Any person that has endured sexual violence will manifest emotional, physical, and mental symptoms. These symptoms affect not only the victim but also the relationships they develop. To learn about the symptoms and learn to identify what to expect can be beneficial for the healing process. It can also be helpful to learn about the signs and learn how to respond to emotional and physical triggers. The more educated we become, the better we can heal and learn to cope. But most importantly, we can help bring awareness toward prevention and help protect children.
What You Need to Know
Sexual abuse survivors are at high risk of post-traumatic stress disorders. When sexual abuse survivors do not seek help, they are automatically positioning themselves on a decline of mental health instead of being on the incline. Children that endure sexual abuse are severely damaged. Their emotional, social and cognitive development is negatively impacted which is why we must support advocacy.
Sexual abuse survivors will demonstrate many symptoms, such as:
Borderline personality disorder
What are triggers? Sexual abuse survivors experience triggers when they’re touched in a certain way via flashback, via a sense of smell, conversations, or anything that is a reminder of something terrible and hurtful from your past. Triggers happen when you feel threatened or when you feel vulnerable. Triggers are usually unexpected, and they can happen anytime. Examples of triggers are the following:
You walk into a place and smells trigger a memory
Someone touches you sexually, and you automatically feel uncomfortable
Someone calls you on something that you did, and immediately you feel defeated and proceed with silence.
Someone criticizes you, and you respond with immense anger, defensiveness, and you attack and try to defend yourself.
You may hear something fall or colossal thud, and you’re instantly alarmed.
You must understand that sexual abuse survivors have developed coping mechanisms such as freeze, flight, or fight. These are the coping mechanisms that will arise as a response to triggers. What determines the reaction is how safe or unsafe a person feels at the moment. Triggers are beyond a persons’ control. Therefore, a sexual abuse survivor needs to know their triggers and learn to respond accordingly. Self-awareness is vital, and so is a relationship with God.
Romans 8:27, “And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.”
Those who endure sexual abuse can be renewed daily when they connect too, He who searches our hearts. A relationship with God will lead to wisdom, understanding, peace, and the renewal of the minds. The Holy Spirit is a designated helper who searches our hearts and travels to the most intimate areas within. The Holy Spirit guides us to seek to see the darkness that desperately needs the touch of the Father. Remember that God is a gentleman, and he will not invite himself to your healing; it’s an invitation that you must extend.
Revelation 3:20, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”
Jesus knocks out the door of our consciousness and desires to sit in our thoughts, and reign in our minds. He desires a relationship with us. Scriptures say that ‘he who hears his voice and opens the door’ but what does this mean. This verse tells us that Jesus will not barge into our lives; he calls us via His voice. When we choose to open the door, we are choosing to open the door to Jesus, and we are choosing to invite spiritual healing into our lives. However, we must never forget the importance of mental healing, which oftentimes requires medical knowledge and understanding.
Healing Journey after Abuse
There is a reality that we must not shun. Triggers will appear before, during, and after healing and wholeness. Healing is a long-term endeavor and requires vigilance, self-awareness, a stable support system (therapy, friends, and family) and prayer. Sexual abuse damages self-perception and can sometimes result in chronic depression as well as chronic self-destructive behaviors. Furthermore, developing a good support system is crucial to your healing journey.
When you are feeling hopeless and feel an impulse to engage in self-destructive behavior, it’s essential to reach out immediately onto friends, family, church leaders, and therapist. You need to prepare yourself for those low moments in your healing journey because they will inevitably arise.
You must develop healthy relationships with the people around you and disconnect yourself from people that will cause you to deviate from your progress. Learn to identify healthy and unhealthy relationships and completely cut yourself off from the people that are positive influences. Associations are essential, and who you associate yourself with will determine the course of your steps.
The Do's and Don'ts of What to Say to a Survivor
Sexual abuse survivors feel vast amounts of shame, blame, guilt, sadness, fear, and discouragement. Therefore, you must be extremely sensitive to these feelings. The best way to encourage and support survivors is to be empathic, compassionate, and validate their emotions.
Process and Progress
If you form a part of the support system of a sexual abuse survivor, then you need to know that healing is a long journey. There are different layers of damage and the long-term effects of abuse that persists. For a survivor to take one step forward means that they, too, have taken ten steps back because psychological processes are complex and takes tons of diligent and mindful work.
The moment a survivor speaks on what happened to them many emotions are at play. Each one has been repressed, which is why it’s vital that as the feelings arise, they must be processed. The emotions encountered by a survivor are endless. They feel rage, resentment, sadness, a sense of loss, grief, resentment, loss of interest, dissociation, desire to self-harm, powerlessness, and lack of purpose, among many others.
The healing process requires a lot of patience on behalf of friends and family. It requires a list of essential components such as acceptance, understanding, validation, trust, prayer support, relief, help, encouragement, and unconditional love.
How to Respond
How you respond to a survivor upon them telling you their story is essential. Your response and reaction can either dissuade toward silence or may provide the comfort needed to help disclose and process emotions. If you are clueless on how to respond to the following are responses that are both positive and encouraging and demonstrate your empathy.
Thank you for telling me.
I’m glad you’re safe now.
I’m glad you’re talking to me about this.
I’m sorry this happened to you. How can I help you?
Take as much time as you need.
All your feelings and emotions are valid. I’m here if you need to talk and vent.
I stand with you. You’re not in this alone.
It’s okay to be angry.
You’re not going crazy.
These are normal reactions following an assault.
I believe you.
It wasn’t your fault.
Would you like me to pray for you?
I support you in your healing process.
You are not what was done to you.
You are not to blame for what happened to you.
Read all of the responses several times, and you’ll notice that none of them include an opinion nor a solution. If someone close to you discloses their story of sexual abuse, you must educate yourself on the impacts of sexual abuse. Survivors of sexual abuse feel broken and damaged. Therefore, you must keep in mind that your job is not to fix them, but instead, it’s to become supportive. Often what survivors need is support without opinions and encouragement that is reaffirms their identity. Never pressure a survivor to tell their story, however, make it known that you are available to listen and when he/she is ready to speak.
Now that you know what to respond, it is just as vital that you understand what not to say. The following is a list of responses that should not be said.
Why are you making such a big deal out of this?
You were very young when it happened.
What did you do to make it happen?
Why did you take so long to say something?
You’re the problem.
You’re just using this as an excuse to get your way.
Why didn’t you stop it from happening?
You mean you didn’t tell anybody when it happened? So why tell now?
Why can’t you just forget it?
You should forgive and forget. God won’t be there for you unless you forgive.
I don’t believe you were ever abused.
What is past is past. Let’s not bring it up again.
Just Pray about it. God will take care of it.
Why can’t you just hurry up and get over this?
I’m so sick of hearing about your needs. What about my needs?
You are just feeling sorry for yourself.
Can’t you just let go of it? Nothing is happening to you now.
It is a sin to think about this. God says to focus on what is good.
The Bible says to forget the past and press on to the future.”
As you can see, these responses are both dismissive and unemphatic, and these are the two things that will lead a survivor to become silent. These types of responses add to the sense of guilt that a survivor already feels. It’s like adding another layer of shame that doesn’t even belong to them in the first place.
Our words and responses to a sexual abuse survivor must be seasoned with compassion and love. Survivors need to be heard and allowed to get through their process at their pace. Healing isn’t something that can be timed or doesn’t have a specific deadline. Deep wounds require deep healing.