to tell you what to expect during a forensic examination.

Dealing with the immediate psychological impact

For many survivors, this is a time when you might no longer feel safe in your body or your mind.

The world around you might feel fraught with danger, and your nervous system will likely be in a state of hyperstimulation.

Regulating your nervous system

Member of the Kari Health team, Psychotherapist Chloe Pollock, shares that you can self-soothe and calm yourself in order to regulate hyperstimulation.

Following sexual assault, you may feel as though you are always on guard, distrust others, or perceive there to be immediate dangers or threats. This is your body’s activation of ‘survival mode’, or fight-flight-freeze.

Your body is attempting to protect you, activating your sympathetic nervous system which causes your heart rate and blood pressure to increase, your muscles to constrict, and digestion to pause.

It is common to feel stuck in or fluctuate in and out of these states.

For example, you could begin trying gentle breathing techniques. Working with our breath helps to elicit the body’s relaxation response, activating the parasympathetic nervous system. This sends a signal to your brain that you are safe, and the fight-flight-freeze response is not needed.

Bringing awareness and being attuned to your bodily sensations and emotions means that you can gradually learn to respond to and manage unwanted reactions.

There are several guided tutorials online, such as Breathing Exercises To Reduce Stress & Anxiety to help manage the overwhelming feelings.

Alternative tools to navigate an overactive nervous system are meditation, exercise such as yoga or Tai chi and spending time in nature. This may be infeasible in the short-term, but can prove helpful at a later stage.

Once you learn to gradually regulate your nervous system, Chloe comments that you may feel more empowered to access professional services or charities.

Who can I trust?

We totally understand that it can feel impossible to talk to your loved ones about sexual assault.

But talking about what’s happened is really important, so if you feel comfortable, reach out to a trusted person. This could be a friend, your GP, or local support organisation.

You can approach charities like Rape Crisis, The Survivors Trust, Safeline, and local sexual assault survivor organisations for confidential support.

Their experts can offer you practical advice on accessing medical services, counselling, or pursuing a criminal charge.

Most importantly, they can help you not feel so alone.

How do I report a sexual assault?

The decision to report a sexual assault to the police is very personal – not everyone feels able to go down that route.

Please know that it’s your decision, and you must only do what you are comfortable with.

If you do decide to go to the police, you can speak to an organisation like Rape Crisis, which has advocates to support you through that process.

Then you’ll approach the police, either by going into your local station or calling their 101 line to give your statement.

The survivor-founded non-profit organisation You Will Be Heard has an excellent, detailed guide about what happens after you go to the police.

The road to recovery

Seeking criminal justice can be an important part of recovery, but it’s certainly not the only consideration.

Emotional, psychological, and physical distress can temporarily disrupt your ability to function.

You may notice internal shifts such as an inability to concentrate, confusion, or intrusive thoughts. This could lead to heightened anxiety, panic, or feeling numb and detached.

Physical or behavioural responses may include disturbed sleep, exhaustion, change in appetite, anger or aggression and losing touch with normal daily routines. This is not an exhaustive list.

Whatever your reaction or response, seeking psychological help to aid recovery is critical.

Creating a safe space

Personalised talking therapy can help you to acknowledge and process what’s happened and accept that you will have a reaction to it.

You need to create a safe space within yourself, so you are able to manage your everyday life.

Psychotherapist Chloe Pollock describes this as “once again feeling in control of your body and mind, when so much may have felt out of your control.”

Whether you are responding to a recent sexual assault or one that happened many years ago, the approach is the same.

Processing what happened to you

When you work with a therapist or counsellor to process what happened, you will be creating an awareness of how the ‘then and there’ is impacting the ‘here and now’.

Processing the specific memories of the assault isn’t just about the cognitive experience and coming to terms with it, but also sensory triggers.

Some survivors associate smells, tastes, noises, and other sensory stimuli with the assault, and they can provoke significant responses.

Once you identify those triggers, you can learn how to manage them.

The sexual abuse survivors project ‘Opening The Circle offers some very practical advice on how to deal with triggers.

How do I move on?

Doing the work in therapy to process the sexual assault and your memories are just one aspect of this.

You may also need to find ways to go about life again, moving through the world in a way that empowers you to live as you wish to.

It’s all about building confidence, regaining control and agency, and establishing coping techniques for your everyday life.

Your therapist or counsellor will guide you through this process, which can take some time and requires patience, compassion, and self-care.

Give yourself grace and space

Trying to cope with the trauma of sexual assault is incredibly difficult, so be kind to yourself.

In a brief article like this, we can only share information about services that can help you deal with what’s happened to you.

But please know that whatever you are feeling right now, you can get through this and find a way to move forward.

Just take one day at a time and reach out to professionals with the experience to help you navigate this difficult journey.

Know that we see you, we believe you, and we support you.

Evidence Based
This article has been reviewed by our Kari Health Experts and Editorial Board to ensure accuracy and reliability of the information presented. However, please note that the content provided is for informational purposes only and should not replace advice from your medical professional or licensed therapist.

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